Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Svetlana Alexievich

Book cover

I got interested in reading this after watching the HBO “Chernobyl” miniseries (which I highly recommend), and the accompanying podcast (ditto) in which the show runner often referenced this book as a source for a lot of the content. I also learned that Alexievich is one of only a handful of writers to have won the Nobel in literature for non-fiction writing. (She has a lot of other oral history books focused on the Soviet bloc that also look interesting!)

The book itself is a lot like Studs Terkel’s “Working” (if I’m recalling correctly) or Anna Deveare Smith’s work, in that it really just consists of narratives as told by the interviewees. Alexievich obviously did a lot of work selecting, editing, and interviewing, but she makes herself disappear into the background, so to speak. This is effective in that the stories themselves as presented are powerful, but I also found myself wishing to hear a bit more of her authorial voice–talking about her experience in talking with people, her own interest in the subject, etc. We just get the shortest little introduction from her.

The most memorable of the stories are generally those depicted in the miniseries–the firefighter’s pregnant wife, the liquidator who had to go around shooting dogs, and so on. But there’s plenty of interesting content in the book even for someone who’s seen the show. I was intrigued by the observation made several times by people who continued living in the exclusion zone after evacuation: that they were now living under true communism (in the sense of everyone helping each other get by), as opposed to the Soviet authoritarian perversion of the concept. And although learning about Chernobyl can be very heavy, there’s also a good dose of Slavic humor. My favorite was a joke that goes something like (paraphrasing): a man says to his wife, my boss just told me I have to go do clean up in the exclusion zone tomorrow or else hand in my Party card. His wife says, but you’re not even a Party member! The man replies, I know, and I’m trying to figure out how I can get a card by tomorrow!

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars