Voices from Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich





Official site

Lettre Ulysses Award (2003)

Complete review




TheMoscow Times


Under the Microscope

Communism blew its cover with Chernobyl, turning the obscure western reaches of the Soviet Union into a testing ground for political and nuclear fallout.

By Anna Reid
Published: April 29, 2005

"An American robot is on the roof for five minutes," runs a Chernobyl joke, "and then it breaks down. The Japanese robot is on the roof for five minutes, and then -- breaks down. The Russian robot is up there two hours! Then a command comes in over the loudspeaker: 'Private Ivanov! In two hours you're welcome to come down and have a cigarette break.'"

Svetlana Alexievich has devoted her career to capturing eyewitness accounts of communism's extremes – its ability to inspire and command loyalty, and its clumsiness, hypocrisy and contempt for human life. Her unique brand of stylized reportage -- picking and choosing from hundreds of testimonies to chronicle a historical event -- has taken her from World War II to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and earned her the opprobrium of officials who accuse her of blackening the Soviet Union's name. In "Voices From Chernobyl," first published in 1997 and now accessibly translated by Keith Gessen, the Belarussian writer revisits the hitherto unremarkable town where, in April 1986, a reactor at the local nuclear power station blew up, throwing radioactive dust across most of Northern Europe and sounding the beginning of the end of Soviet communism.

Short and semi-anonymized, many of the interviews in this collection dwell on the ghastly aptness with which the accident highlighted the Soviet Union's strengths and weaknesses. In one interview, a radiologist describes pleading fruitlessly with the authorities to release the iodine, stockpiled in case of nuclear attack, that would help protect the population from thyroid cancer. To get the apparatchiks to see him, he puts a dosimeter to their receptionists' throats: "They'd get scared, and sometimes that would help, they'd let me through."

For some, the government's continued insistence that no one was at risk offered the first real glimpse of its disregard for Soviet citizens. "It was the first time we saw it from the outside," a former cleanup worker says as he recalls driving with his unit around the evacuated villages. "The very first time. It made a real impression. Like a smack to the head. ... Three years later I turned in my Party card. My little Red Book. I became free in the Zone. Chernobyl blew my mind. It set me free."

Free, of course, at a dreadful cost. Though only a few dozen people died of burns and radiation sickness in the blast's immediate aftermath, between 150,000 and 200,000 Belarussians still live on what is officially designated "highly contaminated" land, radiating 15 to 40 curies per square meter. The resulting health effects are still unclear, but anecdotal evidence points to suppressed immune systems, heart and liver disease, stillbirths and birth defects. Puzzlingly, the epidemiological studies completed to date show a dramatic increase in (treatable) thyroid cancer -- contracted by some 2,000 Belarussian and Ukrainian children -- but no upsurge in leukemia or birth abnormalities. Scientists agree that rates of other sorts of cancer will grow too, though no one is sure by how much.

For the bereaved, homeless and fearful interviewed here, the fact that Chernobyl's direct death toll is relatively small means little. A young wife watches her fireman husband slowly dying in a Moscow hospital. "He started to change -- every day I met a brand-new person. The burns started to come to the surface. In his mouth, on his tongue, his cheeks -- at first there were little lesions, and then they grew. It came off in layers ... the color of his face ... his body ... blue ... red ... gray-brown. And it's all so very mine!" A Party boss breaks down when he remembers forbidding his daughter to leave town with her baby because it would set a bad example. A teacher counts it a triumph when her pupils summon up enough energy to break a window; usually they are listless and subdued. A nurse shakes a bunch of medical cards in the author's face: "Can you help? No! Then why did you come here? To ask questions? To touch us?" An old woman whitewashes her stove for the last time before leaving her cottage forever; another wakes in a seventh-floor city apartment dreaming she heard a cock crow. Young men cannot find girlfriends -- "I'd be scared to have your kids" -- and young women dream of giving birth to calves with eight legs or hedgehogs with dogs' heads.

Many liken Chernobyl to World War II. "The police were yelling," remembers one of the stubborn peasant "partisans" still living in the Zone. "They'd come in cars, and we'd run into the forest. Like we did from the Germans." The soldiers sent to destroy their houses and topsoil ("We buried earth in earth -- such a strange human activity") felt themselves an occupying army. Even a young cameraman deployed to record the evacuation finds himself "filming everything just the way I saw it filmed in war movies. And then I notice that the people are behaving the same way. They're all carrying themselves just like in that scene from everyone's favorite movie, 'The Cranes Are Flying' -- a lone tear, short words of farewell." Most unfortunate of all, perhaps, are the literal refugees -- ethnically Russian families who have made the contaminated area their refuge from civil wars in Chechnya and Tajikistan.

Even outside the boar-and-elk-haunted, eerily beautiful Zone, "Chernobylites" are defined by their proximity to the disaster. One couple thought about leaving, but preferred to stay among people like themselves. "We're not afraid of one another, and if someone gives you an apple or a cucumber from their garden, you take it and eat it, you don't hide it shamefully in your pocket, your purse, and then throw it out," the wife says. Chernobyl children, rumored to glow in the dark, are nicknamed "Shiny" by their classmates and taken abroad by Western charities for the holidays. "They get used to it," a teacher says. "It's already a way of living, a way of seeing the world ... No one here points out that they're Russian or Belarussian or Ukrainian. We all call ourselves Chernobylites ... As if this is a separate people. A new nation."

A controversial United Nations report of 2002, "The Human Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident: A Strategy for Recovery," claims that poor health in the contaminated area is as much a result of poverty, anxiety and substandard medical services as of the actual physical effects of radiation. Throughout Belarus and Ukraine, it points out, life expectancy for men is lower than that of Sri Lanka, which is one of the world's 20 poorest nations and has only just emerged from a long civil war. If the United Nations is right, then Chernobyl has become as much of a magnifying glass for the economic wreckage of the post-Soviet years as it was for the mendaciousness and brutality of communism in its time. "I'm afraid to say it," says a survivor, "but we love Chernobyl. It's become the meaning of our lives. The meaning of our suffering."

Anna Reid directs the foreign-affairs program of the London-based think tank Policy Exchange and is the author of "Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine."



Berliner LeseZeichen



Eine Rezension von Gisela Reller

Der Krieg aller Kriege

Swetlana Alexijewitsch: Tschernobyl

Eine Chronik der Zukunft.

Aus dem Russischen von Ingeborg Kolinko.

Berlin Verlag, Berlin 1997, 285 S.

