Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 05 Aug 2019

Reading Chernobyl

Thirty-three years ago this year, reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near the city of Pripyat in the north of Soviet Ukraine exploded. The disaster was triggered, it seems, by a mishandled safety check. This was intended to simulate a power failure during which the reactor’s cooling systems would be out of action for about forty-five seconds before back-up generators kicked in. Delayed for ten hours by countermanded orders that said supplies of electricity must be maintained, an incoming shift unfamiliar with the test protocols was left to handle the exercise.

The resulting explosion blew the concrete ‘bio-shield’ off the reactor and spewed plumes of radiation into the atmosphere. 70% of this landed on Belarus territory, where 485 villages and towns now lie buried forever beneath earth and concrete. Before Chernobyl, the incidence of cancer in the Belarus population was 82 in 100,000; it is now 6,000 in 100,000.

In the days and weeks following the disaster the Politburo and general secretary Gorbachev maintained silence – even as the irradiated firefighters and other first responders were rushed under armed guard away from the zone to a secret Moscow hospital; even as Pripyat – the ‘company town’ built to serve the Chernobyl reactors – was evacuated of some 44,000 people; even as the initial exclusion zone of ten kilometres was extended to thirty; and even as a further 80-odd settlements and another forty-odd thousand people were evacuated, never to return to their homes.

Chernobyl has gone down in history as an admonitory lesson about the perils of mixing failing or poor quality technology with a totalitarian political system, secrecy, and a militarised economy.

I’m rehearsing these details because I have just finished reading Serhii Plokhy’s Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, which has recently been published in paperback by Penguin. Or, rather, to be strictly accurate, I have just finished reading as much as I was able to. I’ll explain.

Reviewers have unanimously praised the extraordinary level of research that underpins Plokhy’s book, one saying that it seems to offer an almost minute-by-minute account of the tragedy. That may be overstating it slightly – but it is pretty much hour by hour, certainly for the weeks immediately following the disaster, up to, say, the construction of the first concrete sarcophagus to encase the reactor.

In these breathless but immensely detailed pages we learn about the more or less doomed attempt – certainly for the four hundred or so miners who were selected for the task – to tunnel beneath the reactor so that pipes could be laid to carry liquid nitrogen designed to freeze the ground beneath the still-burning reactor core. There was a real fear that the unquenchable radioactive fire might eventually – as in the movie The China Syndrome – burn through to the earth’s core and contaminate water tables, rivers and eventually the oceans.

We learn about the fleets of radioactive vehicles that were eventually buried – at first, these hundreds of contaminated buses that had been used to move people from the disaster zone were simply put back into service on the streets of wherever they had come from. Entire forests were buried. Party apparatchiks directing the disaster relief measured the utility of the various solutions that were tried not just in minutes and hours (of exposure to radiation) but lives: did such-and-such an action merit the six or ten or the hundred lives it would cost?

For what the Soviet Union was able to throw at the Chernobyl disaster in numbers not mobilised since the gargantuan Stalinist construction projects of the 1950s was people. Many volunteered; many more were conscripts; some were attracted by ‘capitalist incentives’ (apartments, cars, unheard of salaries) which sometimes proved empty; others – such as the miners – rushed forward in the same spirit of sacrifice as had fuelled Russia’s Great Patriotic War. They snatched the shovels from each other to continue digging; some used their bare hands. It is now estimated that over 800,000 conscripts were involved in the clean-up work and that between 1990 and 2003 in Belarus alone over 8,500 of these frontline workers died as a result of radiation poisoning.

There is no doubt that Plokhy’s book is of monumental importance. In its unparalleled technical, social and political sweep it must surely offer what will become the standard history not just of the Chernobyl tragedy but of its political legacy. But it is far from being an easy read. It is so massively detailed, at times densely technical, crowded with Soviet-era ministries and apparatus and state institutions and what seems like hundreds of key actors – engineers, scientists, political apparatchiks – that it really does take some effort. It must also be said  – although I am probably going to regret it – that it is not a stylish book. It is first and foremost political history and makes few literary or aesthetic concessions. This is not to say it is badly written – that is far from the case. But I read large stretches of it acutely aware that I was at the outer edges of my understanding.

Some of what Plokhy covers, however, can be got from the very different work of the Belarusian Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich, whose Chernobyl Prayer: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster was first published in Russian in 1997 (there is a marvellous translation in Penguin Modern Classics). Her now internationally recognised experiments in polyphonic, oral history journalism – a genre she almost singlehandedly invented – are themselves monumental works of a very different kind, giving voice to hidden and suppressed histories and experiences.

On balance, I found Svetlana Alexievich’s the more moving account – perhaps because it approximates more closely to  the kind of literary method my non-scientific mind looks for. I think what her book demonstrates is that sometimes, less is more. One reads it aware that a beautifully judged sequence of voices has been judiciously constructed for rhythm and pace and perspective. Reviewing it on its first publication, Julian Barnes said “it leaves radiation burns on the brain”. It does, and for scientific ignoramuses like me, it is far more accessible than Plokhy’s book.

Both books reveal Chernobyl’s long shadow, but Plokhy’s is better at illuminating the Stalinist legacy that in many respects made the disaster not just possible but likely. Either book can be recommended – but if you have the appetite for it, then perhaps ideally both.


Alun Severn

August 2019