Eine Brille liegt auf einem aufgeschlagenen Buch

What are you reading, Ms Drakulic?

Sanja Drakulic coordinates the international PhD program at our center, and she is passionate about the diversity, equity and inclusion. Here, she recommends a book by the award-winning Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich, who has coined her own literary genre: the documentary "novel in voices".

We are familiar with the historical chronicles, factual details, the science behind it. On April 26, 1986, at 1:23 AM, the pride and glory of Soviet science and technology, Number Four RBMK reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, went out of control during a test, leading to a disastrous explosion and a catastrophic release of a large amount of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere. Consequences are well studied and documented across a variety of fields, from public health, environmental science, economy, or engineering.

What stayed in the shadow of the colossal story about the most significant technological disaster of the 20th century, beyond studies, reports and assessments, are voices of ordinary people whose lives were disrupted in a split second, in a flash of light.

Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarussian Nobel prize winning journalist and author, takes us on a journey through space and time, delving into the oral history of the firsthand witnesses of Chernobyl catastrophe, in her haunting and powerful work “Chernobyl Prayer” (published also as “Voices from Chernobyl”). The book is a composition of hundreds of interviews; the narratives range from former workers of the power plant, first responders, liquidators, scientists, medical staff, soldiers, displaced individuals, or those who returned to their homes in the exclusion zone. People whose world was Chernobyl. “They told their stories, they searched for answers.”

Her writing is masterly. Unlike the ornate sentences that often characterize masterful prose, Alexievich’s virtuosity lies in the simplicity of her writing. It makes her storytelling impeccably authentic, relatable, and vivid. Word by word, image upon image, memory after memory, Alexievich offers a chilling and intimate glimpse of destinies emerging from the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. “I am living in a real and an unreal world at the same time,” the subjects testify. “It’s not just a contaminated, uninhabited lands. It’s a lost world.”

Many of the interviewees were in a hurry to tell their story. As they feared they didn’t have much time. “Someone will read it and make sense of it. Later, after we are gone. […] Mind you do something with this knowledge, put it to some use.” Alexievich fulfilled the mission: she conveyed their message. She transmitted stories of ordinary people who overnight became Chernobyl survivors. Cautionary tale. A curiosity.

This work transcends historical books, reports, notes and descriptions. Through its oral history format, a people’s history, it paints a canvas of personal tragedies, each heartbreaking in its own way. A tale of a young woman spending days and nights by the deathbed of her husband, a first-responding firefighter, sacrificing her own health. When a man you love becomes a mere contaminated object, this is a scene where, Alexievich writes, Shakespeare bows out, even Dante. Stories of elderly people who returned to their homes, sitting alone in darkness, seeking consolation in memories, their gardens, birds. Stories of military personnel, reliving images of war, so fresh for many: desperation of people trying to get back to their poisoned lands, their crops; columns of evacuees, trying to bring along a piece of furniture, a photo, a clod of soil, a beloved pet, a memory. Armed soldiers forced to stop them. Stories of the liquidators, of people who worked in conditions where equipment designed to function in space was failing. “We were battling an atomic reactor, armed with shovels.” Were they the true heroes, or were they victims of Soviet ideologies? Those individuals didn’t save only their country; they saved all of Europe. And yet, many died alone and forgotten.

Chernobyl Prayer” documents the raw emotions in the face of total destruction, chaos, madness, a desperate attempt to fight an unimaginable force. It serves as an eerie testimony of fear, helplessness, isolation, loneliness, insecurity, of trauma, illness, death. But at the same time, it’s a story of survival, determination, loyalty and pride, community, solidarity and kindness - a testament of perseverance and indestructibility of human spirit. “We survived everything, pulled through it all. […] You can’t be frightened the whole time, a person can’t do that; some time goes by, and ordinary human life starts up again.”

As scientists, we are used to observe the world through the lens of data, facts and reason. We are trained to combat emotional and irrational. But what happens when our realm stops making sense? When the world we knew disappears, when everything we believed to be true proves to be incorrect? Today, in the uncertain times marked by a pandemic, wars, crises, the resurgence of right-wing forces across Europe, "Chernobyl Prayer" stands as a testament to the importance of remembering and learning from past tragedies. A reminder that safety is fragile and should never be assumed.

Svetlana Alexievich: Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future. Penguin Books, 2016.