Bön för Tjernobyl

by Svetlana Aleksijevitj

Paper Book, 2013



Call number



Ersatz, 2013


History. Nonfiction. HTML:Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award A journalist by trade, who now suffers from an immune deficiency developed while researching this book, presents personal accounts of what happened to the people of Belarus after the nuclear reactor accident in 1986, and the fear, anger, and uncertainty that they still live with. The Nobel Prize in Literature 2015 was awarded to Svetlana Alexievich "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.".

User reviews

LibraryThing member bragan
This book collects the words of people whose lives were affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster: People who were evacuated. People who weren't evacuated. People who, seeking refuge from war and having nowhere else to go, moved into contaminated areas abandoned by everyone else. Soldiers who were
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sent in, inadequately protected, to clean up afterward. Family members of people afflicted by radiation poisoning, or birth defects, or cancer. Scientists who tried to warn people, and one who lives with the shame of having trusted the authorities and looked the other way. There are long, rambling stories and short, bitter outbursts. Some are sophisticated and philosophical, others inarticulately emotional. Many of the most personal narratives are heartbreaking and horrifying, but, taken all together, they also paint an enlightening portrait of what it was like to be a citizen of the Soviet Union in 1986, and of the all too fallible ways in which human beings and human institutions can react to disasters that they don't fully understand. It's a painful book to read, but a very worthwhile one, and the way that Alexievich presents these transcripts, without context or comment, somehow just makes them all the more powerful.
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LibraryThing member starbox
"It's changed our everyday life and our thinking"
By sally tarbox on 29 January 2018
Format: Hardcover
In short chapters, Alexievich creates a sort of collage of narratives about the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Wives of volunteers; the men who undertook the work after the nuclear tragedy; old people,
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disbelieving of 'radiation', resentful at attempts to evacuate them; scientists, party officials, schoolchildren... even refugees from wars in other republics who chose to settle here, where land was plentiful and up for grabs, and the potential long-term consequences seemed trifling when compared to the bloodshed they had witnessed.

Immensely powerful, horrifying work, from the terrible deaths and deformities to the criminal lack-of-preparedness and lies by the authorities, as workers are sent out without any equipment, while those in power deliberately minimize any hazards. And the way poverty and misinformation cause a cavalier attitude to the risk, so that contaminated foods are still eaten regardless.

Many compared the emergency action with the war - evacuation, hospitals, soldiers, explosion. For some the War with its immediacy was far worse than this invisible menace. But others feel differently:
"People talk about the war, the war generation, they compare us to them. But those people were happy! They won the war! It gave them a very strong life-impulse, as we say now, it gave them a really strong motivation to survive and keep going. They weren't afraid of anything, they wanted to live, learn , have kids. Whereas us? We're afraid of everything. We're afraid for our children, and for our grandchildren, who don't exist yet...It's a feeling of doom."

Gives a powerful understanding of the situation in Belarus.
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LibraryThing member questbird
An expert curation of recorded monologues from the survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The stories of each individual build up to a powerful and tragic image of the accident and its aftermath, with an overall effect probably more powerful and complete than any history could be. Russian
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heroism, fatalism, black humour, corruption, servility to the State all come to light. The accident released the equivalent of 350 nuclear bombs into the area and it has affected generations of survivors. They are like the survivors of a nuclear war: their attitude is different and their land itself is irrevocably changed. A moving set of human stories, of humans faced with a situation unlike any other.
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LibraryThing member Dreesie
An excellent collection of oral histories. And an important collection of oral histories. Alexievich interviewed many people affected by Chernobyl--evacuated residents, re-settlers (largely the elderly who lived in the area their entire lives and ethnic Russians fleeing southern/eastern former USSR
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states), soldiers, doctors, liquidators, all sorts of people. I wonder what source material she has that she did not include in this collection--and i hope she has stored it well. This is a historical gold mine in so many ways.