Swetlana Alexijewitsch ist fünfzig Jahr alt, wirkt klein (nicht unscheinbar), energisch und zugleich bescheiden (nicht schüchtern). Als Journalistin war sie - mit offenen Augen und Ohren - schon immer viel im weiten Sowjetland herumgekommen. In ihren Büchern nimmt sie sich seit fast einem Vierteljahrhundert der brisantesten Themen an. Im März 1998 wurde ihr dafür von Bundespräsident Roman Herzog der mit 20 000 Mark dotierte „Leipziger Buchpreis zur Europäischen Verständigung“ verliehen. Die Jury begründete ihre Entscheidung damit, daß die Autorin aufschlußreiche Berichte über die mentale und seelische Verfassung unterschiedlichster Menschen in der zerfallenden sowjetischen Gesellschaft zu verdanken seien.

Swetlana Alexijewitsch sind nicht nur aufschlußreiche Berichte über die mentale und seelische Verfassung unterschiedlichster Menschen in der zerfallenden sowjetischen Gesellschaft zu verdanken. Bereits ihr erstes Buch berichtet über solche Menschen. Die leben allerdings in der noch existierenden Sowjetunion. In Der Krieg hat kein weibliches Gesicht erzählen Frauen, die 1941 freiwillig in einen Krieg gingen, in dem achthunderttausend Mädchen und Frauen nicht nur als Ärztinnen und Krankenschwestern, sondern auch als Scharfschützen, Nachrichtensoldaten, Flieger, Bordschützen, Flakhelfer, Kavalleristen, Panzerfahrer ... „wie Männer kämpften, aber wie Frauen fühlten“.

Bei ihrem zweiten Buch Die letzten Zeugen blieb Swetlana Alexijewitsch beim Thema Krieg und auch beim „Genre der Stimmen“ - diesmal aus der Sicht von Kindern.

Nach diesen beiden Büchern beabsichtigte Swetlana Alexijewitsch, nie mehr über den menschenverachtenden Krieg zu schreiben, sondern plante ein Buch über die menschenfreundliche Liebe. In je hundert „Beichten“ sollten Frauen und Männer „über die ewige Sehnsucht nach Glück“ erzählen. „Aber“, so sagt sie, „der Afghanistan-Krieg machte mir zu schaffen. In der sowjetischen Propaganda hieß es, die sowjetischen Soldaten würden in Afghanistan Häuser bauen, Gärten anlegen ... Aber warum kamen dann Tausende Zinksärge von dort?“ Nach wie immer ausgiebigen Gesprächen erschien ihr Buch Zinkjungen.

Ist jetzt Zeit für die Liebe? Nein. Die tapfere Journalistin und Schriftstellerin entdeckt in einer Zeitung den Abschiedsbrief eines Selbstmörders. In der Russischen Föderation hatten sich 1991 über 60 000 Menschen selbst umgebracht, 20 000 mehr als im Jahr zuvor; über eine Million Menschen hatten Selbstmordversuche unternommen. Wieder im „Genre der Stimmen“ - inzwischen zu dokumentarischen Dichtungen gereift - schreibt Swetlana Alexijewitsch Im Banne des Todes. Die Porträts von Ingenieuren und Kraftfahrern, Kellnern und Söldnern, Schülern und Rentnern, Kriegsteilnehmern und Funktionären der KPdSU, die sich erhängten, vergifteten, erschossen, verbrannten oder sich zu Tode stürzten, sind aufregend, traurig, schmerzlich, bewegend, ergreifend, bestürzend. Auch unbegreiflich? „Es ist schwer“, sagt Swetlana Alexijewitsch, „Menschen, die nicht im ,Sozialismus‘ leben, Gefühle, Enttäuschungen, Verbitterungen nahezubringen.“

Das begonnene Manuskript über die Liebe liegt noch immer im untersten Schreibtischfach, „denn“, so Swetlana Alexijewitsch, „meine Mutter wurde in der Ukraine geboren, ich lebe seit Jahren mit meiner Familie im belarussischen Minsk - ich mußte mich erst noch Tschernobyl stellen“.

1986 zerstörte eine Serie von Explosionen Reaktor und Gebäude des 4. Energieblocks im ukrainischen Atomkraftwerk Tschernobyl. Während in Rußland 0,5 Prozent und in der Ukraine 4,4 Prozent des Territoriums atomar verseucht wurden, waren es in Belarus (Belorußland) 23 Prozent. Auch heute noch - zwölf Jahre nach dem Super-GAU - erhöht sich in Belarus mit jedem Jahr die Zahl der Menschen mit Krebserkrankungen, geistiger Unterentwicklung, psychischen Störungen und genetischen Mutationen ... Krebs, Geisteskrankheit, psychischen Störungen, genetischen Mutationen ... Begriffe, die unnahbar wirken, vielleicht in dieser Aufzählung sogar überlesen werden. Wenn man Swetlana Alexijewitschs Buch gelesen hat - was hintereinander ganz und gar unmöglich ist -, verbinden sich mit diesen Begriffen Menschenschicksale. Schicksale, die einem das Blut in den Adern gerinnen lassen, die einem die Tränen in die Augen treiben. Ich habe geheult, geheult, geheult... So furchtbar hatte ich mir das alles nicht vorgestellt, nicht vorstellen können. Swetlana Alexijewitsch läßt wieder Beteiligte und Betroffene sprechen. Sprechen? Aufschreien! Keiner, der Tschernobyl nicht mit Krieg vergleicht. Im Dorf Bely Bereg nennt ein Gesprächspartner Tschernobyl „den Krieg aller Kriege“. Swetlana Alexijewitsch zeigt die Belarussen als Volk, das Furchtbares durchleidet.

Aber nicht nur ungeheures Mitleid mit den Betroffenen fühlt man, sondern auch unbändige Wut auf Funktionäre, die den Feuerwehrleuten, Soldaten und Einwohnern bewußt die Gefahr verschwiegen; auf Wissenschaftler, die gegen besseres Wissen Daten manipulierten; auf Beamte, die sich an Vergünstigungen gesundstießen, die für die betroffene Bevölkerung gedacht waren; auf Bürokraten, die - um den Plan zu erfüllen - verstrahlte Felder abernten ließen und verseuchte Milch ablieferten; auf Plünderer, die sogar verseuchte Deponien ausraubten, um hochverstrahltes Hab und Gut werweißwohin zu verscherbeln ...

Tschernobyl ist außer in Deutschland in den USA, in Japan und in Frankreich auf dem Markt. In Belarus hat der diktatorische Präsident Lukaschenko Tschernobyl verboten ...


Supplication (La), de Svetlana  Alexievitch

critiqué par Stéphanie, le 7 décembre 2001 (Chevreuse - 34 ans)

Les survivants de Tchernobyl

 Le 26 avril 1986, le réacteur numéro 4 de la centrale de Tchernobyl a explosé puis pris feu laissant échapper un nuage radioactif touchant les trois-quarts de l’Europe. Basé sur des témoignages, le livre de Svetltana Alexievitch nous dévoile la vie de ceux qui ont été touchés par ce drame.

