Voices from Chernobyl

The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

by Svetlana Alexievich and Keith Gessen

Voices from Chernobyl

Paperback, 236 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $15 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Voices from Chernobyl
Subtitle
The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
Author
Svetlana Alexievich and Keith Gessen

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Book Summary

The people of Chernobyl talk about their lives before, during, and after the worst nuclear reactor accident in history, which occurred on April 26, 1986 in the Soviet Union in Chernobyl, a disaster that spread radioactive contamination across much of Europe. Reprint. 25,000 first printing.

Read an excerpt of this book

Awards and Recognition

National Book Critics Circle Award (2005)

NPR stories about Voices from Chernobyl

A month after the explosion, Chernobyl employees head off by bus to work in a highly contaminated environment. Kostin Igor/Corbis Sygma hide caption

itoggle caption Kostin Igor/Corbis Sygma

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Voices From Chernobyl

Voices from Chernobyl

Chapter One
 
Monologue about what can be talked about with the living and the dead
 
The wolf came into the yard at night. I look out the window and there he is, eyes shining like headlights. Now I'm used to everything. I've been living alone for seven years, seven years since the people left. Sometimes at night I'll just be sitting here thinking, thinking, until it's lights out again. So on this day I was up all night, sitting on my bed, and then I went out to look at how the sun was. What should I tell you? Death is more just than anything else in the world: no one can escape it. The earth takes everyone—the kind, the cruel, the sinners. Aside from that, there's no justice on earth. I worked hard and honestly my whole life. But I didn't get any justice. God was dividing things up somewhere, and by the time the line came to me there was nothing left. A young person can die, an old person has to die . . . At first, I waited for people to come—I thought they'd come back. No one said they were leaving forever, they said they were leaving for a while. But now I'm just waiting for death. Dying isn't hard, but it is scary. There's no church. The priest doesn't come. There's no one to tell my sins to.
 
The first time they told us we had radiation, we thought: It's a sort of a sickness, and whoever gets it dies right away. No, no, they said, it's this thing that lies on the ground, and gets into the ground, but you can't see it. Animals might be able to see it and hear it, but people can't.
 
The police and the soldiers put up these signs. Some were next to people's houses, some were in the street—they'd write, 70 curie, 60 curie. We'd always lived off our potatoes, and then suddenly—we're not allowed to! For some people it was real bad, for others it was funny. They advised us to work in our gardens in masks and rubber gloves. And then another big scientist came to the meeting hall and told us that we needed to wash our yards. Come on! I couldn't believe what I was hearing! They ordered us to wash our sheets, our blankets, our curtains. But they're in storage! In closets and trunks. There's no radiation in there! Behind glass? Behind closed doors! Come on! It's in the forest, in the field. They closed the wells, locked them up, wrapped them in cellophane. Said the water was "dirty." How can it be dirty when it's so clean? They told us a bunch of nonsense. You'll die. You need to leave. Evacuate.
 
People got scared. They got fi lled up with fear. At night people started packing up their things. I also got my clothes, folded them up. My red badges for my honest labor, and my lucky kopeika that I had. Such sadness! It filled my heart. Let me be struck down right here if I'm lying. And then I hear about how the soldiers were evacuating one village, and this old man and woman stayed. Until then, when people were roused up and put on buses, they'd take their cow and go into the forest. They'd wait there. Like during the war, when they were burning down the villages. Why would our soldiers chase us? [Starts crying.] It's not stable, our life. I don't want to cry.
 
Oh! Look there—a crow. I don't chase them away. Although sometimes a crow will steal eggs from the barn. I still don't chase them away. I don't chase anyone away! Yesterday a little rabbit came over. There's a village nearby, also there's one woman living there, I said, come by. Maybe it'll help, maybe it won't, but at least there'll be someone to talk to. At night everything hurts. My legs are tingling, like there are little ants running through them, that's my nerve running through me. It's like that when I pick something up. Like wheat being crushed. Crunch, crunch. Then the nerve calms down. I've already worked enough in my life, been sad enough. I've had enough of everything and I don't want anything more.
 
I have daughters, and sons . . . They're all in the city. But I'm not going anywhere! God gave me years, but he didn't give me a fair share. I know that an old person gets boring, that the younger generation will run out of patience. I haven't had much joy from my children. The women, the ones who've gone into the city, are always crying. Either their daughter-in-law is hurting their feelings, or their daughter is. They want to come back. My husband is here. He's buried here. If he wasn't lying here, he'd be living in some other place. And I'd be with him. [Cheers up suddenly.] And why should I leave? It's nice here! Everything grows, everything blooming. From the littlest fly to the animals, everything's living.
 
I'll remember everything for you. The planes are flying and flying. Every day. They fly real, real low, right over our heads. They're flying to the reactor. To the station. One after the other. While here we have the evacuation. They're moving us out. Storming the houses. People have gone under cover, they're hiding. The livestock is moaning, the kids are crying. It's war! And the sun's out . . . I sat down and didn't come out of the hut, though it's true I didn't lock up either. The soldiers knocked. "Ma'am, have you packed up?" And I said: "Are you going to tie my hands and feet?" They didn't say anything, didn't say anything, and then they left. They were young. They were kids! Old women were crawling on their knees in front of their houses, begging. The soldiers picked them up under their arms and into the car. But I told them, whoever touched me was going to get it. I cursed at them! I cursed good. I didn't cry. That day I didn't cry. I sat in my house. One minute there's yelling. Yelling! And then it's quiet. Very quiet. On that day—that first day I didn't leave the house.
 
