The Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich spent three years interviewing people who had been involved in Chernobyl: villagers from the surrounding area, "liquidators" (members of the cleanup squad), widows and children, nuclear scientists, politicians, even people who, incredibly, had moved to Chernobyl after the accident. She presents their words almost without comment. Sometimes she adds a [Laughs]
; sometimes [Stops]
; sometimes [Starts crying]
; sometimes [Breaks down completely]
. I am not sure I have ever read anything quite as horrifying. It is like a very well written post-apocalyptic novel in many voices, and it's all true. Here are some extracts.
From the translator's preface:
The literature on the subject is pretty unanimous in its opinion that the Soviet system had taken a poorly designed reactor and then staffed it with a group of incompetents. It then proceeded, as the interviews in this book show, to lie about the disaster in the most criminal way. In the crucial first ten days, when the reactor was burning and releasing a steady stream of highly radioactive material into the surrounding area, the authorities repeatedly claimed that the situation was under control.
From the Historical Notes:
During the Second World War, one out of every four Belarussians was killed; today, one out of five Belarussians lives on contaminated land. This amounts to 2.1 million people, of whom 700,000 are children.
From a liquidator's account:
We had good jokes too. Here's one. An American robot is on the roof of the reactor for five minutes, then it breaks down. The Japanese robot is on the roof for five minutes, then it breaks down. The Russian robot's been up on the roof for two hours! Then someone shouts over the loudspeaker: "Private Ivanov! Two hours more, and you can take a cigarette break!"
From a nuclear physicist's account:
There's a moment in Ales Adamovich's book, when he's talking to Andrei Sakharov. "Do you know," says Sakharov, the father of the hydrogen bomb, "how pleasantly the air smells of ozone after a nuclear explosion?"
From a politician's account:
I was First Secretary of the Regional Committee of the Party. I said absolutely not. "What will people think if I take my daughter with her baby out of here? Their children have to stay." Those people who tried to leave, to save their own skins, I'd call them into the regional committee. "Are you a Communist or not?" It was a test for people. If I'm a criminal, then why was I killing my own grandchild?" [Goes on for some time but it is impossible to understand what he is saying]
From a teacher's account:
Our family tried not to economize, we bought the most expensive salami, hoping it would be made of good meat. Then we found that it was the expensive salami that they mixed the contaminated meat into, thinking, well, since it was expensive fewer people would buy it.
From a widow's account:
When we buried him, I covered his face with two handkerchiefs. If someone asked me to, I lifted them up. One woman fainted. And she used to be in love with him, I was jealous of her once. "Let me look at him one last time." "All right."
From a father's account:
My daughter was six years old. I'm putting her to bed, and she whispers in my ear: "Daddy, I want to live, I'm still little." And I had thought she didn't understand anything.
From the author's afterword:
These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unseen. I felt like I was recording the future.