 Aucun témoignage n'est plus fort qu’un autre. Chacun s'exprime à sa façon, avec ses mots et selon sa propre perception mais tous souffrent. On ne peut pas lire partiellement ce livre car sa force réside dans l’ensemble des témoignages qui sont publiés.

 Ce sont les récits de l’agonie des victimes dont je me garderais de donner ici les détails sordides. Ce sont les tortures de ces parents dont les enfants naissent malformés et de ces jeunes femmes qui ne pourront jamais être mères. Ce sont les appels douloureux des habitants qui ont été évacués, quittant pour toujours leur maison, leur village, leurs animaux. Tout ce qui reste est enterré, même la terre est enterrée ! Et il y a les récits de tous ceux qui ont été envoyés sur le site de Tchernobyl pour éteindre l’incendie et décontaminer, en vain, la zone : pompiers, liquidateurs et autres héros. Protection ? Masques à gaz ? De l'iode pour éviter les cancers de la thyroïde ? Vous n’y pensez pas ! Cela aurait créé la panique générale. Alors le matériel de protection est resté fermé dans les hangars de l'Etat. Certains scientifiques ont essayé, malgré les risques personnels que cela représentait, d'alerter la population, d’expliquer le danger et les mesures à prendre. Personne ne les a cru.

 Tout ce qui était contaminé a été enterré. Mais la population affamée a déterré ces objets et les a revendu sur les marchés de Kiev et autres grandes villes contaminant ainsi des milliers de foyers à travers le pays. No comment. Mikhail Gorbatchev n’est intervenu à la télévision que 19 jours après l'incident, pardon, l'accident...Lapsus... Suite à un procès en 1987, six des responsables de la centrale ont été condamnés à des peines allant de 2 à 10 ans de prison. Aucun haut dirigeant soviétique n’a été condamné. No comment.


Trouvé ici.






Nonfiction Review

Nuclear fallout

John Freeman

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

By Svetlana Alexievich; Translation and Preface by Keith Gessen

Dalkey Archive, $22.95; 240 pages

On April 26, 1986, an explosion in Chernobyl caused the worst nuclear accident in history. Although only thirty-one people died, thanks to the Soviet Union's policy of secrecy we will never know the true cost. Unknown thousands were born with birth defects, and many more from the tiny country of Belarus remain haunted by memories of that day. Svetlana Alexievich's "Voices from Chernobyl" is the first book to chronicle their stories.

As Haruki Murakami did in "Underground," his oral history of the gas attack on Tokyo's subway, Alexievich puts full faith in the power of people's testimony, constructing a narrative from them alone. "I don't know what I should talk about," says the first voice, belonging to Lyudmilla Ignatenko. Her husband was a first-responder, as they are called today. He rushed to the scene with other firefighters and tromped on the burning graphite with his feet. He died fourteen days later, choking on his internal organs.

The title of this book suggests a mosaic of gruesome description. It's not. With the exception of those who received the heaviest exposure, radiation is an invisible killer. "People have covered up," remembers one woman, "they're hiding. Livestock is moaning, the kids are crying. It's war! And the sun is out."

One of the fascinating things about "Voices from Chernobyl" is the awful beauty found in testimonies of pain and suffering. It's worth recalling that these are not writers or singers, but ordinary people who have forged language into a crutch, a sword, a shield, shelter. There is nothing extraneous in their stories, as in this devastating passage:

"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 of 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."



Tuesday 24 May 2005

Voices from Chernobyl
by Svetlana Alexlevich

We all know that Chernobyl happened, we all remember the pictures on TV, heard the reports on the radio, read the articles in the papers - if not immediately then at some point between then and now. But, do we really know, or begin to understand just how it affected those unfortunate people who had to deal with it on a daily basis? Day after day, today and tomorrow? I would hazard a guess that the majority of us haven’t really given it that much thought. I know I haven’t. Well, Svetlana Alexlevich’s utterly moving Voices from Chernobyl is a/the starting point for us all. Published by the incredible Dalkey Archive Press, this collection of monologues from the very mouths - some 2.1 million people - of those uprooted and devastated by the disaster may well be the book to turn to for a very long time to come.

Svetlana Alexievich has moulded this book from the numerous human testimonies she has recorded, gathering them all together, tying them together to help form the raw ingredients of a collective history of a people. The result is compelling and horrific in detail. This is made all the more powerful in knowing that these accounts are real, spoken from the mouths of the existent people of Belarus. This is their story. The translation by Keith Gessen is direct and explicit. For instance, when one reads an account of a grieving wife:

The last days in the hospital – I’d lift his arm, and meanwhile the bone is shaking, just sort of dangling, the body has gone away from it. Pieces of his lungs, of his liver, were coming out of his mouth. (Pg 18)


I picked him up, and there are pieces of his skin in my hand. (Pg 18)

It is in that intrinsic knowing, that heartfelt intimacy with the words on the page, that, in fact, these words are living and breathing words, that this is actual fact and not a fictional account, it is this miserable heartache that compels the reader to turn the page and keep reading - to keep listening. We, the reader are witnessing the voices of history. Alexievich knows this all too well and uses it to the best of her abilities. Which begs the writerly question: is this authorship? Can this work really be attributed to Svetlana Alexievich alone? I seriously doubt it. But, as a journalist by trade now and, apparently, suffering from "an immune deficiency developed while researching this book" how can we tell her it isn’t? I couldn’t.

Throughout this book we also gain a sense of the villagers struggle with the Army and Authorities who, it seems, treated then like cattle as they were forced to flee, without explanation, the condemned land: "Orders: Don’t take your belongings". (Pg 38)

Each personal entry gives the reader an idea, politically, the mindset of a collective culture. We get to know these people; we understand their frustrations and contempt with/for their leaders, their government, their Army and country. This document is a true testament to a people’s psyche. A classic - almost-to-good-to-be-true - disparate comment suitably sums up their grief and obfuscation:

I took off my overcoat to build Communism. And where is this Communism? (Pg 46)

Yet, how much has Alexievich actually chosen to leave out? How much of this book is her own construction, her own political slant? That’s, probably, something we’ll never know. But I fear I’m missing the point if I bother myself with niggling trivialities such as this. The book is notable because of its relentless sorrow and not because it may, or may not, have been designed politically by its author. This sorrow permeates into each and every page because such sorrow will never leave each and every contributor, all are contaminated by it, just like the very ground they walk on and everything they touch.

It is surprising how a book can capture the very essence of a time and place, particularly striking is how the whole disaster forced people to finally confront their differences. To confront all that is wrong with bureaucracy and military rule. When disaster strikes people are stripped to their bare bones - we see ourselves for who we are, for there is nothing left but to look inwards - and it is inside that strength is forged. I suppose that this looking inwards, this mirror into ourselves, this strength is why Svetlana Alexievich’s
Voices from Chernobyl is probably going to be up there in my books of the year. Seriously.

