Format: Kindle Edition
Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0241270537
Publisher: Penguin; 01 edition (21 April 2016)
2016年其實已經讀完S. A. Alexievich的《切爾諾貝利的悲鳴》中文版，確切的說，是讀了兩次，但一直無法下筆——思路一直被悲憤衝擊，完全無法下筆。這次下定決心，改讀英文版《VoicesfromChernobyl》，借用外語閱讀的理性思維，小心翼翼地嘗試用文字為這群人類英雄獻上一朵小白花。
They were heroes. Heroes of the new history. They were saving something greater than their homeland. They were saving life itself. Life’s continuity.
Fear has been commercialized. Fear of Chernobyl is on sale because that’s all we have to sell in the international markets. It’s our new product. We sell our suffering.
This is not a book on Chernobyl, but on the world of Chernobyl.
What I’m concerned with is what I would call the ‘missing history’, the invisible imprint of our stay on earth and in time. I paint and collect mundane feelings, thoughts and words. I am trying to capture the life of the soul. A day in the life of ordinary people. Here, though, everything was extraordinary: both the event itself and the people, as they settled into the new space. Chernobyl for them is no metaphor, no symbol: it is home.
They told their stories, searched for answers. Together we pondered. Often they were in a hurry, afraid that time would run out; I didn’t recognize that the price of their witness would be their lives. ‘Record this,’ they would say. ‘We didn’t understand everything we saw, but let’s leave this behind. Someone will read it and make sense of it. Later, after we’re gone.’ And they had good reason to hurry: many of them are no longer alive. But they managed to send a message.
The monument to Chernobyl’s heroes is the man-made sarcophagus in which they laid to rest the nuclear fire. A twentieth-century pyramid.
死亡對於切爾諾貝利，是無法逃避的話題。但我學習作者，盡量克制，所以不引用讓人淚流滿面的開篇和結尾《Alonehumanvoice》兩個割心故事，而只想摘錄一個承擔了家族悲傷離別的門板獨白《Monologue on a whole life written on a door》——讀完本章時，我的手都是抖的……
We weren’t allowed to take any belongings. Right, I won’t, but there’s just one thing I will take. Just one! I needed to remove the door to our apartment and take it with us, I couldn’t leave the door behind. I would board up the entrance. That door was our talisman. An heirloom! My father lay on that door. I’m not sure where the custom comes from – they don’t do it everywhere – but in our parts, according to my mother, the dead have to be laid on the door from their home. They lie on it until the coffin is brought. I sat the whole night with my father, and he lay on that door. The house was open all night. And that same door is covered in notches, right to the top. It was marked as I grew: a notch for first grade, second grade, seventh grade. One from just before I left for the army. And next to that, you can see my son growing up. And my daughter. Our whole life is written on that door, like on an ancient papyrus. How could I leave it behind?
but I took it. The door. One night. On a motorbike, along the forest road. I took it two years later, when our apartment had already been looted. Picked clean. The police were chasing after me: ‘Stop or we’ll fire! Stop or we’ll fire!’ They took me for a looter, of course. It’s like I was stealing my own front door.
My daughter had turned six. On the very day of the accident. When I put her to bed, she’d whisper in my ear, ‘Daddy, I want to live, I’m only little.’ I didn’t think she’d understand anything. Whenever she saw a nurse in a white coat at the kindergarten or a cook in the canteen, she’d go crazy. ‘I don’t want to go to hospital, I don’t want to die!’ She couldn’t stand anything white. We even changed the white curtains in our new place.
Can you imagine seven bald girls together? There were seven of them in the ward. No, that’s it! I can’t go on! Talking about it gives me this feeling … Like my heart is telling me: this is an act of betrayal. Because I have to describe her as if she was just anyone. Describe her agony.
My wife came back from the hospital. Her nerves snapped: ‘If only she’d die, rather than going through this torture. If only I could die, so I wouldn’t have to see this.’ No, that’s it! I can’t go on! It’s too much. No! …
We put her on the door. On the door my father once lay on. Until they brought the little coffin. It was so tiny, like the box for a large doll. Like a box. I want to testify: my daughter died from Chernobyl. But they want us to keep quiet. ‘It hasn’t been scientifically proved,’ they say. ‘There isn’t enough data. We’ll need to wait hundreds of years.’ But my human life, it’s too short. I can’t wait that long. Write it down. You record it at least. My daughter’s name was Katya. My little Katya. She was seven years old when she died.’
Now he’s dying. He’s in terrible pain. I went to see him this weekend. ‘Ask me what I really want?’ ‘What?’ ‘An ordinary death.’ He’s forty. Loved women. Has a beautiful wife.
I’m not afraid of death any more. Not of death as such. The mystery, though, is how it will happen. My friend died. He puffed right up, till he was like a barrel. And a neighbour was out there too, he was a crane operator. He went coal black, shrivelled up till he was the size of a child. The mystery is how I’ll die. If I could choose, I’d want an ordinary death. Not a Chernobyl death. Just one thing that’s certain: with my diagnosis, it won’t drag out for long. Sense the moment, and put a bullet in your brain.
