Read from: August 23rd to September 17th, 2018
Chernaya molitva – черная молитва
It is said that Chernobyl area would remain radioactive for another 42,300 years. A scary number, in a way scarier than “forever” precisely because of its decisiveness. In the historical notes of her book Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History, Svetlana Alexievich completes this information: today one of every five Belarussians lives on contaminated ground (2.1 million people, of whom 700 000 children), because from the 50 million Ci of radionuclides released into the atmosphere, 70% descended on Belarus contaminating 23% of its territory. Moreover,
The fourth reactor, now known as the Cover, still holds about twenty tons of nuclear fuel in its lead-and-metal core. No one knows what is happening with it.
Despite all this, people continue to go and visit or settle in this manmade hell, often with dire consequences. Svetlana Alexievich herself has got an immune deficiency now, maybe because of the three years spent in the area to interview people for her book, maybe because she is a Belarusian herself (and said once that ten of her fifteen childhood friends died of cancer), maybe because of both.
However, like those who continue to live there putting in danger their own lives and the lives of their children because they felt they had no place elsewhere, the author felt she had no choice but to go to the source, in order to find out not only the true story behind the catastrophe, but also the true story of its consequences, which both the former Soviet and the actual Belarusian government tried to minimalize. And such a story is better reconstructed from painful memories than from cold documents, because it is more than a story of facts, it the story of an enormous, unimaginable suffering. This suffering found its true voice through the testimonies of some hundreds persons interviewed, a polyphonic voice solemnly raising its chant like an antique choir whose coryphaeus is this courageous journalist for whom the truth is more important than life itself, and truth, as she says in the epilogue, needs to be expressed by human voice and filtered and even prophesised by human feelings, for facts without emotions are in the end irrelevant:
I often thought that the simple fact, the mechanical fact, is no closer to the truth than a vague feeling, rumor, vision. Why repeat the facts—they cover up our feelings. The development of these feelings, the spilling of these feelings past the facts, is what fascinates me. I try to find them, collect them, protect them.These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future.
The book begins with the story of a woman whose husband, a fireman, was among the firsts to go to the reactor to stop the fire, without any protective gear. He became ill immediately and although she was pregnant at the time, she loved him too much to leave him alone, so she stayed with him in the hospital until he died, sacrificing her unborn child to be with him in his final days:
There's a fragment of some conversation, I'm remembering it. Someone is saying: “You have to understand: This is not your husband anymore, not a beloved person, but a radioactive object with a strong density of poisoning. You’re not suicidal. Get a hold of yourself.” And I'm like someone who’s lost her mind: “But I love him! I love him!” He’s sleeping, and I'm whispering: “I love you!” Walking in the hospital courtyard, “I love you.” Carrying his sanitary tray, “I love you.
…and finishes with the story of the wife of a liquidator, who took over a year to die under her eyes. Like the other wife, she stayed with him and took care of him until the end and she still cannot believe he is not with her anymore:
Not long ago I was so happy. Why? I’ve forgotten. It feels like another life now. I don't even understand, I don’t know how I've been able to begin living again. Wanting to live. But here I am. I laugh, I talk. I was so heartbroken, I was paralyzed. I wanted to talk with someone, but not anyone human. I’d go to a church, it's quiet there, like in the hills. So quiet, you can forget your life there. But then I'd wake up in the morning, my hand would feel around—where is he? It's his pillow, his smell. There’s a tiny bird running around on the windowsill making the little bell ring, and it's waking me up, I’ve never heard that sound before, that voice. Where is he?
They make you wonder, these heart-breaking love stories: was Dante right to believe that love can move the sun and other stars, that is – are they an incontestable proof that human feelings are more powerful than death, or are they a mere proof of the nonsense of existence? For no matter how soul-uplifting and cathartic could be to feel the tragedy in art, when ordinary life finishes in tragedy it feels somehow inglorious to be alive and well only because you had the chance of not have been born there.
A survivor’s guilt, of course, although not as deep as the guilt of the direct survivors, those who have lived with the tragedy since: the soldier who came home and burnt all his clothes because he knew he had to, but couldn’t refuse his little son who so wanted to play with his cap, son who now has a brain tumor; the mother of a girl born “like a little sack, sewed up everywhere, not a single opening, just the eyes”, who has been made an artificial anus, and has been living like that for four years; or that former First Secretary, who is convinced even now that they, the officials, were right, that they had to hide the truth to avoid panic, had to continue with the parade, had to stay and act as nothing really dangerous had happened, and whose own grandchild is sick now.
On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the Soviet government had tried in its own way to deal with the consequences of the explosion, in spite of the incompetence, the indifference, the lies. Thousands of people were sent to clear the radioactive debris (clean-up workers called “liquidators”), to drop bags of sand into the reactor (which finally was not such a good idea), to shut the animals and evacuate the inhabitants. However, by keeping people uninformed, they made them underestimate the danger. A liquidator, who is now a second-grade invalid, recalls how he ate and drank everything he could find there, how he played soccer and swam in the river without a care in the world, because although he knew everything was contaminated, it didn’t seem dangerous. A young guy was transporting contaminated earth with his truck because he had been promised 50 rubles (and what a nice suit he could buy with this lump sum!). Someone, who was working with a group of Germans, remembers how they were laughing at their panic and their demands to be offered protection, calling them cowards. With that well-known Russian fatalism, they firmly believed that if you cannot change something, you can make it at least profitable:
If you don’t play, you lose. There was a Ukrainian woman at the market selling big red apples. ‘Come get your apples! Chernobyl apples!’ Someone told her not to advertise that, no one will buy them. ‘Don’t worry,’ she says. ‘They buy them anyway. Some need them for their mother-in-law, some for their boss.’
Indeed, people will always find a way to accommodate evil and become accustomed to it. The cataclysm should have left the area uninhabited indefinitely, but those who left for a while resettled soon, whereas others come there by their own will, some seeking refuge from places torn apart by ethnical wars (like the refugees from Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan who preferred to confront the invisible killer than the real killers they faced at home), some to repent for their sins, some to profit one way or another from the disaster:
We're all—peddlers of the apocalypse. Big and small. (…) The mechanism of evil will work under conditions of apocalypse, also. That’s what I understood. Man will gossip, and kiss up to the bosses, and save his television and ugly fur coat. And people will be the same until the end of time. Always.
All of them have learned death is their neighbour they may converse and live with easily, fearlessly; in the end, they have come to find it beautiful, they proudly appropriate it as their own:
On the way back, the sun is setting, I say, “Look at how beautiful this land is!” The sun is illuminating the forest and the fields, bidding us farewell. “Yes,” one of the Germans who speaks Russian answers, “it’s pretty, but it's contaminated.” He has a dosimeter in his hand. And then I understand that the sunset is only for me. This is my land. I'm the one who lives here.
However, despite the suffering and the predestination (“…Chernobyl: literally it means black event”), people don’t feel martyrs and don’t feel damned, they simply isolated themselves from the rest of the world, and became proud with their landscape, their feelings and their religious icons:
We see a woman on a bench near her house, breastfeeding her child—her milk has cesium in it—she's the Chernobyl Madonna.
For what is life worth if you cannot find for the Chernobyl tragedy a place in the great scheme of things, if you cannot use it, in that ineffable Russian style, to define humanity?
Chernobyl is a theme worthy of Dostoevsky, an attempt to justify mankind.