Lee Rourke (Lee is the founder and editor of Scarecrow)



Ich weiß nicht, was ich erzählen soll ... Vom Tod oder von der Liebe? Oder ist das ein und dasselbe? ... Ich weiß nicht." In der Geschichte von Ljudmila Ignatenko, die mit diesen Worten beginnt, ist es im Wortsinn ein und dasselbe. Eine Erzählung, in welcher die Ärzte der Schwangeren verbieten, den sterbenden Mann zu umarmen, der Strahlung wegen, ein Verbot, dem sich die Frau widersetzt, sie wird ein verseuchtes, sterbendes Kind gebären. Ljudmila Ignatenko: Frau des Feuerwehrmannes Wassili, der nach seinem Einsatz in Tschernobyl umkam.

Die Schriftstellerin Swetlana Alexijewitsch wird geehrt

Elisabeth von Thadden

"Ich weiß nicht, was ich erzählen soll ... Vom Tod oder von der Liebe? Oder ist das ein und dasselbe? ... Ich weiß nicht." In der Geschichte von Ljudmila Ignatenko, die mit diesen Worten beginnt, ist es im Wortsinn ein und dasselbe. Eine Erzählung, in welcher die Ärzte der Schwangeren verbieten, den sterbenden Mann zu umarmen, der Strahlung wegen, ein Verbot, dem sich die Frau widersetzt, sie wird ein verseuchtes, sterbendes Kind gebären. Ljudmila Ignatenko: Frau des Feuerwehrmannes Wassili, der nach seinem Einsatz in Tschernobyl umkam.

Gegen alle Wahrscheinlichkeit, an den Rändern des Vernehmbaren und des Erzählbaren entlang, wurde diese Geschichte, und nicht nur diese, gehört, wurde Literatur: durch Swetlana Alexijewitsch, die weißrussische Schriftstellerin, die 1997 in ihrem nie genug gerühmten Totenbuch Tschernobyl. Eine Chronik der Zukunft den Menschen eine Stimme gab, die das Reaktorunglück vor nun 15 Jahren um ihr Leben brachte, selbst wenn sie überlebten.

Am 22. Juni erhält Alexijewitsch den Erich-Maria-Remarque-Friedenspreis der Stadt Osnabrück, und wenn es jemanden gibt, dessen Werk man gegenwärtig um der Hoffnungslosen willen geehrt wissen möchte, dann ist es diese heute 52-jährige Weißrussin. "Unser bisheriger Sprachschatz, unser ganzes inneres Instrumentarium", sagt Alexijewitsch, reichten nicht aus, um zu erfassen, was in Tschernobyl geschah. Aber das stimmt nicht mehr ganz, seit diese Autorin über Jahre hinweg in jener radioaktiv verseuchten Region menschliche Stimmen aufspürte, um das Requiem aus Monologen von Arbeitern, Wissenschaftlern, Soldaten, Helfern, Müttern, von Verwirrten und Sprachlosen zu komponieren, das die Kritik zu Recht neben Dostojewskijs Aus einem Totenhaus stellte.

Aus den Büchern von Swetlana Alexijewitsch zu zitieren, zu denen auch die Geschichten russischer Selbstmörder zählen und das Werk Zinkjungen über den Afghanistankrieg, ist so wenig möglich wie bei jeder Literatur, die den Namen verdient. Denn Alexijewitsch ist nicht einfach Chronistin oder dokumentierende Zeugin, sie ist die Poetin literarischer Texturen, die sich nicht abkürzen lassen und die nur als Ganze den Schock bedeuten, der den Blick auf die Welt ändert. "Kommen Sie doch auch zu mir nach Hause", "zu mir auch, ich habe so lange keinen Besuch gehabt", sagen Bewohner des einsamen Planeten Tschernobyl ihrer Dichterin. "Zu Besuch kommen": kein Wort, das nicht - verstrahlt, wie auch die Bedeutungen sind - von seinem herkömmlichen Sinn getrennt wäre. Was heißt Besuch im Haus eines Verstrahlten?

Swetlana Alexijewitsch schreibt, als könne ein Gedicht Folgen haben, als wäre die Zukunft durch ein schwaches Band mit der Vergangenheit verbunden. Und lesen jedenfalls können wir.


A conspiracy of ignorance and obedience
(Filed: 04/07/2005)

Julian Evans reviews Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich.

We cannot refresh anything about Chernobyl, except our memories. On April 26, 1986, a botched technical experiment at the nuclear plant started a graphite fire that blew the roof off, releasing molten reactor core - 50 tons of radioactive fuel - into the night sky. The Soviet authorities concealed the disaster. Three days later, workers at a nuclear plant in Sweden were found to have radioactive particles on their clothing. Finding no leak at their plant, the Swedes traced the particles back to the Ukraine-Belarus border. Here, the contamination that was not carried on frisky winds around the world fell immediately on fields, forests and villages and will, allowing for two half-lives of plutonium, leave the area radioactive for 48,200 years.

"The radio wasn't saying anything, and the papers weren't either, but the bees knew. They didn't come out for two days, not a single one." The absence of information from above surprised few people interviewed by Svetlana Alexievich in this marvellous and tragic book. Though this was the era of Gorbachev - who comes out very badly here - people still looked for the truth in the behaviour of their Party bosses rather than the media; and the bosses were taking iodine tablets and, when they visited the site, making sure they walked only on the triple layer of fresh asphalt that had been laid for their visit.

Nobody knew what radiation was capable of: nuclear power was known as "the Peaceful Worker". Three days passed before the sudden evacuation of the nearest town, Pripyat, two kilometres away. Children went to school, and finished their costumes for the May Day parade. Today, Pripyat, like the rest of the human habitats within a 30-kilometre radius, is home only to ghosts, security and scientific people. Except that it's not: "the zone" has its own category of inhabitants, "self-settlers", refugees, thieves and residents who have crept back, like Anna the bee-keeper and the old villager from Bely Bereg who tells the author, "Home is where the heart is. When you're not there, even the sun's not the same."

Alexievich is a Belarussian journalist, and it was Belarus that received 70 per cent of the fallout of iodine, caesium, strontium and plutonium radionuclides. It lost 485 villages, and today one in every five Belarussians - 2.1 million - still lives on contaminated land. President Lukashenko's government continues to refuse to acknowledge Chernobyl's impact. When the plant exploded and the wind nudged a radioactive cloud over the whole country, the director of Belarus's Institute for Nuclear Energy, Vasily Nesterenko, rushed to Party offices in Minsk, begging officials to initiate iodine distribution - the city had 700kg of iodine concentrate in store in case of a Cold War attack. He describes "a conspiracy of ignorance and obedience". Little has changed. Then, secretaries were instructed to refuse him admission. They let him in when he held his dosimeter to their thyroid glands and it chattered. He was sacked. Recently, in 1999, Nesterenko's colleague, the clinical scientist Prof Yuri Bandazhevsky, was arrested for publicising the effects of caesium-137, particularly on the human foetus. Prof Bandazhevsky is now dying in jail. (The writers' organisation English PEN has just obtained a copy of Prof Bandazhevsky's banned research, for which it is seeking a publisher.)

