"And Knowing is Half the Battle!", "Knowledge is Power", Aplasia, Call of Duty, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, censorship, Chernobyl, Chernobyl Diaries, Chernobyl Ferris Wheel, Communism, history, journalism, Libraries, Long term effects of radiation, Medical abnormality, Michael Berryman, Othering, Politics, Radiation, Russia, Soviet Union, Svetlana Alexievich, testimony, U.S.S.R., Ukraine, Voices from Chernobyl, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
My personal Chernobyl tragedy was seeing something fun in the whole mess.
Like many young men of this generation I received the Modern Warfare Games for a Christmas present and spent most of the morning beating the campaign mode. I won’t try to lie and say that I was repulsed at the piss-poor narrative, or nauseated by the fact that all of the villains in the story tended to be either black, Latino, or Russians. The fact of the matter was the game was fun to play because it was just a fun story and a wild ride that, in hindsight, becomes more and more ridiculous once you got into the whole Ghosts storyline.
In the first game however there was one mission where the player has to play as a young Price, the grisly, no-nonsense, bearded patriarch of the series who’s always speaking about Pripyat with a cigar between his teeth. I’m tempted to say that the whole game series was perhaps a homage to The A-Team, but at least in that show there was a black character who wasn’t a nameless bullet sponge. The mission is to assassinate a terrorist leader who is setting up an arms deal in the ruined city of Pripyat, the now iconic city (it’s the Ferris wheel) that suffered the worst of the nuclear fallout falling the explosions of the reactor in Chernobyl. Whether it’s hiding from an entire squadron of Russian troops in your ghillie suit, fighting off wild dogs that will literally eat you, or else blowing off Zakiev’s entire arm, the mission is fun. But what is arguably the “coolest” part is the fact that you get to run around the abandoned city and see how much emptiness there is apart from the wild savagery.
This is the tragedy that would be followed up just a few years later by the film The Chernobyl Diaries. The narrative of that particular film is that a group of young tourists interested in an “adventure” hire a guide to walk them through the city of Pripyat, and because it’s a horror story the group is attacked by humanoid mutants. The implication is of course that these were once citizens of the city who were twisted and mutated into monsters by the radiation of the surrounding territory. If this sounds like the stuff of bad “othering” the reader is correct, but the truly worst offense of the film is the fact that this is just a blatant rip-off of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. If you’re going to tell a story about humanoid monsters who became such because of radiation at least pay some lip-service to the man who helped establish the American horror genre.
Or at the very least have the good grace to hire Michael Berryman for a goddamn cameo.
These opening examples however serve a real purpose because hopefully the reader can see there’s something about the Chernobyl tragedy that has captured the imagination of humanity. Chernobyl has become not just a noun, but almost an adjective for everything that could possibly go wrong or be wrong. To put it another way, Chernobyl is synonymous with the word “fuck-up.”
It’s for this tragedy that when I saw a copy of Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster at Barnes & Noble I picked it up, mildly curious as to what it was about.
Obviously, I have trouble reading subtitles.
I wish I could say this book came recommended to me either by friends, teachers, co-workers, or even Goodreads, but it didn’t. I was just casually browsing the history section after one of my Coffee with Jammer sessions and was captured by the cover. I like books that are black and white, and when I saw the gold “Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature” I knew I had to read it.
Svetlana Alexievich, the author, went to Belaruse and Russian to discuss in person the many individuals who were impacted by the tragedy, along with a few government workers who have either repented their pathetic handling of the situation. Alexievich doesn’t proselytize, nor does she offer up her own assessment. Instead her mission is purely interviewing the people and recording their exact impressions, thoughts, reflections, and experiences with Chernobyl. Rather than reporting the facts and figures and digging through government files, Alexievich provides an important cultural document. The voices and testimonies of the victims of tragedy are always the most important and books like Maus by Art Spiegelman are a reminder of this. Voices from Chernobyl humanizes the tragedy because the reader is able to see real people’s tragedies rather than cartoon impressions.
The reader who picks up Voices from Chernobyl should be prepared because the book is written as a series of personal testimonies and as such most of them are tragedies, one of which remains the most distinct in my memory. It’s the story a mother who gives birth to a child after the explosion:
My little daughter—she’s different. She’s not like the others. She’s going to grow up and ask me: “Why aren’t I like the others?”
When she was born, she wasn’t a baby, she was a little sack, sewed up everywhere, no a single opening, just the eyes. The medical card says: “Girl, born with multiple complex pathologies: aplasia of the anus, aplasia of the vagina, aplasia of the left kidney.” That how it sounds in medical talk, but more simply: no pee-pee, no butt, one kidney. On the second day I watched her get operated on, on the second day of her life. She opened her eyes and smiled, and I thought she was about to start crying. But, God, she smiled
The ones like her don’t live, they die right away. But she didn’t die, because I loved her. (81).
I left out the quote where the mother informs Alexievich that she has to physically push the waste out of her daughter because of this condition. I left it out because this grotesque reality is everything and more that is the cultural horror that is the Chernobyl disaster and also out of a personal sense of ethics. There’s already enough of a “freak-show” atmosphere with Chernobyl, and this mother and child’s troubles are only a minor part of the larger problem.