What I found especially interesting is the idea, mentioned by many, that they were Soviets, raised in the USSR. When they were told to go, they went. When they were not given what they were promised, they worked anyway. They did their best. They took their certificates and medals. They did not shirk their duties even though they knew something wasn't right. They were easily bribed by seemingly small amounts of money. And for the most part they are not sad--at least, the survivors are not. The widows are angry. Some of those that had power and went with the party line feel extreme guilt. Even the Russians that fled wars in former USSR states are angry that this is the only place they are welcome. And now so much of what was left has been stolen and sold. Sold where? To whom? Will they be able t track this stuff simply be following leukemia or thyroid cancer concentrations?

I do wish that there were more context provided here. A map. Photos. A timeline of what is known. A timeline of symptoms/illnesses to be expected and that have occurred.

I am a little shocked that this sort of work won Alexievich a Nobel Prize in Literature. I can see history, or journalism. I do not even know what all of the categories are. But literature?
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LibraryThing member watson_1
This was a very good book. Keep in mind that it was not intended to give you the technical details and big picture of what happened. You should probably know something about Chernobyl before reading this book.

This book tells the story through short interviews with different people who experienced
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many aspects of the aftermath.

A few powerful themes ran through the book:

1. The deeply personal tragedy of lost spouses, children, lovers, friends, and neighbors.

2. The ineptness, corruptness, and cruelty of the Soviet regime. You pick this up through the various interviews.

3. The ordinary heroism of the young men who went to fight the fire or into the Zone to do what they were ordered to do. You always had a sense that these were good people sent in to help. And, as the reader, you know what danger they were getting into.

4. Link to war. In the late 80's there were still a fair number of people who had lived through the horrors of World War II. The similarities were haunting at times, but what struck me was the fact that these people now had another horror to deal with.

5. The strangeness of this tragedy. It is indirectly pointed out that in war, it is pretty clear that bombs are exploding and guns blazing. Here, there is what seems like an ordinary fire, but otherwise, a peaceful place. In the interviews, you hear people of all walks of life talking about all the details of radiation. It starts to sink in that so many people should not have to know about these kinds of things. Especially tragic was the older farmers who simply could not leave the land and had no where to go even if they wanted to get away from the radiation.

This book is touching.
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LibraryThing member schatzi
This book was devastating and beautiful all at once. Filled with testimonies of people who were affected by the Chernobyl disaster - liquidators, widows of firemen and liquidators, those who lived in the area and were evacuated, those who lived in the area and remained behind, photographers,
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children born before and after the disaster, even a couple of people who supported the Soviet Union and its reaction to the disaster - this book isn't what I would consider "light reading."

Some of the most touching and sad testimonies bookended the histories contained here. The first is from Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the widow of Vasily Ignatenko, a firefighter stationed in Pripyat who succumbed to acute radiation poisoning two weeks after the disaster. (If you've watched the HBO miniseries "Chernobyl," you are probably quite familiar with both of these people, as they were prominently featured in the show.) The last testimony is from Valentina Panasevich, the widow of a liquidator who died years after Chernobyl. (Vasily's death was part of the Soviet "official death toll" from Chernobyl; Valentina's husband's death, like thousands of others, were not.) It was obvious that these two women loved their husbands intensely and were completely devastated about their deaths, and to read them speaking about how they adored their spouses was heartrending.

Perhaps some of the most touching testimonies besides these were from the children or their parents. One mother grieves because her child was born severely deformed due to the radiation (agenesis of the vagina, urinary tract, the anus, the left kidney, etc). Another woman is terrified of starting her own family, afraid of what overwhelming problems her children may have due to the mother's exposure to radiation. One liquidator threw away all of his clothing after leaving Chernobyl...but his son wanted to keep his cap, so he allowed his child to have it. The son wore it all of the time, and two years later, the boy was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died. Another boy has cancer and was told that it was because his father worked at Chernobyl before he was born. He states that he loves his father a great deal, even though the reader is well aware that the boy probably will have a quite shortened lifetime.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member rkreish
I’m one of those readers that tries to sample award-winning books/ authors from time to time, and it usually takes me several tries before I find something that I’m in the mood to read. Case in point: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, recent Booker-prize winner, was a little
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too disorienting for me to finish, but that’s not to say I won’t try it when my attention span is a bit longer. I was a little leery of the heaviness of Voices from Chernobyl by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, but the fact that it’s an oral history made it easy to put it away for a time to get ready to go on.

