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An oral history of Chernobyl


Via n+1, this oral history of Chernobyl is from Sergei Vasilyevich Sobolev, Deputy Head of the Executive Committee of the Shield of Chernobyl Association. The full version here.

The following oral history, “Monologue about Lies and Truths,” is taken from Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (2005), by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Keith Gessen. It was first published on n+1 in March 2011. On October 8, 2015, Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

They’ve written dozens of books. Fat volumes, with commentaries. But the event is still beyond any philosophical description. Someone said to me, or maybe I read it, that the problem of Chernobyl presents itself first of all as a problem of self understanding. That seemed right. I keep waiting for someone intelligent to explain it to me. The way they enlighten me about Stalin, Lenin, Bolshevism. Or the way they keep hammering away at their “Market! Market! Free market!” But we—we who were raised in a world without Chernobyl, now live with Chernobyl.

I’m actually a professional rocketeer, I specialize in rocket fuel. I served at Baikonur [a space launch center]. The programs, Kosmos, Interkosmos, those took up a large part of my life. It was a miraculous time! You give people the sky, the Arctic, the whole thing! You give them space! Every person in the Soviet Union went into space with Yuri Gagarin, they tore away from the earth with him. We all did! I’m still in love with him—he was a wonderful Russian man, with that wonderful smile. Even his death seemed well-rehearsed.

It was a miraculous time! For family reasons I moved to Belarus, finished my career here. When I came, I immersed myself into this Chernobylized space, it was a corrective to my sense of things. It was impossible to imagine anything like it, even though I’d always dealt with the most advanced technologies, with outer space technologies. It’s hard even to explain—it doesn’t fit into the imagination—it’s—[He thinks.] You know, a second ago I thought I’d caught it, a second ago—it makes you want to philosophize. No matter who you talk to about Chernobyl, they all want to philosophize. But I’d rather tell you about my own work. What don’t we do! We’re building a church—a Chernobyl church, in honor of the Icon of the Mother of God, we’re dedicating it to “Punishment.” We collect donations, visit the sick and dying. We write chronicles. We’re creating a museum. I used to think that I, with my heart in the condition it’s in, wouldn’t be able to work at such a job. My first instructions were: “Here is money, divide it between thirty-five families, that is, between thirty-five widows.” All the men had been liquidators. So you need to be fair. But how? One widow has a little girl who’s sick, another widow has two children, and a third is sick herself, and she’s renting her apartment, and yet another has four children. At night I’d wake up thinking, “How do I not cheat anyone?” I thought and calculated, calculated and thought. And I couldn’t do it. We ended up just giving out the money equally, according to the list.

But my real child is the museum: the Chernobyl Museum. [He is silent.] Sometimes I think that we’ll have a funeral parlor here, not a museum. I serve on the funeral committee. This morning I haven’t even taken off my coat when a woman comes in, she’s crying, not even crying but yelling: “Take his medals and his certificates! Take all the benefits! Give me my husband!” She yelled a long time. And left his medals, his certificates. Well, they’ll be in the museum, on display. People can look at them. But her cry, no one heard her cry but me, and when I put these certificates on display I’ll remember it.