Of course, the pro-longed exposure to radiation was going to create visible distortions in the population in terms of genetics. I recognize that not every reader is thoroughly versed in the specific details concerning how radiation affects genes, but I can rely on the fact that most readers will understand that the invisible rays that emanate from nuclear reactors and waste can create horrors like giant ants, lizards, and of course a praying mantis. And if the reader is a person like me, they surely realize that such developments, though tragic, will lead to awesome badass monsters like Deathclaws or Mireulek Queens which will have to be killed with miniguns that shoot flaming bullets while also wearing suits of power armor decorated with the Nuka-Cola logo.
The monster movie connection aside though what’s important about this passage is that while it seems common knowledge that radiation can create havoc with a person’s genes and body, this information was largely repressed by the Russian government and returning to the same mother the most pernicious element of the disaster takes shape:
She doesn’t understand yet, but someday she’ll ask us: why isn’t she like everyone else? Why can’t she love a man? Why can’t she have babies? Why won’t what happens to butterflies happen to her? What happens to birds? To everyone but her? I wanted—I should have been able to prove—so that—I wanted to get papers—so that she’s know—when she grew up—it wasn’t our fault, my husband and I, it wasn’t our love that was at fault. [Tries again not to cry] I fought for four years—with the doctors, the bureaucrats—I knocked on the doors of important people. It took me four years to finally get a paper from the doctors that confirmed the connection between ionized radiation (in small doses) and her terrible condition. They refused me for four years, they kept telling me: “Your child is the victim of a congenital handicap.” What congenital handicap? She’s a victim of Chernobyl! (83).
A similar event takes place just two pages down:
Here’s what I remember. In the first days after the accident, all the books at the library about radiation, about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even about X-rays, disappeared. Some people said it was an order from above, so that people wouldn’t panic. There was even a joke that if Chernobyl had blown up near the Papuans, the whole world would be frightened, but not the Papuans. There were no medical bulletins, no information. (85).
The great philosopher G.I. Joe used to elocute so confidently after the kids would say “And now I know” that “Knowing is half the battle.” I also distinctly remember Saturday Morning Cartoons when School House Rock would proudly declare that “Knowledge is Power” thus introducing millions of young kids to a quote that, some would argue, was once attributed to Francis Bacon. Cartoons and sixteenth century writers aside however I go back to these two accurate platitudes because as always there’s truth beneath the cliché. Knowledge is the way to combat ignorance, and knowledge is always going to ensure that individual people will be able to overcome challenges. Likewise if a populace is educated about the events and details of a disaster they’ll be able to make an informed decision about whether or not those in power are accurately and correctly responding to said disaster.
It’s disgraceful that a mother in such a position would have to fight for four years just to get a doctor to acknowledge the possibility that her pregnancy had been corrupted due to radiation poisoning. Likewise it’s horrific that a government would intentionally remove books from libraries simply to ensure that no one could question whether or not it was handling the events of such a catastrophe properly.
The latter point is especially revolting to me largely because I work in a library and understand that removing books is one of the most obvious and cruel means of censorship.
Voices from Chernobyl is as much a criticism of the government of Russia at the time as it is an opportunity for survivors to tell their story about the tragedy. In the historical context all of this desire for secrecy makes sense. Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power as the Premier of the Soviet Union and was pushing for reforms in the country in his desire for perestroika. If the reader is unfamiliar with this concept it was a political philosophy introduced during the eighties to try and allow more market opportunities within the Soviet Union and also allow more independence to the nations that were under the control of the Soviet Union at that time. Some have argued that this policy hurt the U.S.S.R. more than it helped, and in fact there is some debate as to whether or not it actually caused the downfall of the Soviet Union. Whatever the case there was a desire on the part of the Soviet government to appear strong and unified less the United States, the central philosophic and economic rival of the U.S.S.R, use the disaster as a way of showing their superiority. Pride is unfortunately the downfall of many great peoples and countries, and so the Chernobyl disaster remained hidden and mismanaged largely because the Russians did not want to appear weak.
The attempt to silence voices will always reek of political corruption, but coming to the end of my reflections on this book I still stand where I did originally in the position that Voices from Chernobyl serves a far more important function than simply revealing a cover-up. The books means to humanize a people who have been dehumanized because the fault of those above them.
Alexievich records many voices and individual people who suffered, or knew people who suffered from the disaster, and the common sentiment that runs through all of these testimonies is that after the disaster the people that lived in or around the site of the explosion have become a sort of “other.” Historians, journalists, and tourists to this day come through hoping to catch some sight of the lingering damage, and the people who have to try and make a life in this space are looked on in a kind of sick wonder mixed with pity.
Voices from Chernobyl offers a different and far more valuable look at how the people of Russian and Belaruse were impacted by this disaster. These stories and testimonies offer a wide range of personality types that are times sympathetic and sometimes infuriating. These are people, not cartoon characters. And as the reader listens to these stories they will hopefully recognize not only something of themselves in these people, but more importantly they’ll discover some empathy. And that is key. It’s easy for human beings, for the sake of comfort, to ignore tragedy for fear they might somehow be implicated in such a travesty, or else that they may become unhappy from listening to someone else’s tragedy. However Alexievich’s book is in the tradition of demonstrating that listening to the voices of victims, even at its most horrific, is the way humanity learns from the mistakes of the past.
A nuclear explosion is the stuff of nightmares, but it can’t drown out the voices that linger through the fallout and remind us that some have endured.
All quotes from Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster were taken from the Picador paperback edition.
I’ve provided a few links below to articles about Alexievich and Voices from Chernobyl.