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the Complete Review
the complete review - documentary


Voices from Chernobyl

Svetlana Alexievich

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Voices from Chernobyl

Title: Voices from Chernobyl
Author: Svetlana Alexievich
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1997 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 244 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Voices from Chernobyl - US
Voices from Chernobyl - UK
Voices from Chernobyl - Canada
Voices from Chernobyl - India
La supplication - France
Tschernobyl. Eine Chronik der Zukunft - Deutschland
Preghiera per Cernobyl' - Italia
Voces de Chernóbil - España
  • The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
  • Russian title: Чернобыльская молитва
  • Translated and with a Preface by Keith Gessen
  • Voices from Chernobyl was previously translated into English by Antonina Bouis (Aurum Press, 1999)
  • Awarded the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction

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Our Assessment:

B : powerful, disturbing, frustrating

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation . 17/4/2006 Andrew Meier
New Scientist . 4/12/1999 .
The NY Times Book Rev. . 19/6/2005 Nicholas Confessore
Political Affairs . 6/2005 Thomas Riggins
The Telegraph . 4/7/2005 Julian Evans

  From the Reviews:
  • "Svetlana Alexievich's remarkable book, recording the lives and deaths of her fellow Belarussians, has at last made it into American bookstores. (...) Hers is a peerless collection of testimony." - Andrew Meier, The Nation

  • "Grim and grotesque, the stories accrete across the pages like the radionuclides lodged in the bodies of those who survived." - Nicholas Confessore, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Chernobyl, more that Gorbachevís perestroika, may be the real cause of the collapse of the USSR. Read it to find out !" - Thomas Riggins, Political Affairs

  • "Alexievich's book, which should be a melancholy experience, is both more and less than that. Her technique is a powerful mixture of eloquence and wordlessness, describing incompetence, heroism and grief: from the monologues of her interviewees she creates a history that the reader, at whatever distance from the events, can actually touch. Reading it, I realised for the first time that Chernobyl was Europe's tsunami: but we, humans, made this tsunami, and it has no end. (...) If you have any curiosity about the future, I absolutely urge you to read it. Alexievich's Chernobyl is a place of extremes and unknowns, a theatre for the consequences of technology." - Julian Evans, The Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Voices from Chernobyl is a documentary collection, dozens of those affected by the nuclear reactor disaster in Chernobyl in 1986 recounting in their own words memories of the event and its aftermath, as well as their current situations. The interviews, all from 1996, are collected, edited, and arranged by Svetlana Alexievich, but beyond a brief epilogue (or rather, a brief section entitled: 'In Place of an Epilogue') her voice is practically entirely absent. Even merely as an inquiring interviewer her voice is absent: the questions she posed or requests she made are not included either, at best hinted at in the occasional reaction.
       The accounts range in length from a paragraph or two to almost twenty pages, some presented together in choruses of voices, others lone monologues. Many focus on what it was like that day in Chernobyl and the first reactions, but others focus on the present, ten years later. Almost all of these accounts are devastating.
       Over and over a similar story emerges: everyone was unprepared, few knew what the dangers were. An invisible poison, the radiation simply did not seem threatening enough to most, and the authorities were unwilling (in the most generous reading: for fear of causing a panic) to acknowledge the dangers and without the resources to do what actually needed to be done. The locals continued to tend their crops and eat the locally grown food, only occasionally forced to dispose of it, -- with much of the tainted produce making its way into the general Soviet food supply. Looting, even of dangerously contaminated machinery and belongings, was rampant, safety measures haphazard and easily circumvented.
       Amazingly, Chernobyl even continues to exude a sense of romance and adventure, a place of heroism beside death -- and offer a haven. Over and over, those who visit the area immediately surrounding the reactor speak of the great natural beauty. And the scene of the catastrophe exerts a fascination:

     The Zone pulls you in. You miss it, I tell you. Once you've been there, you'll miss it.
       Among the saddest testimonials are of some who fled war-torn post-Soviet Tajikistan and settled here, the invisible killer here still preferable to what they faced at home:
Why did we come here ? To Chernobyl ? Because no one's going to chase us out of here. No one will kick us off this land. It's not anyone's land now. God took it back.
       The book is full of personal tragedies, particularly the physical damage the radiation caused -- much of it because thousands and thousands of men were sent to work in and around the disaster-site under impossible conditions, with limited (if any) safety equipment.
       Widespread corruption and a political system that was ill-equipped to protect its citizenry contributed to the spread of the disaster. The state literally tried to turn a deaf ear to the problem: one scientist trying to get through to a state official on the telephone would simply be disconnected when he broached the touchy subject, despite the fact that in the first days nearly every minute of delay caused more damage.
       One gets a sense from these Voices from Chernobyl of the extent of the human toll and lasting damage caused by this catastrophe. Almost everyone trusted the state, and the state certainly failed them, too disorganised and too poor to take the necessary steps. But the power of the state was also far from as strong as it presented itself as being: people returned to their contaminated land, or took their contaminated belongings away with them (and if they didn't, looters did), at worst having to bribe someone. Only feeble token efforts appear to have been made to keep dangerously contaminated foodstuffs out of the food supply.
       As one person described it:
     "Chernobyl is like the war of all wars. There's nowhere to hide. Not underground, not underwater, not in the air."
       The personal sacrifice -- often suicidal and certainly ill-prepared -- was much as in the Great War, when millions lost their lives, but one senses some frustration at this invisible enemy, where victory and defeat are much less readily discernible.
       Too few of the authority-figures give their side of events. Naturally, they tend to be defensive, making for an interesting contrast, but despite some good scenes -- including the book's best quote: "I'm not a drunk, I'm a Communist !" -- more from the official side would have been of interest.
       If there's any problem with Voices from Chernobyl it is that it remains steadfastly at the personal and individual level. This is, no doubt, intentional, and on one level very successful: part of the problem with Chernobyl and the aftermath is that there are so few easy answers, that so much is shrouded in mystery, that information is hard to come by, and so rumour and anecdote and personal experience are all people have to go on -- and so that's what Alexievich offers her readers. But more information would have been useful. As is, translator Keith Gessen's four-page preface offers about all the hard facts found in the book, and that isn't many. There's not even a map, to make clear where these places are. And the terminology remains unexplained, and readers are in the same boat as the voice that recalls:
But what's a bec ? A curie ? What's a millroentgen ? We ask our commander, he can't answer that, they didn't teach it at the military academy. Milli, micro, it's all Chinese to him.
       Given how often such terms come up, it would have been helpful to understand what the dangerous levels might be, etc. Again: Alexievich presumably means her readers to feel the same uncomprehending frustration at these numbers and terms that those that actually faced the radiation exposure did -- but that doesn't make it any less frustrating.
       A journalist agrees with Alexievich's fundamental approach:
So instead of writing, you should record. Document. Show me a fantasy novel about Chernobyl -- there isn't one ! Because reality is more fantastic.
       The stories in Voices from Chernobyl are 'fantastic', and their authenticity adds to their weight -- yet it's not an entirely satisfactory testament to this catastrophe. Arguably, readers who want to know the facts can turn to other books about Chernobyl, where detailed tables and graphs and maps can fill in everything that is left out here -- the bigger (and more anonymous) picture. But in this selective but opaque presentation (where exact locations and time-frames often aren't clear) Alexievich utilises neither the advantages of fiction, nor those of fact. These are personal and individual accounts, part of the big picture but not enough to convey anything near it all (as a novel or a fuller documentary would have better been able to).
       Moving and powerful, Voices from Chernobyl still feels inadequate. But then maybe any book about Chernobyl would.

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Voices from Chernobyl: Reviews: Chernobyl: Svetlana Alexievich: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Belarus author Svetlana Alexievich (Светлана Алексиевич, Svetlana Alexievitch, Swetlana Alexijewitsch) was born in 1948. She has received numerous international literary prizes, including the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature.

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