Alexievich's book, which should be a melancholy experience, is both more and less than that. Her technique is a powerful mixture of eloquence and wordlessness, describing incompetence, heroism and grief: from the monologues of her interviewees she creates a history that the reader, at whatever distance from the events, can actually touch. Reading it, I realised for the first time that Chernobyl was Europe's tsunami: but we, humans, made this tsunami, and it has no end. In the mid-1990s, on a river cruise in Ukraine, I met a Chernobyl manager, one of the men who had sat in a helicopter for three days and nights directing the dumping of sand into the reactor's burning core. He had leukaemia and, as we slipped downstream, was drinking himself to death in a Conradian way. His children, and his children's children, will feel the accident's effects; by leakage into groundwater and from the fuel still left in Chernobyl's core, it could still get worse. And Chernobyl is not the only reactor on Earth. Yet it manages to be a place of ordinary life. As one member of the clean-up crew says, "The men drank vodka. They played cards, tried to get girls." The first lesson learned was that vodka offers some defence against radiation. It became precious currency, drunkenness essential.

The book begins and ends with the testimony of two widows; one the young wife of a Pripyat firefighter who went at night to fight the blaze in his shirtsleeves, the other the wife of a "liquidator", one of the 600,000 men drafted in to bury the topsoil and shoot every animal in the zone. He is the last in his platoon to die. When he can no longer speak, she asks him, "Are you sorry now that you went there?" He shakes his head no and writes for her, "When I die, sell the car, and the spare tyre, and don't marry Tolik." Tolik is his brother. She doesn't marry him.

In between these desperate griefs are stories of cynicism and surreal moments of greed and confusion. Radioactive tractors, motorbikes and fur coats smuggled from the zone have, it seems, been sold all over what was the Soviet Union. But possibly the strangest element of the disaster is the happiness it produces. Where man is no longer a predator, elk, wolves and boar return. A cameraman says, "A strange thing happened to me. I became closer to animals. And trees, and birds."

The longing for better relations with nature runs through this extraordinary book. If you have any curiosity about the future, I absolutely urge you to read it. Alexievich's Chernobyl is a place of extremes and unknowns, a theatre for the consequences of technology. As she says in a postscript, "These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future." I'm sure she is right.




Land of the dead

On April 26 1986, the No 4 reactor at the Chernobyl power station blew apart. Facing nuclear disaster on an unprecedented scale, Soviet authorities tried to contain the situation by sending thousands of ill-equipped men into a radioactive maelstrom. In an extract from a new book by Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, eyewitnesses recall the terrible human cost of a catastrophe still unfolding today

Monday April 25, 2005
The Guardian

When a routine test went catastrophically wrong, a chain reaction went out of control in No 4 reactor of Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine, creating a fireball that blew off the reactor's 1,000-tonne steel-and-concrete lid. Burning graphite and hot reactor-core material ejected by the explosions started numerous other fires, including some on the combustible tar roof of the adjacent reactor unit. There were 31 fatalities as an immediate result of the explosion and acute radiation exposure in fighting the fires, and more than 200 cases of severe radiation sickness in the days that followed.

Evacuation of residents under the plume was delayed by the Soviet authorities' unwillingness to admit the gravity of the incident. Eventually, more than 100,000 people were evacuated from the surrounding area in Ukraine and Belarus.

In the week after the accident the Soviets poured thousands of untrained, inadequately protected men into the breach. Bags of sand were dropped on to the reactor fire from the open doors of helicopters (analysts now think this did more harm than good). When the fire finally stopped, men climbed on to the roof to clear the radioactive debris. The machines brought in broke down because of the radiation. The men barely lasted more than a few weeks, suffering lingering, painful deaths.

But had this effort not been made, the disaster might have been much worse. The sarcophagus, designed by engineers from Leningrad, was manufactured in absentia - the plates assembled with the aid of robots and helicopters - and as a result there are fissures. Now known as the Cover, reactor No 4 still holds approximately 20 tonnes of nuclear fuel in its lead-and-metal core. No one knows what is happening with it.

For neighbouring Belarus, with a population of just 10 million, the nuclear explosion was a national disaster: 70% of the radionucleides released in the accident fell on Belarus. During the second world war, the Nazis destroyed 619 Belarussian villages, along with their inhabitants. As a result of fallout from Chernobyl, the country lost 485 villages and settlements. Of these, 70 have been buried underground by clean-up teams known as "liquidators".

Today, one out of every five Belarussians lives on contaminated land. That is 2.1 million people, of whom 700,000 are children. Because of the virtually permanent presence of small doses of radiation around the "Zone", the number of people with cancer, neurological disorders and genetic mutations increases with each year.

Lyudmilla Ignatenko
Wife of fireman Vasily Ignatenko

We were newlyweds. We still walked around holding hands, even if we were just going to the store. I would say to him, "I love you." But I didn't know then how much. I had no idea.

We lived in the dormitory of the fire station where he worked. There were three other young couples; we all shared a kitchen. On the ground floor they kept the trucks, the red fire trucks. That was his job.

One night I heard a noise. I looked out the window. He saw me. "Close the window and go back to sleep. There's a fire at the reactor. I'll be back soon."

I didn't see the explosion itself. Just the flames. Everything was radiant. The whole sky. A tall flame. And smoke. The heat was awful. And he's still not back. The smoke was from the burning bitumen, which had covered the roof. He said later it was like walking on tar.

They tried to beat down the flames. They kicked at the burning graphite with their feet ... They weren't wearing their canvas gear. They went off just as they were, in their shirt sleeves. No one told them.

At seven in the morning I was told he was in the hospital. I ran there but the police had already encircled it, and they weren't letting anyone through, only ambulances. The policemen shouted: "The ambulances are radioactive stay away!"

I saw him. He was all swollen and puffed up. You could barely see his eyes.

"He needs milk. Lots of milk," my friend said. "They should drink at least three litres each."

"But he doesn't like milk."

"He'll drink it now."

Many of the doctors and nurses in that hospital and especially the orderlies, would get sick themselves and die. But we didn't know that then.

I couldn't get into the hospital that evening. The doctor came out and said, yes, they were flying to Moscow, but we needed to bring them their clothes. The clothes they'd worn at the station had been burned. The buses had stopped running already and we ran across the city. We came running back with their bags, but the plane was already gone. They tricked us.