He began changing: every day, I found a different person. His burns were coming to the surface. First these little sores showed up inside his mouth and on his tongue and cheeks, then they started growing. The lining of his mouth was peeling off in these white filmy layers. The colour of his face … The colour of his body … It went blue. Red. Greyish-brown. But it was all his precious, darling body! You can’t describe it! There are no words for it! It was too much to take. What saved me was how fast it was all happening, I didn’t have time to think or cry.
The last two days at the hospital, I’d lift his arm and the bone would be all wobbly, hanging loose, the tissue falling away from it. Pieces of lung, lumps of his liver were coming up through his mouth. He was choking on his own innards. I’d put a bandage on my hand and slip it into his mouth, scoop it all out … You can’t describe it! There are no words! It was too much to take. This was my sweetheart, my love …
This wasn’t the normal cancer everybody’s afraid of, but Chernobyl cancer, which is even more terrible. The doctors explained it to me: if the metastases had affected him from inside his body, he would have died quickly, but they crawled over the surface. Over his body, over his face. He had a kind of black growth over him. Something happened to his chin, his neck disappeared, his tongue flopped out. His blood vessels burst and he began to haemorrhage. ‘Oh dear,’ I would cry. ‘The bleeding again.’ From his neck, his cheeks, his ears. All over the place. I would bring cold water, apply compresses. They didn’t really help. It was horrific. The pillow would get soaked. I would bring a basin from the bathroom. The blood dripped into it, like a cow’s milk hitting the pail. That sound, so peaceful and rural. I still hear it now, in the nights.
Everyone dreams of an easy death. But how can you earn it?
Yesterday, I was on a trolleybus. There was a little incident: a boy wouldn’t give up his seat to an old man, who was telling him off: ‘When you’re old, you will find nobody stands up for you.’
‘I’m never going to be old,’ the boy retorts.
‘We’re all going to die soon.’
All around you, people are talking about death. Children are thinking about it. But that’s something you should contemplate at the end of life, not when it’s just beginning.
Have you ever heard children talking about death? You get it in my class. Fourteen-year-olds are already debating and discussing whether dying is scary or not.
Right before their eyes, there’s always someone or something being buried. Being laid to rest in the ground … People they knew. Houses and trees, everything is being buried.
They read science fiction, it captivates them. There you’ll get a man hopping off the earth, operating in cosmic time, in other worlds. They aren’t able to fear death the way adults fear it, people like me, for instance; they’re excited by it as something fantastical. A shift to a new place …
I used to think I would never die, but now I know I will. A boy was lying next to me in the hospital. He was called Vadik Korinkov. He drew little birds for me, little houses. He died. Dying isn’t frightening. You just sleep for a long, long time and don’t wake up. Vadik told me that, when he died, he would live in another place for a long time. One of the older boys told him. He wasn’t frightened.
I had a lot of friends here: Yulya, Katya, Vadim, Oxana, Oleg … and now Andrey. ‘We will die and become part of science,’ Andrey used to say. ‘We will die and everyone will forget us.’ That’s what Katya thought. ‘When I die, don’t bury me in a graveyard. I’m afraid of cemeteries. There are only dead people there, and crows. Bury me in open countryside’, was what Oxana wanted. ‘We are going to die,’ Yulya said, and cried. For me, the sky is alive now when I look up at it. They are up there.
The only righteous thing on the face of the earth is death. No one has ever bribed their way out of that. The earth takes us all: the good, the evil and the sinners. And that’s all the justice you’ll find in this world. I’ve slogged my guts out honestly all my life, lived with a clear conscience, but not much justice has come my way. God must have been doling out everyone’s share, and when my turn came the pot was empty.
My good husband liked to say that man pulls the trigger, but God carries the bullet. We all get our different fates. Some of the youngsters who left have already died in their new place. But here I am, walking with my cane. Still on my feet.
God has granted me long years, though He didn’t give me a good lot in life.
The world has split in two: there is us, the people of Chernobyl, and you, everyone else. Have you noticed? We don’t make a point of this ‘I’m Belarusian’, ‘I’m Ukrainian’, ‘I’m Russian’. Everyone just calls themselves Chernobyl people. ‘We’re from Chernobyl.’ ‘I’m a Chernobyl person.’ As if we’re some sort of separate people. A new nation …
And then, just like that, you’ve turned into a Chernobyl person. A curiosity! Some person that everyone shows interest in, but nobody knows much about. You want to be the same as anyone else, but it’s no longer possible. You can’t do it, there’s no going back to the old world. People look at you through different eyes. They ask you questions. Was it terrifying? Tell us about when the reactor was on fire. What did you see? Can you still, you know, have children? So your wife hasn’t left you? In the beginning, we all turned into some kind of rare exhibits. Just the word ‘Chernobyl’ still acts like an alarm. They all turn their heads to look at you. ‘Oh, from that place!’ That’s what it felt like in the first days. We lost not just a town but a whole life.
