Chernobyl on Page and Screen

By Kristen B.

It’s not exactly a cheerful topic – the most devastating nuclear accident ever to have happened. However, the story of what went wrong is riveting and amazingly complex. More than 30 years ago, on April 26, 1986 at 1:23:58 am, one of the nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl site suffered a massive explosion and containment failure, which led to fallout poisoning in large areas of Ukraine and Belarus. At the time, the Soviet government was more concerned with containing the political and international ramifications than protecting its citizenry. I have to admit that until recently I hadn’t thought much about Chernobyl other than as an unfortunate incident that happened during my teenage years.

A member of the book discussion group that I moderate, Books on Tap, advocated for reading oral histories and books in translation, particularly this one. She argues (and I agree) that it’s a marvelous way to gain insight and perspective from other cultures and points of view. Voices of Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster presents the ultimate expression of telling stories “in their own voices.” Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote it 10 years after the nuclear accident, and it was more recently translated in 2014. The book presents the written account of her interviews with a wide cross-section of people who lived through the catastrophe and the subsequent years. A surprising number of people returned to their homes or fled to the “open” country as other Soviet Socialist Republics disintegrated into ethnic warfare. They often refer to Chernobyl as “war,” being their only other frame of reference to so many people dying and the subsequent governmental propaganda. Although it can feel a bit repetitive, that sheer recounting from so many different people – teachers, party loyalists, army conscripts, wives, and mothers – drives homes the devastating, ordinary reality of living on top of nuclear fallout.

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham (also an eBook and eAudiobook) offers another side of the story, one rich in politics and science. Where the previous title provides a direct line to individuals, this book takes a much larger overview of the history of Chernobyl – literally starting with the creation of the plant and its company town along a marshy stretch of wilderness. The perfidy of the Soviet institution’s need for results and optics, above any adherence to safety and good practice, was something I had forgotten since the fall of the USSR. The Chernobyl disaster was nonetheless a direct result of the political reality during that time… and in fact contributed to the fall of the communist regime. This book draws on interviews and recently declassified archives to bring the disaster and the people who lived through it to life. Although there’s a short holds list for the book, it’s worth the wait.

HBO aired a five hour, five episode Chernobyl miniseries in 2019 that combined the source material from these two books into an excellent show about what happened during the explosion and in the two years after, available to borrow as DVDs. You can’t turn away from the real-life drama unfolding on the screen, not even knowing the basic outlines of the story. All sources, books and screen, point to the complete cognitive dissonance of dealing with an accident that was largely deemed to be impossible. The show is immensely well-written and well-acted, pulling you in almost despite yourself. Content warning: The middle episode contains some particularly hard scenes of “cleaning up” wildlife and abandoned pets. Here, too, the faces and the voices give a human accounting to an unimaginable tragedy.

The area will not fully return to “safe” for millennia, barring any further contamination. I feel like this was an important moment in time, and only now can we begin to appreciate its history. I also hope it will give us some optimism about human resilience and the ability to solve big problems… because one thing has been made perfectly clear: it could have been so much worse.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, cook, and take walks in the park.