A New Book by Tchertkoff: A Full Review in the Canadian Slavonic Papers/Revue Canadienne Des Slavistes

The Crime of Chernobyl – The Nuclear Gulag, edited by Wladimir Tchertkoff,

Glagoslav Publications, London, 2015, 622 pp., €34.70 (hardback), ISBN 978-1-784-

37932-2/€27.90 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-784-37931-5

The version of record of this manuscript has been published and is available in the Canadian Slavonic Papers/Revue Canadienne Des Slavistes (March 28, 2017) http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00085006.2017.1305013

 

Wladimir Tchertkoff offers many startling insights into one of the worst nuclear disasters of

the late twentieth century. This book provides useful information not only for historians, but

also for scientists in many fields. Politicians, along with experts in human rights, emergency

preparedness, disaster management, civil defence, and risk communication, could also learn

valuable lessons about the tragedy of 1986 from this book.

 

Glagoslav Publications categorizes this book as non-fiction literature. In my view, the

author primarily uses the popular genre of investigative journalism. A documentary filmmaker

for Swiss television, in his book Tchertkoff meticulously reports on the most important

events of the mitigation of the nuclear disaster. In some cases, he recovered a nearly hour-by

-hour chronology in the testimonies of scientists and affected people in Ukrainian and

Belarusian villages. The book offers a rare opportunity to hear from survivors and their

families. In practice, they became human guinea pigs as they experienced new pathologies

in their bodies similar to my wife’s goddaughter, who suffered from leukaemia in the Kyiv

region long after the disaster.

 

Readers will also recognize the genres of chronicle and testimony in the materials

Tchertkoff has added from his documentary footage. There are plenty of accounts of interviewees’ experiences in this book, which provide personal details, facts, and rich emotional background. The author covers the time period between 1990 and 2002, and analyzes documents from the hundreds of hours of his five documentaries while also presenting the testimonies on a wide range of topics from 1986.

 

Tchertkoff successfully overcomes the challenges involved in transforming the visual

world of documentary films into a written account. The book consists of seven parts,

which include maps and pictures from the affected regions as well as documents and

correspondence with international organizations. Writing a story using multiple perspectives

is a challenging and demanding task but brings additional bonuses for readers. These include

the author’s reflections on his active and passionate participation in many events.

 

The book also provides insight into human behaviour during a disaster. Tchertkoff draws a

parallel between the Chernobyl disaster and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago,

which uncovered the forced labour camp system in the USSR. He finds similarities between

the two cases in how the Soviet bureaucracy dealt with the Chernobyl disaster by using

forced labour of almost a million liquidators (clean-up workers) in the contaminated zone.

 

The storyline in this book introduces the reader to Belarusian dissidents such as the doctor

Iury Bandazhevsky and the physicist Vassili Nesterenko, who both resembled Andrei

Sakharov in their decisions to protect people and fight a totalitarian state. Tchertkoff’s

analysis of these scientists’ actions during the mitigation of the Chernobyl disaster is

important for those who study a role of personality in history. Nesterenko became one of

the central characters and commentators on the Chernobyl disaster. Prior to the disaster he

had worked in the nuclear industry for 40 years and was later involved in radiological

protection. Readers will be impressed by the evidence he provides about the public health

catastrophe. This includes a review of cases of thyroid and breast cancer, leukaemia, diabetes, and problems concerning eyes, blood pressure, the heart and the brain, fertility, and the digestive system.

 

The part of the book about Nesterenko brought back memories from my past. Nesterenko

and I met in Germany in the late 1990s. He was a very modest man who downplayed all of

the challenges he had faced. I noticed during meals that Vassili had many dietary restrictions.

He apologized for taking pills during lunch and explained that his digestive enzymes had

been destroyed. Writing about Chernobyl as a journalist for Ukrainian newspapers, I met

many people whose health suffered from trips to the 30-kilometre exclusion zone. However,

from this book I understood that Nesterenko was the only survivor of a team that flew over

the destroyed reactor in a helicopter, a trip that likely caused his health problems. Indeed, I

could almost hear his voice when I read the lines “If this technology caused so much

suffering to hundreds of thousands of people, it had no right to exist” (95).

 

Unfortunately, world leaders underestimated the consequences of Chernobyl. During the

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in 2011, the Japanese government failed to

adequately protect its citizens and repeated many of the Soviet authorities’ mistakes. Indeed,

Edward Geist has written that the Soviet response was better in many respects than the

Japanese government’s handling of the Fukushima Daiichi accident.1 Tchertkoff shows how

the Soviet Union’s citizens paid the harshest price in preventing the world from more

extensive contamination by radionuclides.

 

Some of the heroic stories in this book may remind the reader of Svetlana Aleksievich’s

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, originally published in 1997.

Tchertkoff’s first French edition, Le Crime de Tchernobyl, le goulag nucléaire, was published in

  1. It resonated widely and led to the establishment of the international advocacy

organization IndependentWHO. This organization has become a watchdog of the World

Health Organization, particularly with respect to the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters. In

terms of the book’s analysis of international reactions and policies, Tchertkoff could have

addressed the impact of the 11 September tragedy on the interpretation of the Chernobyl

disaster. Some US officials manipulated facts with statements such as “greater security isn’t

required because Chernobyl wasn’t that bad.”2

 

I believe everyone should read this book, regardless of whether their academic interests

are related to nuclear issues or to post-Soviet countries. This book teaches us how to value

life and survive in a nuclear era.

 

Notes

  1. Geist, “Political Fallout,” 126.
  2. Hirsch, “The NRC,” 44.

 

References

Geist, Edward. “Political Fallout: The Failure of Emergency Management at Chernobyl.” Slavic Review 74, no. 1

(2015): 104–126.

Hirsch, Daniel. 2002. “The NRC: What, Me Worry?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 58, no. 1 (2002): 38–44.

 

Alexander Belyakov