We made our way to Minsk. We bought train tickets from the conductor for three times the price. She brought in tea for everyone, but to us she said, ‘Use your own mugs and glasses.’ It took a while for us to cotton on. First we wondered if they were short of glasses. No, that wasn’t it! They were frightened of us. We’d get asked, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Chernobyl.’ And they would sidle away from our compartment, not let their children run past us. We arrived in Minsk, got to my mother’s friend’s place. My mum to this day feels ashamed that we piled into someone else’s apartment in our ‘dirty’ clothes and shoes that night. But they welcomed us and fed us. Felt sorry for us. Although their neighbours popped round: ‘You’ve got guests? Where are they from?’ ‘Chernobyl.’ And they sidled away too.
people gave a wide berth to the graves of the Chernobyl firemen who had died in Moscow hospitals and been buried nearby in Mitino. Local people wouldn’t bury their own dead alongside them. The dead afraid of the dead …
At times, I think it would be better if you didn’t write about us at all. Didn’t view us from the sidelines, didn’t try to diagnose us with radiophobia or whatever, didn’t separate us out from everybody else. Then people wouldn’t be so afraid of us. After all, you don’t talk about a cancer patient’s dreadful disease in his own home. And you don’t mention someone’s sentence in their cell, when they’re in prison for life.
The way I see it, we’re just research specimens. An international laboratory in the middle of Europe. There are ten million Belarusians, and more than two million of us are living on contaminated land. Nature’s laboratory. Come, record the data, do your experiments. They come here from everywhere, from all over the world. They write theses and monographs on us.
‘They’re using you here as “black boxes”. The people here are black boxes like the ones they have on aircraft. They record all the information about the flight, and if a plane crashes they look for its black box.’ We think we are living life like everyone else. We walk around, go to work, fall in love … But no! Actually, we are recording data for the future.
We had the choice of moving away, but my husband and I thought it over and turned it down. We’re afraid of other people; whereas here, we’re all just the people of Chernobyl, together. We’re not afraid of each other. If someone offers you apples or cucumbers from their plot, you accept them and eat them. We don’t politely put them away in a pocket or bag and throw them away afterwards. We have a shared memory, the same fate. And anywhere else we’re regarded as outsiders. People look askance at us, fearfully. Everybody is so used to the words ‘Chernobyl’, ‘Chernobyl children’, ‘Chernobyl evacuees’. ‘Chernobyl’: now that gets prefixed to everything about us. But you don’t know the first thing about us. You’re afraid of us. You run away. If we weren’t allowed out of here, if they put a police cordon round us, many of you would probably be relieved.
There are lots of us here. The whole street. They call it Chernobyl Street. These guys worked their whole lives at the power plant. Many still go there to work shifts, they run the plant with a rotation system now. Nobody lives there any more, and they never will. They’ve all got serious illnesses, disabilities, but they won’t give up their work, they wouldn’t even think of it. They’d have no life without the reactor. The reactor is their life. Where else are they needed now? Who needs them? They keep dying. It’s a quick death, they die on the go.
Home is where the heart is. The sunshine isn’t the same anywhere else.
You have to leave bread on the table and salt, a bowl and three spoons. As many spoons as there are souls in the house. To be sure you’ll return.
In the Zone itself I was struck by the indifference with which people talked about the disaster. In one dead village, we met an old man. He was living all alone. We asked him, ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ And he answered, ‘Of what?’ You can’t be frightened the whole time, a person can’t do that; some time goes by, and ordinary human life starts up again. Everyday human life.
Here you’ve got all the land you could want! Plough a hundred hectares if you like. And there’s no authorities. Nobody bothering you here. No higher-ups. We’re free.
I’ve got two sacks of salt. We’ll be all right without the state! Got plenty of firewood – surrounded by forest. The house is warm. The lamps are lit. All good! I keep a nanny goat, a billy goat, three pigs and fourteen hens. There’s land and grass to your heart’s content. Water in the well. Freedom! We like it! What we have here is no collective farm, it’s a commune. Communism! We’ll buy another horse. And then we won’t need anyone. Just one horse.
There’s total freedom here. I’d say it’s heaven. There is nobody here, just wild animals wandering around. I live among the animals and the birds.
He told me later it was like walking on hot tar. They beat back the fire, but it was creeping further, climbing back up. They kicked down the burning graphite. They didn’t have their canvas suits on, they left just in the shirts they were wearing. Nobody warned them. They were just called out to an ordinary fire.
Later, lots of the doctors and nurses in the hospital, and especially the orderlies, came down sick. They died. But back then, nobody knew that would happen.
On the radio, they announced: ‘The town is being evacuated for three to five days. Bring warm clothes and tracksuits. You’ll be staying in the forests, living in tents.’ People even got excited: a trip to the countryside! We’ll celebrate May Day there. That’ll be something new! They got kebabs ready for the trip, bought bottles of wine. They took their guitars, portable stereos. Everybody loves May Day!
We sat for days watching the television and waiting for Gorbachev to speak. There was no word from the authorities. It was only after the May Day celebrations were over that Gorbachev appeared and said there was nothing to worry about, comrades, everything was under control. There had been a fire, just an ordinary fire. Nothing that unusual. The people living there were getting on with their work. And we believed him.
