Voices from Chernobyl The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Svetlana Alexievich; Translated by Keith Gessen




Trade Paperback

256 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
On April 26, 1986, the worst nuclear reactor accident in history occurred in Chernobyl and contaminated as much as three quarters of Europe. Voices from Chernobyl is the first book to present personal accounts of the tragedy. Svetlana Alexievich (a journalist and Ukraine native) interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown—from innocent citizens to firefighters to those called in to clean up the disaster—and their stories reveal the fear, anger, and uncertainty with which they still live. Comprised of interviews in monologue from, Voices from Chernobyl is a crucially important, unforgettable in its emotional power and honesty.


Praise for Voices from Chernobyl

"The collection of narratives about the world's worst industrial accident reads like an apocalyptic fairy tale . . . The monologues . . . are exquisite in their plainspoken anguish. And as such, they are beautifully unbearable to read."—Time Out Chicago
"Svetlana Alexievich's remarkable book, recording the lives and deaths of her fellow Belarussians, has at last made it into American bookstores. (The book was published in 1999 by the British house Aurum, in a translation by Antonina Bouis.) Hers is a peerless collection of testimony. The text is well translated by Keith Gessen . . . Alexievich has not merely given us a work of documentation but of excavation, of revealed meaning. It is hard to imagine how anyone in the West will read these cantos of loss and not feel a sense of communion, of a shared humanity in the face of this horror . . . The stories collected here are not only haunting but illuminating."—Andrew Meier, The Nation
"Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl, winner of the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, is the first book to chronicle their stories. As Haruki Murakami did in Underground, his book about the gas attack on Tokyo's subway, Alexievich puts full faith in the power of people's testimony, constructing a narrative from them alone . . . One of the fascinating things about Voices from Chernobyl is the awful beauty in testimonies of pain and suffering. It's worth recalling that these are not writers or singers, but ordinary people who have forged language into a crutch, a sword, a shield, shelter. With comments like these, one would be a fool to ask why Alexievich chose to present this book as an oral history, rather than a conventional narrative. These voices are essential, powerful and brave. One can only hope the half-life of their suffering is not so long."—John Freeman, The Star Ledger (Newark)
"On April 26, 1986, the people of Belarus lost everything when a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station exploded. Many people died outright, and many were evacuated, forced to leave behind everything from pets to family photographs. Millions of acres remain contaminated, and thousands of people continue to be afflicted with diseases caused by radiation as 20 tons of nuclear fuel sit in a reactor shielded by a leaking sarcophagus known as the Cover. For three years, journalist Alexievich spoke with scores of survivors—the widow of a first responder, an on-the-scene cameraman, teachers, doctors, farmers, Party bureaucrats, a historian, scientists, evacuees, resettlers, grandmothers, mothers—and she now presents their shocking accounts of life in a poisoned world. And what quintessentially human stories these are, as each distinct voice expresses anger, fear, ignorance, stoicism, valor, compassion, and love. Alexievich put her own health at risk to gather these invaluable frontline testimonies, which she has transmuted into a haunting and essential work of literature that one can only hope documents a never-to-be-repeated catastrophe."—Booklist (starred review)
"A chorus of fatalism, stoic bravery and black, black humor is sounded in this haunting oral history of the 1986 nuclear reactor catastrophe in what is now northeastern Ukraine. Russian journalist Alexievich records a wide array of voices: a woman who clings to her irradiated, dying husband though nurses warn her 'that's not a person anymore, that's a nuclear reactor'; a hunter dispatched to evacuated villages to exterminate the household pets; soldiers sent in to clean up the mess, bitter at the callous, incompetent Soviet authorities who 'flung us there, like sand on the reactor,' but accepting their lot as a test of manhood; an idealistic nuclear engineer whose faith in communism is shattered. And there are the local peasants who take this latest in a long line of disasters in stride, filtering back to their homes to harvest their contaminated potatoes, shrugging that if they survived the Germans, they'll survive radiation. Alexievich shapes these testimonies into novelistic 'monologues' that convey a vivid portrait of late-Communist malaise, in which bullying party bosses, paranoid propaganda and chaotic mobilizations are resisted with bleak sarcasm ('It wasn't milk, it was a radioactive byproduct'), mournful philosophizing ('the mechanism of evil will work under conditions of apocalypse') and lots of vodka. The result is an indelible X-ray of the Russian soul."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
Monologue about what can be talked about with the living and the dead
The wolf came into the yard at night. I look out the window and there he is, eyes shining like headlights. Now I'm used to everything. I've been living alone for seven years, seven years since the people left. Sometimes at night I'll just be sitting here thinking, thinking, until it's lights out again. So on this day I was up all night, sitting on my bed, and then I went out to look at how the sun was. What should I tell you? Death is more just than anything else in the world: no one can
Read the full excerpt


  • Svetlana Alexievich; Translated by Keith Gessen

  • Svetlana Alexievich was born in the Ukraine and studied journalism at the University of Minsk. She has received numerous awards for her writing, including a prize from the Swedish PEN Institute for "courage and dignity as a writer."
    Keith Gessen is coeditor of n+1 magazine. He has written about Russia for The Atlantic and The New York Review of Books. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
  • Svetlana Alexievich © Svetlana Alexievich