ANA LUCIC: Voices from Chernobyl is a startling, emotional book. What is the main emotion or effect you were trying to achieve with its readers?
SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH: There is an opinion, after so many years, that we know everything there is to know about Chernobyl: that it’s a thing of the past, and that nobody wants to hear about it anymore. But, in fact, not only has it not been forgotten, the phenomenon of Chernobyl has never been properly understood.
AL: What are the most frequent reactions people have to Voices of Chernobyl?
SA: The most frequent reaction is that it’s a revelation: “I had no idea how things were in reality, especially on the personal level.” This book is not about the Chernobyl disaster as such—why it exploded and how—but about the world after Chernobyl, about how people reacted to it and lived through it individually. It is not only about the damage Chernobyl did to nature and to human genetics but how those experiences affected our lives and our consciousness.
While Chernobyl created new fears and sensibilities, it obliterated some of the old ones. Fear of Communist authorities eroded when many—faced with the choice of fleeing, removing their families from danger, or staying in Chernobyl and staying loyal to the Party—left. Fear of radiation did, in this way, relieve, or at least lessen, their fear of Party bosses and Party authority. That the authorities were willing to put down their party cards in order to escape really emphasized, amidst a climate of government denial, the seriousness of the Chernobyl disaster.
Most people knew nothing about this side of Chernobyl. The book inspired precisely the reactions I had in mind when I was writing it: people beginning to think about the meaning of their lives and life in general; feeling the need for a new worldview, one that may save us all. How can we save ourselves?
AL: How long did you work collecting the data and interviewing the witnesses? How much time did you spend working on the book? How much of the material collected went into the book?
SA: All of my books consist of witnesses’ evidence, people’s living voices. I usually spend three to four years writing a book but this time it took me more than ten years. The first few months I spent in Chernobyl, it was teeming with journalists and writers from many countries, all asking hundred of questions. I became convinced that we were confronted with a completely unknown and mysterious phenomenon while we all tried to put it in ordinary words, in habitual terms. We were talking about the faults of the Communist system and about people being deceived, that they were not told what to do in such circumstances, that they were not supplied with iodine preparations, etc. And it was all very true, of course. There were strong nationalistic, anti-Russian sentiments in Belorussia and the Ukraine because it was a Russian nuclear station that exploded: Russians have contaminated us with radiation, people said. But those sorts of questions seemed a bit superficial to me. Purely political or purely scientific answers were not enough—no one tried to look deeper into the problem. I realized that I could quickly write the same type of book as the other journalists I met there. There were, indeed, hundreds of them. So I chose a different approach. I started interviewing witnesses, more than 500 of them, which took me more than ten years. Since we were suddenly confronted with a new reality, I was on the lookout for people who had been shattered by that experience, setting them thinking about what had really happened, what was going on in a new world that they were trying to confront with old methods. For instance, I recall military helicopters, piloted by the Soviet-Afghan war pilots, flying over the burning reactor; they had no idea what they were supposed to do with their machine-guns. That was how the army system worked: they believed that massive military personnel and war technology would solve any problem. And there they had to deal with high-energy physics, nuclear particles, radiation doses—no one really understood what was going on.
I was collecting material to the very last. Out of 500 or more interviews 107 were included in the final version; that is, approximately one in five. That is basically what happens with my other books as well—I select one out of five interviews, and that one makes it into the published book. For each person I record four tapes or more, making 100-150 printed pages, depending on the voice timbre and the pace of the oral story, and then only about ten pages remain.
AL: How did you decide to write Voices of Chernobyl? Where did the main motivation come from?
SA: Chernobyl showed us how dangerous is modern civilization’s “cult of force.” How glaring are the imperfections of this reliance on power and coercion above all else. How dangerous our modern worldviews are to us ourselves. How humanitarian man is lagging behind technological man. From the very first days that this disaster was hanging over our heads—and not just in the shape of a radiation cloud—it was not only the reactor’s roof that exploded: Chernobyl blew up our whole worldview, it undermined the very foundations of the Soviet system, which was first undermined by the Soviet-Afghan war. It was a powerful explosion that completely shattered our lives. I remember hundred-thousand-strong anti-government rallies in Belorussia, in defense of common people and children. I wanted to tell about that unique experience. It so happened that Belorussia with its patriarchal, traditional culture suddenly had to contend with the fears of the future.
AL: How different is the story that you heard from the people from the official version and the one in the media?
SA: The stories are completely different. We’ve always had this situation in Belorussia, and partly in Russia too, that the official version has little to do with how ordinary people see things. What is the main aim of the authorities? They always try hard to protect themselves. The totalitarian authorities of those days demonstrated it vividly: they were afraid of panic, they were afraid of the truth. Most people had little understanding of what was going on. In their attempts at self-preservation the authorities deceived the population. They assured the people that everything was under control, that there was no danger. Children were playing football in the yard, they ate ice cream in the street, toddlers played in sand boxes, and many people even sunbathed on the beach. Today hundreds of thousands of those children are invalids and many of them have died. Faced with the nuclear disaster at the time, people found themselves alone with the problem. People saw that the truth was hidden from them, that no one could help, neither scientists nor doctors. That situation was completely new for them. Take for example the firemen—they had themselves become like little reactors. Doctors undressed and examined them manually. Those doctors caught lethal radiation doses from them. Many of the firemen and doctors died later. The firemen did not even have special protection suits. They simply did not exist at the time. They arrived as if it were a usual fire. No one was prepared for this sort of thing. My interviewees told me real-life stories. For instance, in the few multistory houses in the town of Pripyat, before the evacuation started, people stood on their balconies watching the fire. They recall what a splendid sight it was, all crimson fluorescence. “It was the sight of death. But we never thought that death could look so beautiful.” They even called their children to admire the sight: “Come have a look. You’ll remember it to the end of your life.” They admired the sight of their own death. Those people were teachers and engineers from the nuclear station. People I talked to provided many such details about the scene of the disaster.