Suddenly, there were television broadcasts … One of the narrative tropes: a village woman has milked a cow. She pours milk into a jar, a reporter with a military radiation meter comes and sweeps it over the jar. There, see? Absolutely normal, and the reactor is only ten kilometres away. Footage of the River Pripyat, people swimming, sunbathing. In the distance, we can see the reactor with smoke above it. Commentary: ‘Voices in the West are trying to sow panic, spreading outright slander about the accident.’ Again the radiation counter is brought out, held over a bowl of fish soup, then over a bar of chocolate, then over doughnuts on sale at an outdoor kiosk. This was deliberate deception. The radiation meters our army had at that time were not designed for testing food. All they measured was background radiation. The sheer volume of lies in our minds associated with Chernobyl bears comparison only with the situation at the outbreak of war in 1941 under Stalin.
‘Most likely sabotage. Somebody must have done it deliberately. That’s what all the guys reckon.’ It was what everyone was saying. What they thought at the time.
For a third month they are telling us on the radio, ‘The situation is stabilizing … The situation is stabilizing … The situation is stabilizing …’ They instantly revived the forgotten vocabulary of Stalinism: ‘Western intelligence agents’, ‘arch enemies of Socialism’, ‘spying forays’, ‘sabotage’, ‘a stab in the back’, ‘subverting the inviolable union of Soviet peoples’. Everybody is harping on about undercover spies and saboteurs, rather than iodine prophylaxis. Any unofficial information is treated as enemy ideology.
the mind was simply not prepared for anything like that; on the other, we had always been told we were the best, the most amazing, and we were living in the world’s greatest country. My husband is an engineer, he has a degree; but he seriously tried to persuade me it was an act of terrorism. Enemy sabotage. That’s the way we thought, that’s how we had been brought up.
Like everyone else, I had a personal exposure monitor hung round my neck. After the shift, I had to collect them and hand them over to the KGB. To their secretive First Department. There they took readings, wrote something down on our cards, but the amount of roentgens each person got was a military secret. Bastards! Sons of bitches! Some time goes by, then they tell you: ‘Stop! You can’t do any more!’ All that medical information … Even when you were leaving, they wouldn’t tell you how much you’d had. Bastards! Sons of bitches!
Have people told you that taking pictures anywhere near the reactor was strictly forbidden? You could only do it with a special permit. They confiscated cameras. Before they could leave, the soldiers who had served there were searched, just like in the Afghan War, to make sure they had no photos. God forbid! No evidence. They took the television crews’ footage off to the KGB. Returned it after they’d exposed it to light. The amount of information they destroyed! Testimony. All lost to science. To history. It would be good to find the people who ordered that … How would they try to explain themselves? What could they come up with? I will never forgive them. Never!
Nobody would listen to us scientists and doctors. Medicine and science were being dragged into politics. Of course they were! You mustn’t forget the intellectual context in which all this was happening, the kind of people we were at that time, ten years ago. The KGB were on the loose, the secret services. The Western radio broadcasts were being jammed. There were thousands of taboos, Party and military secrets. Secret guidelines. And to cap it all, we had been brought up to believe that the peaceful Soviet atom was as harmless as peat and coal. We were fettered by fear and prejudice. Misplaced faith.
A tractor is ploughing … I ask the official from the District Party Committee who’s accompanying us, ‘Is that tractor driver protected? Does he at least have a respirator?’ ‘No, they don’t wear respirators while they are working.’ ‘What, have they not brought you any?’ ‘Of course we have! We’ve got enough to see us through to the year 2000, but we don’t issue them. It would start a panic. They would all run away, go to other regions!’ ‘What kind of way is that to treat people?’ ‘It’s easy for you to talk like that, professor. If you get fired, you’ll just find another job. But I would be completely stuck.’ What sort of a regime is that? Unaccountable power of one person over another … This was not just deceit, this was a massacre of the innocents.
In the first year after the disaster, millions of tonnes of contaminated grain were processed as animal feed, given to cattle, and the meat then found its way on to our tables. Poultry and pigs were fed bonemeal laced with strontium.
在本書第三部分《Admiring Disaster》，作者特別記錄了一位區委第一書記的獨白《Monologue on the eternal, accursed questions: ‘What is to be done?’ and ‘Who is to blame?’》，值得一讀再讀：他堅信自己所做的一切都是正確的，並且為此獻祭了親孫女的健康——正是因為每一顆政權螺絲釘的兢兢業業，這部機器慣性地輾軋更多的尸體。
他的一句“I’m a man of my time, not a criminal …”你會原諒他嗎？換做是你我，我們又真的會“槍口抬高一尺”甚至敢於抗命而為嗎？你又會原諒自己嗎？
There were telegrams from the Central Committee, from the Provincial Party Committee. We were given the task of avoiding panic. Panic really is a terrible thing. It was only during the war that people were following reports from the front as closely as they were the bulletins from Chernobyl. Fear and rumours. People were killed not by radiation but by an incident. We had to … our duty … It’s not true to say we were hiding everything from the outset. At first, no one recognized the scale of what was happening. Priority was given to higher political considerations. But if you disregard emotions, disregard politics …
If I’d said then it was wrong to bring the people out in the streets? ‘You want to sabotage the May Day Parade? That’s a political offence! Put your Party card on the table immediately!’