This is an oral history, and Alexievich calls it her attempt to get at the feelings behind the events. It’s harrowing, it’s enlightening about the horrible things that happen alongside acute radiation poisoning, and it’s enlightening about the government response to the fire at the reactor at Chernobyl. Also, I will say that the first story was absolutely the saddest for me. If you can make it past that, it’s not quite as emotionally raw. It’s still harrowing reading though.

Oral histories are a mixed bag for me. I’ve read some that are simply too long and detailed (Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live), I’ve read bits of some that are too dismaying (I read bits of Elena Poniatowska’s La noche de Tlatelolco in college), but Voices from Chernobyl felt like the right length and the right sort of mix of stories. She collected stories for three years roughly ten years after the fire, and she gets stories about before, during, and looking to the future as people grieve as well as get sick with the effects of radiation exposure. It’s a little about politics, it’s a little about how to live with suffering, it’s a little about science. It’s a very affecting book, and I am eager to find what gets translated into English next.
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LibraryThing member sparemethecensor
Heartbreaking. Hard to read, but important to read. Despite the tough subject matter, I read the entire thing in a single day. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in oral histories, the Soviet Union, or disaster aftermath.
LibraryThing member TheCrow2
The Chernobyl catastrophe with the eyes of everyday people. Survivors, scientists, family members telling what happened after the explosion of the reactor. Not an easy read but something one has to read.
LibraryThing member iansales
So, one evening on Twitter I was chatting with some friends about female Nobel laureates for literature and I decided to put my money where my mouth was and read some – other than those I’d already read, Lessing and, er, Jelinek… And so I bought myself copies of Herta Müller’s The
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Appointment (see here) and Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer. I knew nothing about either writer, other than the fact they had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Chernobyl Prayer is… probably going to be one of my top five reads of the year come December. Yes, it is that good. Read it now. Alexievich has made a career out of publishing the stories told to her by people regarding certain events, and in Chernobyl Prayers she interviewed lots of people in Belarus and Ukraine about the nuclear reactor meltdown in that town, and used their accounts to build a narrative of events and the effects of the accident. I remember Chernobyl being on the news and, like most people in Western Europe, I never really understood the damage wrought by the disaster. It was severely downplayed by governments and the media throughout the world – but nowhere quite as extensively as it was in the USSR, especially in the areas most affected by Chernobyl. Chernobyl Prayers is not only eye-witness accounts of the disaster and its immediate aftermath, but every account editorialises on the incident, on the USSR and Russian character, and so provides a rich and deep portrait. I’ve heard it said Alexievich “embellishes” the testimonies she collects, but I was under the impression going in that Chernobyl Prayers was on the borderline between fact and fiction, and that’s an area I enjoy exploring in literature. So I consider that a value-add, not a criticism. I’ve since added Alexievich’s next book, Second-Hand Time, to my wishlist.
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LibraryThing member hvg
Series of interviews with people who lived in the Chernobyl region and their experiences after the nuclear plant exploded. It is terrible and one can pray no one ever will have to experience again what those people went through. The Soviet authorities failed on so many levels.
LibraryThing member streamsong
The 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl Power Plant was one of the worst nuclear accidents in history. Ms Alexievich's book is the ongoing human story.

The author stands back and lets the interviewees tell their stark stories in their own words. There is a concert of voices – beginning with the then
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pregnant wife of one of the fireman who originally responded to the fire and whose husband, like all the initial responders, died an agonizing death over the next two weeks.

We hear from clean up workers and their spouses now devastated by cancer; from farmers who were told it was safe to harvest and sell their crops while government authorities around them wore radiation-protective gear. We hear of a generation of young men and women whose children are doomed to the most extreme of birth defects.

We hear stories of heroism and stories of a government more concerned about preserving its image than about protecting its people; stockpiles of iodine which were intended to be given to inhabitants to protect their thyroids were never given out. Individuals were told they would have to give up their communist party cards for failing to support the Soviet minimization of the disaster. Belarusian physicists who recognized the magnitude of the disaster were threatened with insane asylums.

