Chernobyl Prayer: Svetlana Alexievich’s Heart-Breaking Oral History

When I visited Belarus last year, I thought I’d read some Belarusian literature, and what better writer to start with than Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Alexievich’s Nobel win was unexpected because her books are non-fiction, a kind of oral history (although as this New Republic article points out, she takes considerable liberties with the testimonies she collects). After reading Chernobyl Prayer, though, I can see exactly why she won. I don’t think I’ve ever come away from a single book with such a comprehensive understanding of a historical moment, as seen through the eyes of the people who experienced it.

Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich

The writer relegates her own voice to the margins of this book. There’s some historical background at the beginning, a brief epilogue at the end, and a single chapter called “The author interviews herself on missing history and why Chernobyl calls our view of the world into question.” In this chapter, Svetlana Alexievich makes it clear that this is not a book about the details of what happened at Chernobyl, why the reactor failed, who was to blame, etc. Instead, she writes:

“What I’m concerned with is what I would call the ‘missing history’, the invisible imprint of our story on earth and in time. I paint and collect mundane feelings, thoughts and words. I am trying to capture the life of the soul.”

The remarkable thing about Chernobyl Prayer is that Alexievich does achieve all of this. The bulk of the book is given over to monologues (and occasionally choruses) by people who lived near Chernobyl, worked on the cleanup, saw loved ones die from radiation, etc. Some are experts like atomic scientists, doctors, politicians and engineers, but most are ordinary people who got caught up in the 1986 meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in northern Ukraine and the subsequent spread of radiation which, because of the wind direction, spread mostly across Belarus (23% of Belarus’s land is contaminated, the cancer rate has risen 74-fold, and only one person in 14 dies of old age).

The Chernobyl reactor today

The very first story in Chernobyl Prayer had me in tears. It’s narrated by a woman whose husband was a firefighter called to Chernobyl after the initial explosion. Like many others, he fought a nuclear disaster with no protective gear at all (it becomes clear elsewhere in the book that these first responders quite literally saved Europe—if the fire had spread to the other three reactors, the consequences would have been much worse).

But Svetlana Alexievich doesn’t intrude with facts and analysis—she lets Lyudmila Ignatenko give the full, uninterrupted account of her husband’s slow and painful death from radiation poisoning. She talks about their lives together before the accident and how she stays with him in the hospital despite the advice of the nurses, who tell her:

“You’re so young. What on earth has got into you? He’s not a person now, he’s a nuclear reactor. You’ll both frazzle together.”

What complicates the story is that Lyudmila is pregnant with their first child, and she knows that being with her husband will damage both herself and the baby. But she loves him, and she can’t let him die alone. So she stays by his side, and she helps him through the fortnight it takes him to die, as his skin starts peeling off and all his colleagues die one by one. Finally he starts coughing up pieces of lung and lumps of liver. Then he dies and is buried in a sealed zinc coffin under a slab of concrete. Their daughter is stillborn.

I don’t want you to be put off by this. Stories like this are, of course, hard to read, but Chernobyl Prayer is not just a compilation of horror. It’s much more frequently poignant, philosophical, thought-provoking. Sometimes it’s funny too. The main skill of Alexievich lies in teasing these stories out of people. As a journalist myself, I know that this can be incredibly difficult. People are generally not eloquent on demand, even when they have interesting things to say. Yet the monologues in this book are amazingly eloquent. People muse about mortality and time, quote Tolstoy and Andreyev, wonder about remembering and forgetting, and much more.

Some people explain why they choose to stay in their homes near Chernobyl despite the radiation warnings:

“It may be poisoned with radiation, but this is my home. There’s nowhere else we’re needed. Even a bird loves its nest.”

An inhabited house inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone

Others move to Chernobyl to escape war zones elsewhere:

“This threat here, I don’t feel it. I don’t see it. It’s nowhere in my memory. It’s men I’m afraid of. Men with guns.”

There are insights, too, from atomic scientists who begged the authorities to evacuate people and from a former official who explains the institutional reasons for their inertia. It becomes clear how many of the deaths were unnecessary, how many lives were sacrificed because people didn’t understand or didn’t care about the need to protect people from the radiation, or because they had become used to covering up bad news and didn’t want to admit the severity of the disaster.

Abandoned supermarket in Pripyat, near Chernobyl

But much has been written about all of that elsewhere. What stands out from Chernobyl Prayer are the personal stories, the “missing history” of ordinary people and the wide variety of ways in which they see and experience and think about the same event. It’s a truly unforgettable reading experience.

Nature is now reclaiming the town where the Chernobyl workers lived

Note: I took the photos in this post myself, while visiting the Chernobyl site in the summer of 2018. Feel free to use them wherever you want. A link back here would be appreciated but is not required!

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There are 2 comments

  1. Wow. Okay, fine, then I’ll read it. I thought I recognized the image in your header from the abandoned amusement park in Pripyat, so I was immediately interested in the story you were about to tell, but it’s even more interesting to learn that you took the pictures and toured the area yourself. The first that I recall reading about this area was in Alan Weisman’s book about how nature recovers in the wake of man-made devastation but I’ve read a couple of essays since then and there are so many powerful stories emanating from this event that I imagine one could make a reading project of it now.

    1. Yes, it was a fascinating and incredibly sad and thought-provoking place to visit. It felt like a glimpse into the future. I’ve had Alan Weisman’s book on my TBR list since… *checks Goodreads*… oh no, December 2008! That really is shameful. I’ll have to read it now. I hope you get to Chernobyl Prayer more quickly than I’ve got to The World Without Us – it really is a wonderful book.

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