We were all part of that system. We believed in it. We believed in heroic ideals, in the Soviet victory. And that we would vanquish Chernobyl! We would all pile in and overwhelm it. We read avidly about the heroic struggle to tame the reactor, which had broken free of the power of humans. We conducted indoctrination sessions.
People have to be motivated, inspired. They need ideals. Then you’ll have a strong state. Sausages cannot be an ideal, or a full fridge. A Mercedes is not an ideal. You need shining ideals! And that was what we had.
If I’m a criminal, then why is my granddaughter … my child … She is ill too … My daughter had her in the spring, brought her to us in Slavgorod in nappies. In a pram. They came a few weeks after the explosion at the power station. Helicopters flying, army vehicles on the roads … My wife begged me: ‘We must send them to our relatives, get them away from here.’ I was the first secretary of the District Party Committee. I totally forbade it. ‘What will people think if I send my daughter and her baby elsewhere? When their own children have to stay here.’ Those who bolted for it, trying to save their own skin … I called them into the District Committee, to the office, ‘Are you a Communist or not?’ It was a test of integrity. If I’m a criminal, why did I not save my own child? (Becoming incoherent.) I did … she … in my own house … (Calms down after a while.)
I believed them. I called people to my office and said, ‘Comrades, if I run away, if you run away, what will people think of us? They will say the Communists deserted them!’ If I couldn’t persuade them with words and emotion, I took a different approach: ‘Are you a patriot or not? If not, put your Party card on the table. Throw it down!’ Some did.
My granddaughter has leukaemia … I’ve paid for everything. A high price … I’m a man of my time, not a criminal …
I wanted to do something heroic, put my character to the test.
I’m a military man, my duty is to do what I’m ordered. I took an oath. But that’s not all, there was also the heroic urge. They’d nurtured it, sown it in our minds at school, at home. And then the political instructors set to work on us. The radio, the television.
You have to serve the Motherland! Serving the Motherland is our sacred duty.
Every year, on 26 April, we get together, those of us who were there. Those who are still left. We look back on those days. You were a soldier in that war, you were indispensable. All the bad stuff gets forgotten, and that is what stays. What lingers is the fact they couldn’t cope without you. You were essential. Our system, our military, operates pretty much superbly in an emergency. Out there, you were finally free and needed. Freedom! At moments like that, the Russian people show how great they are. How special! We’ll never be like the Dutch or Germans. And we’ll never have good roads or groomed lawns. But we’ll always have heroes!
The call went out, and I answered it. Had to be done. I was a Party member. Communists, forward! Was just the way things were.
To go out there or not to go? To fly or not? I was a Communist, how could I refuse to fly? Two navigators refused, said they had young wives, hadn’t had kids yet. How they were humiliated! That was the end of their careers! There was another court too: the court of manliness. The court of honour! You see, there’s a buzz, knowing the other guy couldn’t do it, but you can. Now I look at things differently. After my nine operations and two heart attacks, I don’t judge anyone any more. I can understand them. They were young lads. But I’d still do it all again. That’s a fact. The other guy couldn’t do it, but I could. A job for real men!
From the viewpoint of our culture, thinking about yourself was selfish. It showed a lack of spirit. There was always something more important than you and your life.
We are brought up to be soldiers. That is what we are taught. Constantly mobilized, constantly ready to undertake the impossible.
People were not happy, but at the same time they had a sense of having done their duty. We have that in us: we ought to go where it is difficult and dangerous and be ready to defend our Motherland. What else have I been teaching the children? Precisely that. You have to go into battle, rush into the line of fire, defend, sacrifice. The literature I was teaching was not about life: it was about war and death: Sholokhov, Serafimovich, Furmanov, Fadeyev, Boris Polevoy …
There was no whingeing. If this job had to be done, someone had to do it. The Motherland had called, commanded. That’s the way we are.
But to say anything publicly about the results would see you stripped of your academic degree, and even your Party card. (Becoming nervous.) But it was not fear. Not because of fear, although we were fearful, of course … But because we were people of that time, citizens of our Soviet land. We believed in it. It was all to do with faith. Our faith … (Lights a cigarette in his agitation.) Believe me, it was not from fear … or not only from fear. I’m answering you honestly. For my own self-respect, I need to be honest now. I want …
At one time … At one time, I envied heroes. Those people who had a part in great events, when everything was in the balance, conquering great summits. That was how we talked then, what we sang about. Such splendid songs. (Sings.) ‘Little eagle, little eagle …’ I can’t even remember the words now. ‘Fly higher than the sun …’ Is that right? What wonderful words our songs had. I used to dream! I felt sad I wasn’t born in 1917 or 1941. I think differently now. I don’t want to live history, in historic times, where my short life is just so defenceless. Great events trample it underfoot without even noticing, without pausing. (Pensive.) After us, history is all that will be left. Chernobyl will be left … But my life? My love?