And the radioactive contamination will persist for tens of thousands of years to come.

Letting the people tell their stories makes this a non-technical read. It also makes this book emotionally devastating.

It's an important book for anyone in the shadow of a nuclear power plant – and in this day and age that is most of the world. The Chernobyl incident contaminated not only Belarus and other Soviet countries, but much of Europe and even North America. I came away feeling immensely saddened but also much more educated.
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LibraryThing member Whisper1
This was a difficult read. It is a well written, factual, emotional book of stories of those who suffered greatly by the nuclear explosion caused by reactor #4 in the Chernobyl area of Russia. The foreward notes that this was an error of faculty engineering, and a host of those in charge who were
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We will never know the exact number of those who died, or those who were impacted in the Ukraine. Thirty years later, the sarcophagus built to contain reactor #4, still allows radiation to escape. In fact, before time runs out, there is finally a massive effort to build another arch like edifice around the reactor. Meanwhile, the cracked, unsealed walls contain a soupy radioactive mess of sludge that has the potential to cause more damage than the initial explosion.

On April 26, 1968, during a test to ascertain if there would be enough cooling in the reactor, should it breakdown, all back up systems were shut down. When the radioactive piling rods were stuck, a horrific chain of devastating proportions resulted in an immediate melting of the core. A sudden surge of power during the reactor systems test resulted in permanent damage of reactor #4. Spewing radioactivity into the air, especially in nearby communities, emergency firemen were called to help contain the incredible fire. Rushing to the reactor, with no boots or protective equipment, those who sustained off-the chart radioactive chemicals, and died as a result, are heros. This book tells the story of some of those heros, in particular, the husband of Svetlana Alexievich, who was one of the first on scene.

In addition to shoveling, helicopters were also used to pour boron and sand into the reactor in the hope of staving off increasing levels of radioactive chemicals. Approximately 18-20 miles around the area were closed off, leaving areas still to date, a ghost like nightmare. While we do not know the amount of people impacted, studies do show that approximately 115,00 people were evacuated within 36 hours, and then additional people, perhaps over 200,000 were also evacuated after the initial relocation. Later many thousands were charged with clean up. While some wore apparatus to protect them, many did not.

This book tells the tale of those who were first responders, known as "liquidators" of which 28 were dead withing a few months. Additional workers received inordinate amounts of radiation rem, some as high as over 100 rem.

Loaded with facts, this book is the sad, sad story of ineptitude which immediately impacted, and still continues to impact on children who have a high rate of thyroid cancer. Many children have sustained severe birth defects.

The author does not mince words. The first chapter of the book leaves even the most hardened person to feel compassion for those who gave up their lives so that the reactor could cause less harm than it actually did. In graphic detail we learn what happened to her husband as it took 14 days for him to die a terrible death.

Some refused to leave areas vacated. Hiding in the nearby woods, they returned to what ever they could find. Most homes were shoveled and destroyed. When reading this book, there is no doubt that this is an accident felt round the world, and that much higher levels of control need to be in place if we, as a world, continue to use nuclear energy.
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LibraryThing member lamotamant
On the 26th of April 1986, during a routine systems test, a large power spike triggered one of only two level 7 accidents and/or events on the International Nuclear Event Scale in global history. According to the INES which was formally established in 1990, this power spike lead to a horrendous
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steam explosion and fire; both of these released a devastating amount of core material into the environment. The INES stipulates that a level 7 event includes such a release of radioactive material "with widespread health & environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures."

It is estimated that 56 people perished in the immediate aftermath of Chernobyl and that there have been over "4,000 cancer fatalities among people exposed to elevated doses of radiation."

Numbers are indicative, satisfying; they are solid, emboldened entities whose meaning traverses the planet. However, numbers fail us in the riptide of tragedies, of wars. A number of dead soldiers on the T.V. screen doesn't capture a country's, a community's, a family's loss. A number of "related cancer fatalities" doesn't capture a wife's pain as she cares for the husband who obeyed orders and is now trapped in a decaying body. It doesn't sufficiently translate a mother's pain as she dreams vivid dreams of what disfigurement her baby might be brought into the world shouldering because there was nowhere she could run to in order to save what lay in her womb when the safety of an idyl shattered around her.

