Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future | Svetlana Alexievich #ReadtheNobels

I don’t know what to tell you about. Death or love? Or is it the same thing. What should I tell you about?…

Prologue: A Lone Human Voice

I’m so very glad I read Chernobyl Prayer.

I really appreciate the type of history Svetlana Alexievich has captured in her books. It’s oral history, or more accurately the voices and stories of those who lived through a specific event in history. In this case, the 1986 Chernobyl Power Plant nuclear disaster in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, USSR. Alexievoch has gathered together hours and hours of recorded interviews from as many people as she could who were willing to talk. Her role then was to mould, edit and shape the interviews into a narrative form. Her work has been described as a form of stream of consciousness or literary documentary.

Each narrative is described as a ‘monologue…’ and concludes with the name, title and/or job description of the person interviewed.

Alexievich interviews people, transcribes their interviews, and then arranges and rearranges passages to form prose that reads more like a short story or novel than a documentary account. “Because of her method of interviewing people, then editing, then getting approval from the people she has interviewed, Svetlana adopts a very colloquial style that makes her work quite accessible,” O’Brien said. “Her method is to make these non-fiction pieces into what might almost pass as short stories, while still remaining completely faithful to the facts and tone of the people being interviewed.”

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Chernobyl Prayer turned out to be one of the saddest, most frustrating books I’ve read in a long time. For not only does Alexievich describe the fear and despair, anger and sadness of those who survived Chernobyl, she also captured the continuing fallout from the dissolution of the Soviet Union a few years later. The two events have become combined in memory, meaning and folklore for so many of the people in this book – their lives turned upside down twice over. Many of those interviewed described this time as being like living through the war again. For those directly affected by Chernobyl, it was devastaing and traumatic in ways that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

My sense of frustration came from the amount of misinformation that fueled their personal narratives. It’s the same kind of frustration I feel when reading about the beliefs of anti-vaxxers. Alexievich chooses to leave all this in, as told to her, proving that our lived lives are messy, mixed-up experiences based on personal beliefs, wherever you live in the world.

Alexievich divided the book into three parts – the first part, Land of the Dead, features the stories of those who lost family members to the disaster. The second part, The Crown of Creation includes monologues from close observers, while the third part, Admiring Disaster, contains stories from those who were resettled.

It takes me a long time to write every book, about seven to ten years. For every book, I interview about 700 people, and I write thousands of pages, and sometimes an interview with one person can take a few days.  So I need to create a picture.  You can say it’s like music, a symphony — out of the chaos of different stories — and that is an art in itself. You can say that every story is like a brick, and you can say that they’re not really so unusual on their own. But when you put it all together, you build an amazing building.

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During the first lockdown in 2020, Mr Books and I caught up on watching the 2019 miniseries Chernobyl. It was an extraordinary look at the lives of the firefighters, tunnelers and other first responders during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Most of those people lived in nearby Pripyat (by the by, Pripyat was a newish city, only created in February 1970 to service the new power plant. It was also a closed city, an atomgrad. After the nuclear disaster, most of the population of Pripyat was moved to the purpose-built city of Slavutych.)

At the end of the series, I noted in the credits that it was largely based on stories told to Svetlana Alexievich in Voices From Chernobyl. The different titles were confusing until I realised that Voices (2005) was the earlier US title for the book (translated by Keith Gessen) and Chernobyl Prayer (2016) was the later UK title. It was first published in Russian in 1997 and then revised in 2013. Alexievich includes it her ironical titled project, “Voices from Utopia”, or “The Chronicle of the Big Utopia”, or “The History of the Red Man”, which she has been working on since 1985.

The very first thing I learnt thanks to Alexievich’s introduction called ‘Some historical background’ was that neighbouring Belarus (or Byelorussian SSR as it was called in 1986) bore the brunt of the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl.

The Chernobyl disaster released fifty million curies (Ci) of radioactivity into the atmosphere, of which 70 per cent fell upon Belarus. Twenty-three per cent of the country’s land became contaminated with levels above 1 Ci/km² of caesium-137. For comparison, 4.8 per cent of Ukraine’s territory was affected and 0.5 per cent of Russia’s.

The very first monologue is from Lyudmila Ignatenko, wife of Vasily Ignatenko, deceased fireman. If you watched the series, you will recognise this story. It was an inspired starting point. Alexievich was able to establish the tone for the entire book thanks to Lyudmila’s words about death and love, for amidst the death and destruction of that day, her love for her husband shines through. With this story, Alexievich reminds her readers that despite the cock-ups, the cover-ups, the confusion, real-life, regular folk had their entire lives turned upside down through no fault of their own.

Each story is painful in it’s own way.

The loss of loved ones, the slow decline and ill-health of others, the anger and fear as well as the grief of displacement and ostracism (those like Lyudmila who ended up in Kiev, found themselves living on a street now called Chernobyl Street, avoided by others). The confusing information or lack of information created fears and phobias and a growing desire to blame someone. These were everyday people grappling with something that no-one was prepared for. Misinformation quickly took on a life of it’s own. From the belief that drinking a bottle of vodka a day would counteract the radioactivity, to hundreds and thousands of women chosing to abort their babies for fear of congenital birth defects despite very little scientific or medical evidence to support this belief.

If you look back at the whole of our history, both Soviet and post-Soviet, it is a huge common grave and a blood bath. An eternal dialog of the executioners and the victims. The accursed Russian questions: what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolution, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet–Afghan war hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land-utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions – Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my books, this is my path, my circles of hell, from man to man.

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As a westerner, brought up on a diet of westernised views of history, it was fascinating reading the historical perspectives of those who grew up in the USSR. At times I caught myself feeling a sense of superiority as yet another myth was taken as fact, until I reminded myself of how many people in western nations believed that a computer bug would destroy the world as we knew it on New Years Day 2000 or how many people believed, and still believe, that somehow Covid vaccinations and the 5G network are linked.