I went out there. Although I didn’t have to. I volunteered. In the early days, I didn’t meet anyone half-hearted. It was later they got that blank look in their eyes, once they’d grown used to things. Were we after medals? Special benefits? Rubbish! I personally didn’t need anything. An apartment, a car, what else? Ah, yes, a dacha. I had all that. It was the male lust for adventure that kicked in. Real men were going on a real mission. And the others? They could hide behind their mothers’ skirts. One guy brought a certificate saying his wife was giving birth, another had a small child. Sure, it was risky; sure, it was dangerous – radiation. But somebody had to do it. And what about our fathers in the war? We got home. I took everything off, all the stuff I’d been wearing there, and threw the lot down the rubbish chute. I gave the cap to my little son as a present. He kept asking for it. He wore it non-stop. Two years later, he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. You can write the rest yourself. I don’t want to say any more.
Every day, they brought the papers. I read just the headlines: ‘Chernobyl, Site of Heroic Deeds’, ‘Reactor Is Vanquished’, ‘Life Goes On’, We had political officers. They put on political sessions, told us we had to emerge victorious. Over what? The atom? Physics? The cosmos? Our nation treats victory not as an event but a process. Life is a battle. That’s where our great love of floods, fires and earthquakes comes from. We need a stage for our ‘displays of courage and heroism’. Somewhere to hoist the flag. The political officer read us news items on the ‘high level of political awareness and efficient organization’, on how, within a few days of the accident, the red flag was flying over Reactor No. 4. There it proudly fluttered, until a few months later it was ravaged by the tremendous radiation. So they raised a new flag. And another. The old one was kept as a souvenir. They ripped it into shreds and shoved it under their jackets next to their hearts. Then they took the rags back home, showed them off proudly to their children. They preserved them. Heroic lunacy! But I was just the same, no better. I tried to imagine the soldiers climbing on to the roof. Sheer suicide. But they were brimming with emotions. First, their sense of duty and, second, passion for the Motherland. You’ll tell me it was Soviet paganism? But the thing is, if they’d handed the flag to me, I would have climbed up there too. Why? I can’t really answer that.
Don’t write about the miracles of Soviet heroism. They happened, those miracles! But first it was incompetence, sloppiness, and only then came the miracles. Throwing yourselves on to pillboxes, flinging your chests against machine guns. But nobody writes about the fact they should never have issued those orders in the first place. They slung us in like they dumped the sand on the reactor. Like we were sandbags. Every day, they hung up a new soldiers’ bulletin: ‘Their brave and selfless work …’ ‘We shall stand firm and triumph.’ They came up with a lovely name for us: ‘Soldiers of the Fire.’
He was trying to persuade me this was because we put a very low value on life. A kind of Asiatic fatalism. The person who makes the sacrifice has no sense of himself as a unique, irreplaceable human being. It is a longing for a role to play. Until this moment, he has been an actor with no lines, an extra. He has had no role, been no more than part of the background. Suddenly, he is a star. A longing for meaning. What is all our propaganda about? Our ideology? You are offered the choice of dying and acquiring meaning. They raise you up. They give you a role! It is worth dying because, afterwards, you will be immortal.
During the first days, my feelings were mixed. I remember the two most powerful were fear and resentment. Everything had happened, and no one was telling us anything: the authorities were silent, the doctors were saying nothing. There were no answers. At district level they were awaiting instructions from the provincial level, at that level they were awaiting instructions from Minsk, and in Minsk from Moscow. A long, long chain … which meant that in effect we had no protection. That was the main feeling during those days. Somewhere, far away, there was Gorbachev and a few others. Two or three people deciding our fate. The fate of millions of people.
They were afraid of their bosses. And their bosses were afraid of those above them, and so on up the chain, all the way to the general secretary. One man decided everything from his celestial heights. That was how the pyramid of power was built. It was headed by a tsar. At that time, a Communist tsar.
They were more afraid of the wrath of their superiors than of a nuclear disaster. Everyone was waiting for a phone call, for orders, and nobody did anything on their own initiative. They were terrified of taking personal responsibility.
Actually, those people were not a gang of crooks. The best way to characterize it is as a conspiracy of ignorance and corporatism. Their guiding principle, their bureaucratic training, had taught them never to show initiative, to be obsequious.
And all they cared about wasn’t people, but managing to hold on to power. A country where power matters and people do not. The primacy of the state is unchallengeable, and a human life is without any value at all.
It was not only the authorities who were deceiving us: we ourselves didn’t want to know the truth, somewhere deep down, at a subconscious level. Now, of course, we don’t want to admit that to ourselves. We prefer to curse Gorbachev, to curse the Communists … It was all their fault. We were blameless. We were victims.
On television, Gorbachev was being reassuring. ‘Emergency measures have been taken.’ I believed him. I – an engineer with twenty years’ experience, someone who knew the laws of physics. I knew every living thing needed to be evacuated from that area, at least temporarily. But we conscientiously carried on, making our measurements and watching the television. We were accustomed to believing. I belong to the post-war generation that grew up with that faith. Where did it come from? We had been victorious in a dreadful war. At that time, the whole world admired and respected us. That was really true! In the Cordilleras, the name of Stalin was carved into the rocks. What did that mean? It was a symbol! It meant we were a great country.