It was a special hospital, for radiology, and you couldn't get in without a pass. I gave some money to the woman at the door, and she said, "Go ahead." Then I had to ask someone else, beg. Finally I'm sitting in the office of the head radiologist. Right away she asked: "Do you have kids?" What should I tell her? I can see already that I need to hide that I'm pregnant. They won't let me see him! It's good I'm thin, you can't really tell anything.

"Yes," I say.

"How many?" I'm thinking, I need to tell her two. If it's just one, she won't let me in.

"A boy and a girl."

"So you don't need to have any more. All right, listen: his central nervous system is completely compromised, his skull is completely compromised."

OK, I'm thinking, so he'll be a little fidgety.

"And listen: if you start crying, I'll kick you out right away. No hugging or kissing. Don't even get near him. You have half an hour."

He looks so funny, he's got pyjamas on for a size 48, and he's a size 52. The sleeves are too short, the trousers are too short. But his face isn't swollen any more. They were given some sort of fluid. I say, "Where'd you run off to?" He wants to hug me. The doctor won't let him. "Sit, sit," she says. "No hugging in here."

On the very first day in the dormitory they measured me with a dosimeter. My clothes, bag, purse, shoes - they were all "hot". And they took that all away from me right there. Even my underwear. The only thing they left was my money.

He started to change; every day I met a brand-new person. The burns started to come to the surface. In his mouth, on his tongue, his cheeks - at first there were little lesions, and then they grew. It came off in layers - as white film ... the colour of his face ... his body ... blue, red , grey-brown. And it's all so very mine!

The only thing that saved me was it happened so fast; there wasn't any time to think, there wasn't any time to cry. It was a hospital for people with serious radiation poisoning. Fourteen days. In 14 days a person dies.

He was producing stools 25 to 30 times a day, with blood and mucous. His skin started cracking on his arms and legs. He became covered with boils. When he turned his head, there'd be a clump of hair left on the pillow. I tried joking: "It's convenient, you don't need a comb." Soon they cut all their hair.

I tell the nurse: "He's dying." And she says to me: "What did you expect? He got 1,600 roentgen. Four hundred is a lethal dose. You're sitting next to a nuclear reactor."

When they all died, they refurbished the hospital. They scraped down the walls and dug up the parquet. When he died, they dressed him up in formal wear, with his service cap. They couldn't get shoes on him because his feet had swollen up. They buried him barefoot. My love.

Sergei Vasilyevich Sobolev
Deputy head of the executive committee of the Shield of Chernobyl Association

There was a moment when there was the danger of a nuclear explosion, and they had to get the water out from under the reactor, so that a mixture of uranium and graphite wouldn't get into it - with the water, they would have formed a critical mass. The explosion would have been between three and five megatons. This would have meant that not only Kiev and Minsk, but a large part of Europe would have been uninhabitable. Can you imagine it? A European catastrophe.

So here was the task: who would dive in there and open the bolt on the safety valve? They promised them a car, an apartment, a dacha, aid for their families until the end of time. They searched for volunteers. And they found them! The boys dived, many times, and they opened that bolt, and the unit was given 7,000 roubles. They forgot about the cars and apartments they promised - that's not why they dived. These are people who came from a certain culture, the culture of the great achievement. They were a sacrifice.

And what about the soldiers who worked on the roof of the reactor? Two hundred and ten military units were thrown at the liquidation of the fallout of the catastrophe, which equals about 340,000 military personnel. The ones cleaning the roof got it the worst. They had lead vests, but the radiation was coming from below, and they weren't protected there. They were wearing ordinary, cheap imitation-leather boots. They spent about a minute and a half, two minutes on the roof each day, and then they were discharged, given a certificate and an award - 100 roubles. And then they disappeared to the vast peripheries of our motherland. On the roof they gathered fuel and graphite from the reactor, shards of concrete and metal.

It took about 20-30 seconds to fill a wheelbarrow, and then another 30 seconds to throw the "garbage" off the roof. These special wheelbarrows weighed 40 kilos just by themselves. So you can picture it: a lead vest, masks, the wheelbarrows, and insane speed.

In the museum in Kiev they have a mould of graphite the size of a soldier's cap; they say that if it were real it would weigh 16 kilos, that's how dense and heavy graphite is. The radio-controlled machines they used often failed to carry out commands or did the opposite of what they were supposed to do, because their electronics were disrupted by the high radiation. The most reliable "robots" were the soldiers. They were christened the "green robots" [from the colour of their uniforms]. Some 3,600 soldiers worked on the roof of the ruined reactor. They slept on the ground in tents. They were young guys.

These people don't exist any more, just the documents in our museum, with their names.

Eduard Borisovich Korotkov
Helicopter pilot

I was scared before I went there. But then when I got there the fear went away. It was all orders, work, tasks. I wanted to see the reactor from above, from a helicopter - to see what had really happened in there. But that was forbidden. On my medical card they wrote that I got 21 roentgen, but I'm not sure that's right. Some days there'd be 80 roentgen, some days 120. Sometimes at night I'd circle over the reactor for two hours.

I talked to some scientists. One told me: "I could lick your helicopter with my tongue and nothing would happen to me." Another said: "You're flying without protection? You don't want to live too long? Big mistake! Cover yourselves!" We lined the helicopter seats with lead, made ourselves some lead vests, but it turns out those protect you from one set of rays, but not from another. We flew from morning to night. There was nothing spectacular in it. Just work, hard work. At night we watched television - the World Cup was on, so we talked a lot about football.

I guess it must have been three years later. One of the guys got sick, then another. Someone died. Another went insane and killed himself. That's when we started thinking.

I didn't tell my parents I'd been sent to Chernobyl. My brother happened to be reading Izvestia one day and saw my picture. He brought it to our mum. "Look," he said, "he's a hero!" My mother started crying.

Aleksandr Kudryagin

We had good jokes. Here's one: an American robot is on the roof for five minutes, and then it breaks down. The Japanese robot is on the roof for five minutes, and then breaks down.

The Russian robot is up there two hours! Then a command comes in over the loudspeaker: "Private Ivanov! In two hours, you're welcome to come down and have a cigarette break."


Nikolai Fomich Kalugin

We didn't just lose a town, we lost our whole lives. We left on the third day. The reactor was on fire. I remember one of my friends saying, "It smells of reactor." It was an indescribable smell.

They announced over the radio that you couldn't take your belongings! All right, I won't take all my belongings, I'll take just one belonging. I need to take my door off the apartment and take it with me. I can't leave the door. It's our talisman, it's a family relic. My father lay on this door. I don't know whose tradition this is, but my mother told me that the deceased must be placed to lie on the door of his home.

I took it with me, that door - at night, on a motorcycle, through the woods. It was two years later, when our apartment had already been looted and emptied. The police were chasing me. "We'll shoot! We'll shoot!" They thought I was a thief. That's how I stole the door from my own home.