This incredible variety of opinion and experience is what makes Chernobyl Prayer such a valuable historical document. Alexievich has captured a moment in time, a group of people in time. A group who shared a common life-changing experience but who now have such disparate views on what it means, how it should be resolved and what it’s on-going significance might be.

We will wait for him together. I will say my Chernobyl prayer, and he will look at the world with the eyes of a child…

Epigraph:

We are air: we are not earth
—Merab Mamardashvili

Alexievich has a list of literary and journalistic influences that include the Belarusian writers Aleksandr Mikhailovich Adamovich and Vasil Uladzimiravič Bykaŭ as well as Polish journalists Hanna Krall and Ryszard Kapuściński. In a 2015 interview with BBC News she said that Russian journalist and gulag survivor, Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov was the best writer of the twentieth century.

Facts:

  • Born on the 31st May 1948 in Stanislav, Ukrainian SSR to a Belarusian father and a Ukrainian mother. They were both teachers.
  • After her father was demobilised from the army, the family returned to Belarus.
  • Graduated from the Department of Journalism, Belarus State University. and then sent to Beresa to work on the local paper and teach at the local school.
  • Returned to Minsk to continue her journalism career.
  • Her first book, I’ve Left My Village, contained monologues of people who had abandoned their native area.
  • The Unwomanly Face of the War was her second book completed in 1983 but not able to be published until 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika took effect.
  • Later the same year, The Last Witnesses: 100 Unchildlike Stories was also finally published.
  • The Boys in Zinc (1989) was about the Soviet-Afghan war.
  • Enchanted with Death (1993) told the stories of suicides & attempted suicides brought about the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
  • Chernobyl Prayer (1997)
  • Awarded THE MOST SINCERE PERSON OF THE YEAR in 1998 from the Prize of the Glasnost Foundation, Moscow, Russia.
  • After political persecution by the Lukashenko administration, she left Belarus in 2000. Returned in 2011. Left again in Sept 2020.
  • Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets (2013) includes and continues on from the stories in Enchanted with Death
  • Awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature.
    • Alexievich was given the award “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. Permanent secretary Sara Danius said,

For the past 30 or 40 years she’s been busy mapping the Soviet and post-Soviet individual. But it’s not really a history of events. It’s a history of emotions. What she’s offering us is really an emotional world. So these historical events that she’s covering in her various books – for example the Chernobyl disaster or the Soviet war in Afghanistan – are, in a way, just pretexts for exploring the soviet individual and the post soviet individual. She’s conducted thousands of interviews with children, women and men, and in this way she’s offering us a history of a human being about whom we didn’t know that much.

  • Currently writing a new book, The Wonderful Deer of the Eternal Hunt.

Now I’m writing about how people love one another. And again I ask myself the same question, this time through the prism of love: who are we and what country we are living in. Love is what brings us into this world. I want to love people. Although it’s increasingly hard to love them. And getting harder.

Title: Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future | Чернобыльская молитва | Chernobylskaya molitva
Author: Svetlana Alexievich
Translators: Anna Gunin & Arch Tait
ISBN: 9780241270530
Imprint: Penguin Classics
Published: 1 May 2016 (originally published 1997 | revised & updated 2013)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 294
Dates Read: 5th June 2022 - 26th August 2022
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

15 thoughts on “Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future | Svetlana Alexievich #ReadtheNobels

    1. I didn’t find it a difficult read as such, but it is emotional. I really like the bottom up approach to history that focuses on the lives of everyday people though. I’ll certainly be reading Secondhand Time soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I believe that I bought my husband Voices for Christmas several years ago. I didn’t get a chance to read it, though, and who knows where he has it. This one sounds interesting, too.

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    1. I was surprised how poorly so many of them understood the nature of radioactivity – how lethal large doses could be, how long lasting the effects, risks of exposure etc. Part of the problem was the fact it was a power plant not a bomb like Hiroshima. The propaganda around the plants was all about how safe & clean nuclear energy is. Therefore any leaks from the plant were probably okay because it was nothing like the atomic bombs.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sunday morning….enjoying a strawberry smoothie and time to read some blogs.
    Glad to see a post with “reading the Nobels” in mind. I really should get back to my list of books to read by Nobel prize winners! I read “Second Time” in 2015 (modern Russian history…author interviewed dozens of Russian citizens and documented their stories about life in the Soviet Union) and is was so powerful…especially the people driven to suicide. The book drained me. I too watched the Netflix Chernobyl. I have to think about Ukraine now and the men in the nuclear plant. As in the docu….if anything happens they won’t survive another 5 years. Looking forward to SA’s new book!

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  3. I read two books by Svetlana Alexievich, “Voices from Chernobyl” and “Second Hand Time”, both so well written. I must check out this one. Thanks, Brona.

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    1. Voices from Chernobyl and Chernobyl Prayer are the same book – one is the US title and one is the UK title.
      Secondhand Time will be next book from SA. I like reading about history told from the perspective of those who lived it.

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      1. Oh, I see. Should have known. Why do they always have to do that??? Not only that they “hide” the original title when they translate it into another lagnuage, no, they even publish two different English ones (mind you, they have done that in German, as well, and I’m sure in some other languages). I could have noticed when I looked at the original title but … well, I didn’t.

        Yes, she has written more books and Secondhand Time was just as good as this one. Same as you, I like reading about history and those who live it can tell it so well.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I think it may have something to do with the revised edition that SA put out in 2013. I think she may hav changed the name then, or maybe it reflects that at one point she referred to her series of books as being all about the ‘voices’.

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