Numbers don't capture the gravity of the grotesquery, the madness of closed political lips while people go forth unwarned and unprotected in order to prevent panic.

I'm not even sure if there is a language out there that can satisfactorily capture what Chernobyl truly released out into the world; what heartrending reality would envelop those in the immediate areas of Belarus, Russia, and the Ukraine. But Alexievich's Voices speak loud into the abyss.

It's hard to rate a book that truly captures the grit of a disaster, an event. It's like a moment of déjà vu where you're sharply pulled away from yourself and thrust into the heady happenings of a prior time by a scent, a sound, a sight. It becomes more than a styled page. It's evocation at it's most superb; the calling forth of the spirit of a thing, a time, a place, etc.

As much as I was moved by Voices's evocation, as much as my rating is influenced by emotion, I do think it is immensely worthy of praise for its compilation. Its monologues are powerful and mesh well together. Keith Gessen does a solid job at translating Alexievich's original, Tchernobylskaia Molitva and his preface is powerful. The prologue, A Solitary Human Voice is a hard-hitting one two right at the start. And part of you thinks, woah, okay, things are going to settle down now. They don't. This isn't your everything-eventually-gets-better hard candy coating story; this is a compilation of rawness. As Alexievich puts it at the end of her book, these "were ordinary people answering the most important questions."

I think these ordinary people also raise the most important questions, as does Alexievich herself. Because all you can really do at the end of such a book is ask, "why?" Why did this happen, why did we allow this to happen... I was born two years after Chernobyl and by the time I hit high school it was a textbook name to memorize. We'd had another level 7 event in Japan in 2011 so my generation wasn't in the dark concerning the seriousness of such things. We are a generation largely numbed to catastrophe; we're the pick-uppers. Pick up your duty & shoulder it, pick up things to donate, pick up this form-that form, pick yourself up-these things happen. But from Event A to Event B the prevailing thought, for me, is yet again that floating 'why'.

When the inventions of humans end up destroying humans and the world that has been graceful enough to shelter them, what else can you ask? What sense is there to make?
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LibraryThing member stevesmits
Certainly one of the most disturbing and saddest accounts of the Chernobyl catastrophe that is available. The book is comprised of oral histories of people involved in and affected by the meltdown at the nuclear facility in Russia. The utter devastation created by this event was much greater than
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reported in the media at the time, and it continues to this day. Huge populations were evacuated from a widespread region, although many returned against the advice of authorities. The ordinary lives of people across the region were disrupted without any plans for viable alternatives. The health consequences to those directly involved in the response and to children born soon thereafter are mind-boggling. The social consequences will linger on for decades. Trenchant aftermaths stand out in these reports: the utter incompetence of the Soviet builder and engineers of this poorly designed nuclear plant; the complete lack of a carefully planned response to the emergency, putting thousands of responders in great peril; the bravery of the responders who answered the call to action without even rudimentary protections by the authorities from the horrific radiation hazard that sickened and killed many of them. The lives disrupted in ways that can never be repaired.

One must question the wisdom of relying at all on nuclear power to support the energy needs of the world. Surely, the skill and competence of those who provide atomic power must always be uneven at best and the consequences of lapses and failures too disastrous to risk.
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LibraryThing member CaroPi
This book will morally destroy you. It shows the cruel reality of the survivors of Chernobyl, there stories how they are trying to adjust to their new "life" and the consequences of a catastrophe that still nobody had paid the price, nobody besides the innocents. The narration is great the author
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knows how to put you from one story to the other and it shows that after all life for the survivors is just the hours that they count before they died, is a must read if we want to understand what was the real side of the story
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LibraryThing member pajarita

" ...no one knows what Chernobyl is."
.....Valentina Panasevich, wife of a liquidator.

"I used to think I could understand everything and express everything."
........Svetlana Aleksievich, Author

Almost anything I could say would not do this powerful book
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It needs to be read.