I took my daughter and my wife to the hospital. They had black spots all over their bodies. These spots would appear, then disappear. They were about the size of a five-kopek coin. But nothing hurt. They did some tests on them. My daughter was six-years-old. I'm putting her to bed, and she whispers in my ear: "Daddy, I want to live, I'm still little." And I had thought she didn't understand anything.

Can you picture seven little girls shaved bald in one room? There were seven of them in the hospital room ... My wife couldn't take it. "It'd be better for her to die than to suffer like this. Or for me to die, so that I don't have to watch any more."

We put her on the door ... on the door that my father lay on. Until they brought a little coffin. It was small, like the box for a large doll.

I want to bear witness: my daughter died from Chernobyl. And they want us to forget about it.

Arkady Filin

You immediately found yourself in this fantastic world, where the apocalypse met the stone age. We lived in the forest, in tents, 200km from the reactor, like partisans.

We were between 25 and 40; some of us had university degrees or diplomas. I'm a history teacher, for example. Instead of machine guns they gave us shovels. We buried trash heaps and gardens. The women in the villages watched us and crossed themselves. We had gloves, respirators and surgical robes. The sun beat down on us. We showed up in their yards like demons. They didn't understand why we had to bury their gardens, rip up their garlic and cabbage when it looked like ordinary garlic and ordinary cabbage. The old women would cross themselves and say, "Boys, what is this - is it the end of the world?"

In the house the stove's on, the lard is frying. You put a dosimeter to it, and you find it's not a stove, it's a little nuclear reactor.

I saw a man who watched his house get buried. We buried houses, wells, trees. We buried the earth. We'd cut things down, roll them up into big plastic sheets. We buried the forest. We sawed the trees into 1.5m pieces and packed them in Cellophane and threw them into graves.

I couldn't sleep at night. I'd close my eyes and see something black moving, turning over - as if it were alive - live tracts of land, with insects, spiders, worms. I didn't know any of them, their names, just insects, spiders, ants. And they were small and big, yellow and black, all different colours.

One of the poets says somewhere that animals are a different people. I killed them by the ten, by the hundred, thousand, not even knowing what they were called. I destroyed their houses, their secrets. And buried them. Buried them.

Vanya Kovarov

I'm 12 years old and I'm an invalid. The mailman brings two pension cheques to our house - for me and my grandad.

When the girls in my class found out that I had cancer of the blood, they were afraid to sit next to me. They didn't want to touch me.

The doctors said that I got sick because my father worked at Chernobyl. And after that I was born. I love my father.

Ivan Nikolaevich Zhykhov
Chemical engineer

We dug up the diseased top layer of soil, loaded it into cars and took it to waste burial sites. I hought that a waste burial site was a complex, engineered construction, but it turned out to be an ordinary pit. We picked up the earth and rolled it, like big rugs. We'd pick up the whole green mass of it, with grass, flowers, roots. It was work for madmen.

If we weren't drinking like crazy every night, I doubt we'd have been able to take it. Our psyches would have broken down. We created hundreds of kilometres of torn-up, fallow earth.

There was an emphasis on our being heroes. Once a week someone who was digging really well would receive a certificate of merit before all the other men. The Soviet Union's best grave digger. It was crazy.

These are edited excerpts from Voices From Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich, published by Dalkey Archive Press at £13.99


Eine Katastrophe – auch jenseits der Strahlung


Rezensiert von ULRICH TEUSCH - 24-04-2006


SWETLANA ALEXIJEWITSCH: Tschernobyl. Eine Chronik der Zukunft. Aus dem Russischen von Ingeborg Kolinko.
Berliner Taschenbuch Verlag, Berlin 2006. 298 S., 9,90 Euro.

IGOR KOSTIN: Tschernobyl. Nahaufnahme. Unter Mitarbeit von Thomas Johnson. Aus dem Französischen von Claudia Kalscheuer. Verlag Antje Kunstmann, München 2006. 240 S., 24,90 Euro.

ANTJE HILLIGES / IRINA WACHIDOWA: Der Tag, an dem die Wolke kam. Wie wir Tschernobyl überlebten. Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, München 2006. 271 S., 7,95 Euro.

JIM SMITH / NICHOLAS A. BERESFORD (Hg.): Chernobyl – Catastrophe and Consequences.
Springer Verlag, Berlin 2005. 310 S., 139,05 Euro.