I remember two years later one helicopter pilot phoned me: “Please come and see me as soon as you can. I have little time left. I want to tell you what I know.” He was a doomed man when he was telling me his story. He said: “I’m glad you’ve come. I can talk to you about it. Please write it all down. We did not quite understand what was going on, and even today they still don’t understand.” I lived with the feeling that I must write it all down. Maybe people still don’t quite understand what happened then and that’s why it’s so important to record the actual evidence, the real history of Chernobyl, a history that hasn’t quite sunk in to this day.
AL: You are a Belorussian writer living in Paris. Do you feel like you belong to a literary scene in a particular country or you see yourself as quite independent of any country or region?
SA: I would say I’m an independent writer. I can’t call myself a Soviet writer, or even a Russian writer. By “Soviet” I mean the territory of the former Soviet empire, naturally, the realm of the Soviet utopia. Neither do consider myself a Belorussian writer. I would say I’m a writer of that epoch, the Soviet utopia, writing the history of that utopia in each of my books. I’m only temporarily in Paris; my stay here is connected with the political situation in Belorussia and my opposition to the current authorities. My books have been published in many countries, but not in Belorussia: in the past ten years of Lukashenko’s rule none of my books were published there. But I continue writing about the little man versus the great utopia. I describe the disappearance of this utopia and how it affects the common person.
AL: Your books combine interviews with fictional techniques. This seems to me to be a unique genre. Are there any writers who are doing something similar?
SA: The tradition of telling a story in this way, recording oral stories, living voices, has been laid down in Russian literature before me. I mean the books by Daniil Granin and Ales Adamovich about the Leningrad Siege. For instance, I Came from the Fiery Village. Those books inspired me to write my own books. It occurred to me that life offers so many versions and interpretations of the same events that neither fiction nor document alone can keep up with its variety; I felt compelled to find a different narrative strategy. I decided to collect the voices from the street, the material lying about around me. Each person offers a text of his or her own. And realized I could make a book out of them. Life moves on much too fast—only collectively can we create a single, many-sided picture. I wrote all five of my books in this way. The heroes, feelings, and events in my books are all real. From each person’s 100-page story, not more than five pages are left and sometimes maybe just half a page. I ask many questions, I select episodes, and, thus, I participate in the creation of each book. My role is not just that of an ear eavesdropping in the street, but also that of an observer and thinker. To an outsider it may seem a simple process: people just told me their stories. But it’s not really so simple. It’s important what you ask and how you ask it and what you hear and what you select from the interview. I think you can’t really reflect life’s broad scope without the documentation, without the human evidence. The picture will not be complete.
AL: You mention in what you call “In Place of an Epilogue” that you felt you were writing for the future. Could you comment on this?
SA: During the ten years I was visiting the Chernobyl zone, I had the impression that I was recording the future. People kept repeating as a refrain: “I’ve never seen anything like that. I’ve never read about it anywhere. I’ve never seen it in any film or heard it described by anyone.” Chernobyl created new feelings, such as the fear of loving; people were afraid to have children; new senses of responsibility were created; new questions were asked. What, for example, if our children are born with abnormalities? How can we fathom such notions as the disintegration period of nuclear particles, which ranges from three thousand to a hundred thousand years? That gives you a completely different perspective on life. Can you imagine how one felt abandoning one’s house and birthplace, one’s village or town knowing that he could never return, but that the house would continue to stand there? This was a completely new feeling for them. Or take, for instance, the problem of the contaminated villages. How to bury them? First they evacuate the people; then, around each house, still filled with their belongings, they make a deep ditch; they kill all the animals and bury them. In this way, man betrays his animals, his land, and his home. Now when you go there, all you see, apart from the old cemeteries, are burial mounds with houses and animals inside. It gives you the surreal feeling that it all belongs to another age.
AL: What kind of reception do you anticipate in the US?
SA: America is a remarkable country but I have a feeling that it’s a different country after 9/11. America now understands how fragile this world is and how we all depend on one another. If some atomic power station in Australia explodes a radioactive rain may kill people somewhere else. I think after 9/11 Americans may be more receptive to my books than before it. I feel I can find people there for whom this experience is important. In the modern world it is dangerous to neglect the experience of other peoples’ sufferings. We can describe Russia—and Belorussia, for that matter—as a civilization of ordeals and suffering. Very often we can hear people in the West speak of Russia’s plight with haughtiness: there is always something wrong with these Russians. In actual fact, the whole world today is at risk. Fear is a large part of our lives—more, even, than love. Thus, the Russian experience of suffering acquires particular value. We all need courage to live on. I hope we’ll have enough.