So there’s the answer to your question of why we knew and said nothing. Why didn’t we shout it from the rooftops? We reported the situation. I told you, we wrote internal reports. And we stayed silent and obeyed orders implicitly, because we were under Party discipline. I was a Communist. I don’t remember any of our staff being afraid for their own skin and refusing to travel to the Zone. And that was not because they were afraid of losing their Party card, but because of their faith. Above all, a belief that we were living in a fine and just society that put people first. Man was the measure of all things. For many people, the collapse of that faith ended in a heart attack or suicide. A bullet in the heart, as with Academician Legasov. Because when you lose that faith, when you are marooned without faith, you are no longer part of something, but complicit in it, and you no longer have any justification. That is how I understand what he did.
In one collective farm, for instance, there might be five villages: three ‘clean’, two ‘dirty’. They were all two to three kilometres apart. Two would be getting compensation, three wouldn’t. In a ‘clean’ village, they would build an animal-breeding centre. ‘We’ll bring in clean fodder.’ Well, where was that supposed to come from? The wind carries dust from one field to another. It’s all just one farm. To build the centre requires permits and a commission to authorize them. I am a member of that commission, even though everyone knows we ought not to sign this project off … It’s a crime! In the end, I found myself an excuse: the problem of uncontaminated fodder is no concern of a nature conservation inspector. I’m only a small person. What can I do about it? Everybody found an excuse, an explanation. That is an experiment I have conducted on myself. I realize now that terrible things in life happen unspectacularly and naturally.
The May Day Parade? Nobody forced us to turn out for it; nobody obliged me to. We could’ve decided not to go, but we didn’t. I don’t remember a more crowded, happy May Day Parade than the one that year. There were concerns, of course, but you wanted to run with the herd, to feel the sense of solidarity, to be in there together with everybody else.
we dressed our children up and took them to the May Day Parade. We didn’t have to go. We had a choice. We were not forced, nobody required our attendance. But we considered it was our duty. What? At a time like this, on a day like this? We should all be together. We ran down into the street and joined the throng. On the podium, there were all the secretaries of district Party committees, standing shoulder to shoulder with the first secretary and his little daughter. She was standing somewhere she could be seen. She was wearing a coat and hat, even though the sun was shining, and he was wearing a military waterproof cape. But there they were. I do remember that. The contamination was not only in our land but in our minds. That had been going on, and would continue, for years.
My characterization, if you want it: a hybrid between a prison and a kindergarten, that’s what Socialism is, Soviet Socialism. A citizen surrendered his soul to the state, his conscience, his heart, and in return received his rations for the day. Beyond that, it was a matter of luck: one person got a bigger ration, another a small one. The only constant was that you got it in return for selling your soul. And the thing we most wanted to avoid now was our foundation turning into a distributor of that kind of ration: the Chernobyl ready-packed meal. People were used to waiting and complaining. ‘I am a Chernobyl victim. I am entitled, because I am one of the victims.’ As I see it today, Chernobyl was a major test of our spirit and our culture.
But that is a kind of barbarism too, the lack of a sense of self-preservation. We always say ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. ‘We will show what Soviet heroism is!’ ‘We will show the character of the Soviet people.’ To the whole world! But then what about me? I don’t want to die either. I’m frightened.
Our Russian people have always lived in fear of war and revolution. That blood-drenched vampire, that Devil incarnate, Joseph Stalin … and now it’s Chernobyl. And we wonder why people here are the way they are. Why aren’t they free? Why are they so afraid of freedom? It’s just that they are more used to living under a tsar: a father of his people. It makes not the least difference whether he’s called the “general secretary” or the “president” …
We are adepts of metaphysics. We live not on the ground but in the realm of dreams, of talk, of words. We need to add something to everyday life in order to understand it. Even when we are living next to death.
I remember us debating the course of Russian culture with its penchant for tragedy. Without the overhanging shadow of death, nothing would be understood. It would be possible to come to terms with the disaster only by building on the foundation provided by Russian culture.
正因為對死亡的“輕視”，自然不會看重生命價值，更加不會尊重自然規律或社會現實——“The psychology of a rapist. The materialism of a caveman. Defying history, defying nature.”讀完這句話，百味雜陳……
Russia never saved her own people, because the country’s too big, too endless.
How long do you think we remembered that incident? Barely a few days. After all, we Russians are incapable of thinking only about ourselves and our own lives, of not looking beyond that sort of thing. Our politicians are incapable of thinking about the value of a life, but that goes for us as individuals too. Know what I mean? We just don’t think that way. We’re made of different stuff.
As for technological discipline … For Russians, discipline has always been associated with coercion: the stocks, chains. The people wanted to be spontaneous, liberated. The dream was not of freedom but of liberty. For us, discipline was a means of repression. Our ignorance has a peculiar quality, something close to oriental barbarism.
We were brought up in a particular kind of Soviet paganism. Man was almighty, the crown of creation. He had the right to do whatever he pleased with the world. Ivan Michurin’s phrase was much quoted: ‘We cannot wait for the favours of nature; our mission is to take them from her.’ The attempt to inculcate in the people qualities and attributes they did not possess. The dream of global revolution was an aspiration to remake human beings and the world around us. Remake everything! Yes! There’s that renowned Bolshevik slogan: ‘With an iron fist we shall herd the human race into happiness.’ The psychology of a rapist. The materialism of a caveman. Defying history, defying nature.