Was sich in der Nacht vom 25. auf den 26. April 1986 im angeblich sichersten Kernkraftwerk der Sowjetunion zugetragen hat, war nicht allein eine technische Katastrophe; es war und ist auch eine Katastrophe des Bewusstseins. So formuliert es die aus der Ukraine stammende Autorin Swetlana Alexijewitsch. Mit Tschernobyl, schreibt sie, sei „der Zusammenhang der Zeiten“ gerissen. Alexijewitsch hat mit vielen Menschen gesprochen, die das Unglück aus der Nähe miterlebt haben oder von seinen Folgen unmittelbar betroffen waren. In einem Punkt stimmen ihre Wahrnehmungen und Erinnerungen überein: Zwischen dem Zeitpunkt der Katastrophe und dem Zeitpunkt, an dem die Menschen darüber zu sprechen begannen, lag eine Pause – eine Zeit der Hilflosigkeit. Man fand keine Worte für die neuen Gefühle und keine Gefühle für die neuen Worte. Man war mit einer Realität konfrontiert, die nicht nur das Wissen, sondern auch die Vorstellungskraft überstieg. Diese Diskrepanz zumindest zu verkleinern ist das Anliegen eines Buches, das Swetlana Alexijewitsch erstmals vor zehn Jahren veröffentlicht hat und das jetzt anlässlich des Tschernobyl-Jahrestages in einer Taschenbuchausgabe erschienen ist. Die Autorin hat darin die Erinnerungen und Reflexionen von Menschen aufgezeichnet und literarisch verdichtet, die ihre existenzielle Erschütterung durch Tschernobyl zum Ausdruck bringen, die um Worte ringen, die nach Vergleichsmaßstäben suchen, um das Erlebte in vertraute Kategorien einordnen zu können – die Älteren unter ihnen kommen immer wieder auf ihre Erlebnisse im Zweiten Weltkrieg zu sprechen.
Der wichtigste Zeuge
Es gibt viele Wahrheiten über Tschernobyl und viele Wege, die Wahrheit zu erkunden. Wie Swetlana Alexijewitsch, so ist auch Igor Kostin ein Zeuge des Geschehens, vielleicht der wichtigste Zeuge überhaupt. Und auch er hat seit 20 Jahren Sachverhalte dokumentiert, Beweise gesichert, Erinnerungen aufbewahrt. Doch er bedient sich dabei eines ganz anderen Mediums. Kostin arbeitete 1986 als Fotograf für die Nachrichtenagentur Nowosti. Schon wenige Stunden nach der Explosion ist er in einem Hubschrauber über den rauchenden Reaktor geflogen und hat die ersten Fotos geschossen – nur eines davon blieb unbeschädigt, zu stark war die radioaktive Strahlung. Insbesondere in den ersten Wochen und Monaten, als er die Einsätze der Liquidatoren mit seiner Kamera begleitete, hat Kostin sein Leben riskiert. Später hat er die Männer, denen er mit seinen Bildern ein Denkmal setzte, in einem Moskauer Militärkrankenhaus, der berühmten Klinik Nr. 6, besucht. Kostin hat die Evakuierungen fotografiert, die zerstörten und in der Erde vergrabenen Dörfer, die radioaktiven Mülldeponien, die Geisterstadt Pripjat, die alten Menschen, die ein entwurzeltes Leben nicht aushielten und trotz aller Warnungen und Verbote wieder in ihre Häuser in der Sperrzone zurückgekehrt sind. Er zeigt eine Welt, von der wir nur wenige Bilder haben, und schon gar keine von dieser Eindringlichkeit. Kostins Fotos sind unschätzbare Dokumente, sie sind ein Vermächtnis.
Die Bücher Alexijewitschs und Kostins ziehen auf ganz unterschiedliche Weise eine vorläufige Bilanz der Katastrophe und leisten Beiträge zur Reflexion. Darin liegt ihre große Stärke, jedoch auch ihre Grenze. Denn man erfährt viel über Menschen, die zu Opfern geworden sind, jedoch wenig über Menschen, die sich als Überlebende begreifen, und denen unter grundlegend veränderten Bedingungen ein neuer Anfang gelungen ist. Mit solchen Menschen macht Antje Hilliges bekannt. Sie ist Mitarbeiterin der deutschen Botschaft in Kiew. Während einer Informationsreise in die Sperrzone lernte sie vor zwei Jahren Irina Wachidowa kennen und freundete sich mit ihr an. Sie hat Irinas Geschichte aufgeschrieben. Die Autorin verbindet dabei auf kunstvolle Weise den Stil des konventionellen Sachbuchs mit einer romanhaften Erzählweise.
Irina Wachidowa lebte 1986 in Pripjat, Mutter zweier kleiner Mädchen, jung verheiratet mit dem im Kraftwerk beschäftigten Betonbauer Wladimir. So widrig die sowjetischen Lebensbedingungen für sie und ihre Familie auch waren – zumindest ihr privates Glück hatte Irina gefunden. Die Katastrophe stellte von einem Tag auf den anderen alles in Frage. Überstürzte Evakuierung, Neuansiedlung in Kiew, Wladimir wird von seiner Familie getrennt und als Aufräumarbeiter in die verstrahlte Ruine geschickt. Die Wachidows hatten albtraumhafte Erlebnisse, jahrelange Angst und Ungewissheit zu überstehen. Doch klug, beharrlich und mit unerschöpflichem Lebensmut haben sie ihr Glück, ihre Liebe, ihre Zukunft gerettet. Der Zusammenhang der Zeiten ist gerissen, gewiss, und die Folgen der Katastrophe werden noch lange andauern; doch die Wachidows und viele andere Menschen ihresgleichen sind längst keine stigmatisierten tschernobylzy mehr. Antje Hilliges ist eines der außergewöhnlichsten und besten Bücher gelungen, die bislang zum Thema Tschernobyl geschrieben wurden, ein stilles, sensibles, zutiefst berührendes Werk.
Es gibt viele Wahrheiten über Tschernobyl. Und keine kann einen privilegierten Status reklamieren. Auch die „wissenschaftliche Wahrheit“ nicht, obwohl sie es zuweilen versucht. Vor etwa einem halben Jahr stellte das „Tschernobyl Forum“, ein großer Forschungsverbund, der von verschiedenen UN-Organisationen getragen wird, die bislang umfassendste wissenschaftliche Aufarbeitung der Reaktorkatastrophe vor. In einer begleitenden Presseerklärung behaupteten die Verantwortlichen, dass der Bericht „definitive Antworten“ gebe und das „wahre Ausmaß des Unfalls“ erkennen lasse. Diese reichlich vollmundige Verlautbarung, die in den Medien großen Widerhall fand, hat insbesondere bei Kernenergiekritikern für Empörung gesorgt. Zu Recht, denn die Presserklärung steht in einem Spannungsverhältnis, teilweise sogar im Widerspruch zu den im eigentlichen Forschungsbericht dokumentierten Ergebnissen (alle Texte stehen zum Download bereit unter www.iaea.org).
Ein besonders makabres Beispiel: Während in der Presseerklärung die Zahl der Todesopfer, die Tschernobyl gefordert hat oder noch fordern wird, auf etwa 4000 geschätzt wird, werden im Forschungsbericht allein schon 9000 Krebstote prognostiziert – wobei nicht einmal alle Krebsarten Berücksichtigung finden. Im Unterschied zu den Verfassern der Presseerklärung sprechen die Forscher auch nicht von „definitiven“ Ergebnissen. Im Gegenteil, beinahe auf jeder Seite betonen sie die Unsicherheit ihrer Datenbasis, problematisieren ihre Berechnungsmethoden, melden weiteren Forschungsbedarf an, erwähnen bedenkliche Phänomene, für die sie noch keine Erklärungen haben, zitieren alarmierende Berichte über mögliche Tschernobyl-Folgen, die ihnen zwar zugeleitet wurden, die aber aus den unterschiedlichsten Gründen nicht in ihre Bestandsaufnahme eingegangen sind.
Fixiert auf Radioaktivität
Aus der hemdsärmeligen Presseerklärung sollte man daher nicht auf die mangelnde Seriosität des Tschernobyl Forums als solchem schließen. Die Schriften des Forums und die weiteren Publikationen ihm verbundener Forscher, wie der höchst informative Sammelband von Jim Smith und Nicholas Beresford zu den längerfristigen Umweltfolgen der Katastrophe, verdienen schon allein aufgrund der in ihnen präsentierten Datenfülle eine breite und substanzielle Auseinandersetzung. Zudem enthalten die genannten Publikationen interessante konzeptionelle Aspekte. Denn sie begreifen technische Katastrophen auch und vor allem als Kulturkatastrophen. Im Hinblick auf Tschernobyl heißt das: Wer lediglich auf den Zusammenhang zwischen radioaktiver Belastung und gesundheitlichen Folgen – bis hin zum Tod – fixiert bleibt, wird der Multidimensionalität der Katastrophe nicht gerecht. Tschernobyl hat keinen Lebensbereich verschont und eine tiefe Traumatisierung großer Bevölkerungsteile bewirkt. Nach 1986 sind auch Menschen aus der Bahn geraten, krank geworden oder gestorben, die nur eine relativ geringe, vielleicht unbedenkliche radioaktive Dosis erhalten haben. Sie sind keine Opfer der Strahlung – und doch sind viele von ihnen Opfer von Tschernobyl.