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LibraryThing member MalfoysPixie
I remember hearing about the Chernobyl disaster in passing for many years. Very little was taught to us about it in school, though I still feel it should have been after reading this book. I do not know how much this will help another reader, but I can only state my thoughts.

As I read this book, I
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found myself having a hard time putting it down. It was not a case of morbid fascination about a place I might never get to visit, but a feeling that I had to finish it to honor those who spoke, those whom have died and those whom are still living it. I was not prepared for the emotions which came from reading their stories. At times it is like being invited into their living room with open arms and though painful and sad, the words are spoken from the heart. There are other times though, which the story made me feel as if I did not belong there. Their words will stay with me for the rest of my life. I am grateful for having the chance to read this.

I am not sure that they will ever see this, but I wish to thank the author and those whom allowed their stories to be published. You will never be forgotten.
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LibraryThing member kemilyh1988
There really aren't words to describe this book. The last monologue was utterly heartbreaking.
LibraryThing member LisaMorr
Wow - first book of the year, and a solid 5-star read. April 26, 1986 was when the world changed, when Chernobyl blew up, the worst civilian nuclear disaster in history. Alexievich chronicles this event through interviews with the people affected, with a preface covering the salient facts about the
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incident and its effects: clean-up workers sent in without any protection to 'clean-up' the site; families of military personnel sent to the site to try to contain it before it ran-away and caused a much worse catastrophe; families evacuated from the hot zone; people who refused to leave the hot zone; people continuing to live and work the contaminated land; Communist party leaders; atomic physicists and other nuclear experts; children. Powerful and disturbing.
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LibraryThing member Moniica
"Voices From Chernobyl" is a true story told by people who experienced and lived through the times of Chernobyl themselves. It contains a collection of monologues which describe how truly painful and frustrating these times were.
I think a lot of the emotional texture was lost in the translation,
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and I found many monologues to be quite similar, because I can only remember a few parts of some. However, you do realise how secretive and horrific this was for them - many people compared it to war.
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LibraryThing member judithrs
Voices from Chernobyl. Svetlana Alexievich. Trans. By Keith Gessen. 1997.Translation, 2005. I have never read a book on such a tragic, hideous subject that has been written in such beautiful prose! Given what little I know about reading in the vernacular and then reading in translation, Gessen is
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truly a master at his craft! Alexievich , a Nobel Prize winner, interviewed countless victims of the Chernobyl disaster: nuclear plant workers, scientists, doctors, soldiers, communist party bureaucrats, children, refugees, and re-settlers. She concentrated on feelings, rumors, and memories because she thought facts masked the emotions and memories. These understated, but emotional stories are a marvel of the human heart and mind. The Soviet government’s refusal to acknowledge the danger, to accept outside help, and its determination to keep the full damage of the disaster a secret compounded the nightmare and prolonged it. This evil is equal to Stalin’s death camps and Hitler’s concentration camps. It burns your soul.
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LibraryThing member stravinsky
a people's history of chernobyl
LibraryThing member JRCornell
Voices From Chernobyl is the first book to present personal accounts of what happened on April 26, 1986, when the worst nuclear reactor accident in history contaminated as much as three quarters of Europe.
LibraryThing member pamelad
Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, interviewed hundreds of people affected by the Chernobyl explosion. There are the pregnant wives of the firefighters who were sent onto the roof of the reactor and died of radiation poisoning within weeks, or of the soldiers who survived
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for a year or two, whose children were born dead, or damaged; scientists who tried to tell the truth; refugees from Chechnya so desperate that they moved into the contaminated zone; old people who moved back home to their farms; young women for whom giving birth is a sin; young men and women who will spend their lives alone because noone will marry a survivor of Chernobyl. People went to watch the burning reactor. Their children played outside in earth that will be contaminated with radioactive isotopes for thousands of years. 20% of the land in Belarus is contaminated. Radioactive milk, meat, fruit and vegetables were sold at markets outside the contaminated zone and people bought them because they were cheaper.

This book was agonising to read, but too important to avoid.
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Original publication date



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