After forty years, everybody started talking about the war and thinking about it properly. Before that, we had just been aiming to survive, rebuilding, having children. It will be the same with Chernobyl. We will come back to it later and understand it more deeply. It will become a place of pilgrimage, a Wailing Wall. For the present, though, we have no ritual, no ideas! Curies, rems, sieverts – that doesn’t add up to understanding. It’s not a philosophy, not an outlook. In this country, man comes either with a gun or with the Cross. That goes right through our history. There has been nothing else. There still isn’t.
I began wondering why so little has been written on Chernobyl. Our writers keep on writing about the war, about Stalin’s camps, but they’re silent on Chernobyl. There are almost no books on it. Do you think that’s just a coincidence? It’s an episode still outside our culture. Too traumatic for our culture. And our only answer is silence. We just close our eyes, like little children, and think we can hide. Something from the future is peeking out and it’s just too big for our minds. Too huge for us to handle.
More than twenty years have passed since the accident, yet I have been asking myself ever since: what was I bearing witness to, the past or the future? It would be so easy to slide into cliché. The banality of horror. But I see Chernobyl as the beginning of a new history: it offers not only knowledge but also prescience, because it challenges our old ideas about ourselves and the world. When we talk about the past or the future, we read our ideas about time into those words; but Chernobyl is, above all, a catastrophe of time. The radionuclides strewn across our earth will live for 50,000, 100,000, 200,000 years. And longer. From the perspective of human life, they are eternal. What are we capable of comprehending? Is it in our power to extract and decipher the meaning of this still unfamiliar horror?
The night of 26 April 1986. In the space of one night we shifted to another place in history. We took a leap into a new reality, and that reality proved beyond not only our knowledge but also our imagination. Time was out of joint. The past suddenly became impotent, it had nothing for us to draw on; in the all-encompassing – or so we’d believed – archive of humanity, we couldn’t find a key to open this door.
Unable to find the words for these new feelings and emotions, unable to find emotions for these new words, we no longer knew how to express ourselves; but we were gradually immersed in the atmosphere of a new way of thinking, and so it has become possible today to pinpoint our state at the time. The truth is that facts alone were not enough; we felt an urge to look behind the facts, to delve into the meaning of what was happening.
Time had bitten its own tail, the beginning and end had merged. Chernobyl, for those who were there, did not end in Chernobyl. They were returning not from war, but almost from another world. I realized that they were consciously converting their suffering into new knowledge, donating it to us. Telling us: mind you do something with this knowledge, put it to some use.
They were heroes. Heroes of the new history. They were saving something greater than their homeland. They were saving life itself. Life’s continuity.
Some historical background
A lone human voice
The author interviews herself on missing history and why Chernobyl calls our view of the world into question
1 Land of the Dead
Monologue on why people remember
Monologue on how we can talk with both the living and the dead
Monologue on a whole life written on a door
Monologue of a village on how they call the souls from heaven to weep and eat with them
Monologue on how happy a chicken would be to find a worm. And what is bubbling in the pot is also not forever
Monologue on a song without words
Three monologues on ancient fear, and on why one man stayed silent while the women spoke
Monologue on how man is crafty only in evil, but simple and open in his words of love
The Soldiers’ Choir
2 The Crown of Creation
Monologue on the old prophecies
Monologue on a moonscape
Monologue of a witness who had toothache when he saw Christ fall and cry out Three monologues on the ‘walking ashes’ and the ‘talking dust’
Monologue on how we can’t live without Tolstoy and Chekhov
Monologue on what St Francis preached to the birds
Monologue without a title: a scream
Monologue in two voices: male and female
Monologue on how some completely unknown thing can worm its way into you
Monologue on Cartesian philosophy and on eating a radioactive sandwich with someone so as not to be ashamed
Monologue on our having long ago come down from the trees but not yet having come up with a way of making them grow into wheels
Monologue by a capped well Monologue about longing for a role and a narrative
The Folk Choir
3 Admiring Disaster
Monologue on something we did not know: death can look so pretty
Monologue on how easy it is to return to dust
Monologue on the symbols and secrets of a great country
Monologue on the fact that terrible things in life happen unspectacularly and naturally
Monologue on the observation that a Russian always wants to believe in something
Monologue about how defenceless a small life is in a time of greatness
Monologue on physics, with which we were all once in love
Monologue on something more remote than Kolyma, Auschwitz and the Holocaust
Monologue on freedom and the wish to die an ordinary death
Monologue on a freak who is going to be loved anyway
Monologue on the need to add something to everyday life in order to understand it
Monologue on a mute soldier
Monologue on the eternal, accursed questions: ‘What is to be done?’ and ‘Who is to blame?’
Monologue of a defender of Soviet power
Monologue on how two angels took little Olenka
Monologue on the unaccountable power of one person over another
Monologue on sacrificial victims and priests
The Children’s Choir
A lone human voice
In place of an epilogue