They told me later that there was a column of people walking. And next to that there was a column of livestock. It was war! My husband liked to say that people may shoot, but it's God who delivers the bullet. Everyone has his own fate. The young ones who left, some of them have already died. In their new place. Whereas me, I'm still walking around. Slowing down, sure. Sometimes it's boring, and I cry. The whole village is empty. There's all kinds of birds here. They fly around. And there's elk here, all you want. [Starts crying.]
 
I remember everything. Everyone up and left, but they left their dogs and cats. The first few days I went around pouring milk for all the cats, and I'd give the dogs a piece of bread. They were standing in their yards waiting for their masters. They waited for them a long time. The hungry cats ate cucumbers. They ate tomatoes. Until autumn I took care of my neighbor's lawn, up to the fence. Her fence fell down, I hammered it back up again. I waited for the people. My neighbor had a dog named Zhuchok. "Zhuchok," I'd say, "if you see the people first, give me a shout."
 
One night I dreamt I was getting evacuated. The officer yells, "Lady! We're going to burn everything down and bury it. Come out!" And they drive me somewhere, to some unknown place. Not clear where. It's not the town, it's not the village. It's not even Earth.
 
One time—I had a nice little kitty. Vaska. One winter the rats were really hungry and they were attacking. There was nowhere to go. They'd crawl under the covers. I had some grain in a barrel, they put a hole in the barrel. But Vaska saved me. I'd have died without him. We'd talk, me and him, and eat dinner. Then Vaska disappeared. The hungry dogs ate him, maybe, I don't know. They were always running around hungry, until they died. The cats were so hungry they ate their kittens. Not during the summer, but during the winter they would. God, forgive me!
 
Sometimes now I can't even make it all the way through the house. For an old woman even the stove is cold during the summer. The police come here sometimes, check things out, they bring me bread. But what are they checking for?
 
It's me and the cat. This is a different cat. When we hear the police, we're happy. We run over. They bring him a bone. Me they'll ask: "What if the bandits come?" "What'll they get off me? What'll they take? My soul? Because that's all I have." They're good boys. They laugh. They brought me some batteries for my radio, now I listen to it. I like Lyudmilla Zykina, but she's not singing as much anymore. Maybe she's old now, like me. My man used to say—he used to say, "The dance is over, put the violin back in the case."
 
I'll tell you how I found my kitty. I lost my Vaska. I waited a day, two days, then a month. So that was that. I was all alone. No one even to talk to. I walked around the village, going into other people's yards, calling out: Vaska. Murka. Vaska! Murka! At first there were a lot of them running around, and then they disappeared somewhere. Death doesn't care. The earth takes everyone. So I'm walking, and walking. For two days. On the third day I see him under the store. We exchange glances. He's happy, I'm happy. But he doesn't say anything. "All right," I say, "let's go home." But he sits there, meowing. So then I say: "What'll you do here by yourself? The wolves will eat you. They'll tear you apart. Let's go. I have eggs, I have some lard." But how do I explain it to him? Cats don't understand human language, then how come he understood me? I walk ahead, and he runs behind me. Meowing. "I'll cut you off some lard." Meow. "We'll live together the two of us." Meow. "I'll call you Vaska, too." Meow. And we've been living together two winters now.
 
I get bored sometimes, and then I cry.
 
I go to the cemetery. My mom's there. My little daughter. She burned up with typhus during the war. Right after we took her to the cemetery, buried her, the sun came out from the clouds. And shone and shone. Like: You should go and dig her up. My husband is there. Fedya. I sit with them all. I sigh a little. You can talk to the dead just like you can talk to the living. Makes no difference to me. I can hear the one and the other. When you're alone . . . And when you're sad. When you're very sad.
 
Ivan Gavrilenko, he was a teacher, he lived right next to the cemetery. He moved to the Crimea, his son was there. Next to him was Pyotr Miusskiy. He drove a tractor. He was a Stakhanovite, back then everyone was aching to be a Stakhanovite. He had magic hands. He could make lace out of wood. His house, it was the size of the whole village. Oh, I felt so bad, and my blood boiled, when they tore it down. They buried it. The officer was yelling: "Don't think of it, grandma! It's on a hot-spot!" Meanwhile he's drunk. I come over—Pyotr's crying. "Go on, grandma, it's all right." He told me to go. And the next house is Misha Mikhalev's, he heated the kettles on the farm. He died fast. Left here, and died right away. Next to his house was Stepa Bykhov's, he was a zoologist. It burned down! Bad people burned it down at night. Stepa didn't live long. He's buried somewhere in the Mogilev region. During the war—we lost so many people! Vassily Kovalev. Maksim Nikoforenko. They used to live, they were happy. On holidays they'd sing, dance. Play the harmonica. And now, it's like a prison. Sometimes I'll close my eyes and go through the village—well, I say to them, what radiation? There's a butterfly flying, and bees are buzzing. And my Vaska's catching mice. [Starts crying.]
 
Oh Lyubochka, do you understand what I'm telling you, my sorrow? You'll carry it to people, maybe I won't be here anymore. I'll be in the ground. Under the roots . . .
 
Zinaida Kovalenko, re-settler
 
Copyright © 1997, 2006 by Svetlana Alexievich
Preface and translation © 2005 by Keith Gessen

Reviews From The NPR Community

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.