Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel Prize Winner, Writes About Chernobyl

Belarusian writer and journalist Svetlana Alexievich who writes about Chernobyl has won the 2015 Nobel Prize for literature. Read her “Voices from Chernobyl”. An interview about conspiracy and food immediately after disaster:

Zoya Danilovna Bruk Environmental Inspector

I worked at the inspection center for environmental protection. We were awaiting some kind of instructions, but we never received any. They only started making noise after our Belarussian writer Aleksei Adamovich spoke out in Moscow, raising the alarm. How they hated him! Their children live here, and their grandchildren, but instead of them it’s a writer calling to the world: Save us! You’d think some sort of self-preservation mechanism would kick in. Instead, at all the Party meetings, and during smoke breaks, all you heard about was “those writers.” “Why are they sticking their noses where they don’t belong? We have instructions! We need to follow orders! What does he know? He’s not a physicist!”

There was something else I was afraid of leaving out . . . oh, right! Chernobyl happened, and suddenly you got this new feeling, we weren’t used to it, that everyone has their separate life. Until then no one needed this life. But now you had to think: What are you eating, what are you feeding your kids? What’s dangerous, what isn’t? Should you move to another place, or should you stay? Everyone had to make their own decisions. And we were used to living—how? As an entire village, as a collective—a factory, a kolkhoz. We were Soviet people, we were collectivized. Then we changed. Everything changed. It takes a lot of work to understand this.

They had protocols written up for burying radioactive earth. We buried earth in earth—such a strange human activity. According to the instructions, we were supposed to conduct a geological survey before burying anything to determine that there was no groundwater within four to six meters of the burial site. We also had to ensure that the depth of the pit wasn’t very great, and that the walls and bottom of the pit were lined with polyethylene film. That’s what the instructions said. In real life it was, of course, different. As always. There was no geological survey. They’d point their fingers and say, “Dig here.” The excavator digs. “How deep did you go?” “Who the hell knows? I stopped when I hit water.” They were digging right into the water.

They’re always saying: The people are holy, it’s the government that’s criminal. Well, I’ll tell you a bit later what I think about that, about our people, and about myself.

My longest assignment was in the Krasnopolsk region, which was just the worst. In order to keep the radionuclides from washing off the fields into the rivers, we needed to follow the instructions again. You had to plow double furrows, leave a gap, put in more double furrows, and so on. You had to drive along all the small rivers and check. Obviously I needed a car. So I go to the chairman of the regional executive. He’s sitting in his office with his head in his hands: No one changed the plan, no one changed the harvesting operations; just as they’d planted the peas, so they were harvesting them, even though everyone knows that peas take in radiation the most, as do all beans. And there are places out there with forty curies or more. So he has no time for me at all. All the cooks and nurses have run off from the kindergartens. The kids are hungry. In order to take someone’s appendix out, you need to drive them in an ambulance to the next region, sixty kilometers on a road that’s as bumpy as a washboard—all the surgeons have taken off. What car? What double furrows? He has no time for me.

So then I went to the military people. They were young guys, spending six months there. Now they’re all awfully sick. They gave me an armored personnel carrier with a crew—no, wait, it was even better, it was an armored exploratory vehicle with a machine gun mounted on it. It’s too bad I didn’t get any photos of myself in it, on the armor. Like I said, it was romantic. The ensign, who commanded the vehicle, was constantly radioing the base: “Eagle! Eagle! We’re continuing our work.” We’re riding along, and these are our forests, our roads, but we’re in an armored vehicle. The women are standing at their fences and crying—they haven’t seen vehicles like this since the war. They’re afraid another war has started.

We run into an old lady.

“Children, tell me, can I drink milk from my cow?”

We look down at the ground, we have our orders—collect data, but don’t interact with the local population.

Finally the driver speaks up. “Grandma, how old are you?”

“Oh, more than eighty. Maybe more than that, my documents got burned during the war.”

“Then drink all you want.”

I understood, not right away, but after a few years, that we all took part in that crime, in that conspiracy. [She is silent.]

People turned out to be worse than I thought they were. And me, too. I’m also worse. Now I know this about myself. [Stops.] Of course, I admit this, and for me that’s already important. But, again, an example. In one kolkhoz there are, say, five villages. Three are “clean,” two are “dirty.” Between them there are maybe two or three kilometers. Two of them get “graveyard” money, the other three don’t. Now, the “clean” village is building a livestock complex, and they need to get some clean feed. Where do they get it? The wind blows the dust from one field to the next, it’s all one land. In order to build the complex, though, they need some papers signed, and the commission that signs them, I’m on the commission. Everyone knows we can’t sign those papers. It’s a crime. But in the end I found a justification for myself, just like everyone else. I thought, The problem of clean feed is not a problem for an environmental inspector.

—translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen