A Blast from the Past.
Chernobyl. Directed by Johan Renck. Written and produced by Craig Mazin. HBO/Sky, 6 May-3 June 2019. 5h30min.
Serhii Plokhy, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe. 432 pp. New York: Basic Books, 2018. ISBN-13 978-1541617094. $32.00.
On Friday, 25 April 1986, workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant began to power down Reactor no. 4 in preparation for a safety test. In the early morning hours of Saturday, 26 April 1986, after the test finally began, the reactor spun out of control, there was an explosion, and a fire broke out. Firefighters from nearby Pripiat', a town built for power plant workers, rushed to the scene to extinguish the flames,
responding as they would to any fire. Within hours, first responders were taken to the hospital. They showed signs of acute radiation poisoning but were told they had only been exposed to chemicals. Meanwhile, plant personnel contested what exactly had happened at the plant. What was the explosion? Anatolii Diatlov, the chief nuclear engineer who oversaw the test from the control room, insisted it was a hydrogen tank. Valerii Perevozhenko, a reactor foreman who witnessed the explosion from a platform above the reactor, asserted it was the core of the reactor itself. The debate continued even as radiation levels maxed out dosimeters. Meanwhile, the highest-ranking plant employees and party members minimized the accident, both to maintain calm in the areas surrounding Chernobyl and to save face on the global stage. The cover on secrecy was blown by nuclear power plant workers in Sweden, whose dosimeters registered accident levels of radiation, and where further tests showed the radioactive isotopes could have come only from the USSR. As it became indisputable that the core of Reactor no. 4 had exploded, the Party issued evacuation orders in Pripiat'. Thousands of local residents were forced out of the region, while hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were brought in to contain the disaster and prevent even worse from occurring, such as the meltdown of a neighboring reactor.
The worst nuclear accident in history, Chernobyl remains a household word today. It has come to symbolize (and obscure) the chaotic end of the Soviet period, becoming almost synonymous with the collapse. The name also surfaces at moments of new nuclear disasters, such as Fukushima in 2011, which to date is the only accident that rivals Chernobyl in magnitude. Yet while Chernobyl remains a known event across the globe, there is little popular knowledge of what unfolded in northeastern Ukraine in the days, months, and years following the disaster, and even less of a sense of what this event means for us today. New popular media and two exceptional works of history begin to address that gap. Craig Mazin's five-part miniseries Chernobyl has drawn enormous attention to the event. The series comes on the heels of Serhii Plokhy's Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe and Kate Brown's Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future, which bring the study of Chernobyl into the scope of the field of history, building on Svetlana Alexievich's oral history Voices from Chernobyl and the anthropologist Adriana Petryna's Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernoby. (l) Mazin, Plokhy, and Brown make an outstanding contribution to the existing discussion of Chernobyl in no small part because they are exemplary writers, none of them missing an opportunity to tell a riveting story about this dramatic event. Equally important is that each invests Chernobyl with new meaning, sending clear messages about the significance of the event for the present. Yet each reading differs greatly. Examining them side by side gives us the opportunity to consider: what makes Chernobyl so important for us today? (2)
In five weeks, Craig Mazin's miniseries probably drew more popular attention to the Soviet 1980s than any single publication in the last two decades. The chronological bookends of the series are 26 April 1986, when the reactor exploded, and 26 April 1988-when the protagonist of the series, the nuclear physicist Valerii Legasov (Jared Harris), committed suicide. A high-ranking scientist at the elite Kurchatov Institute for Atomic Energy in Moscow, Legasov was selected as the scientific head of the Extraordinary Commission that monitored and designed the plan of action for containing Chernobyl, an effort that he carried out dutifully and ultimately paid for with his own health, which deteriorated within a year of serving the effort. In this capacity, Legasov became the scientific face of Chernobyl abroad, giving a lengthy (and lauded) speech at a convention of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna in August 1986. After arguing for over a year that the potential harms of Chernobyl had been contained, he began to speak out about the threat still posed by the reactor--comments for which he was professionally marginalized and, Mazin speculates, driven to suicide.
Legasov makes a fitting protagonist for the series because his life embodies, as Mazin sees it, the key conflict surrounding Chernobyl and the takeaway from the event as a whole. The opening scene introduces that conflict. Legasov sits at his kitchen table recording himself into a vintage cassette player and asks: "What is the cost of lies? It's not that we'll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all" (1:30-1:42). In a sense, this line contains the entire series, in which Chernobyl is reimagined as a struggle between truth and lies and a parable of the devastating impact on a dependent population when a government tells big lies. That the Soviet government did not even impart knowledge of the severity of the situation to the hundreds of thousands of workers funneled into the disaster zone or tell neighboring states that an accident had occurred are both cases in point. Yet the selection of this struggle as the main takeaway from Chernobyl is not really new. This has been the chief critique from the West of how the Soviet state handled Chernobyl since 1986.
What is laudable in Mazin's retelling, however, is the emphasis on the hundreds of thousands of people who were brought to Chernobyl just as the Exclusion Zone was evacuated. The first two episodes spotlight the fire-fighters and their families, including Vasilii and Liudmila Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley), drawn from the opening chapter of Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl (3) Episode 3 features the 400 miners sent in to dig an enormous tunnel below the fiery reactor to prevent the core from burning through the concrete base and contaminating the ground water supply throughout Eastern Europe. Episode 4 shows the men conscripted to hunt irradiated animals in the areas surrounding Chernobyl; the "biorobots" brought in to shovel highly radioactive graphite from power plant rooftops; and the three divers asked to swim through irradiated pools to close the water valves flooding the reactor. Unlike the fact of the explosion and the attempt to cover it up, these stories are not well known. They give due credit to the Soviet people who compromised their health and, in many cases, gave their lives to address a disaster that threatened the entire globe.
It is clear from the props, sets, and costumes that the producers were devoted to getting certain details right. They dutifully examined photographs of the era, visited the Exclusion Zone, poured over blueprints of Pripiat', and consulted those who lived through the era who could explain, for instance, that Legasov's cat would not have eaten pet food but whatever food was available in the house. The details make the series believable and a fascinating work of historical reconstruction. Yet it is also clear that Mazin takes full creative license to convey his broader interpretation of Chernobyl. The final episode is a case in point. At the 1987 trial of the three leaders of the plant, on Mazin's retelling, Legasov gives a powerful speech that explains how the reactor exploded and blames plant personnel for the explosion in addition to three other things: the reactor itself, which had known flaws; the financial shortcuts taken when building the reactors; and the lack of information given to those operating the reactors and running the test. The judge interrupts his speech: "Professor Legasov, if you mean to suggest the Soviet state is somehow responsible for what happened, then I must warn you, you are treading on dangerous ground," to which Legasov responds: "I've already trod on dangerous ground. We're on dangerous ground right now, because of our secrets and our lies" (55:26-55:40). This exchange brings the central theme of the series full circle, suggesting that the cost of lies is Chernobyl.
Legasov, however, was not actually at the trial. Neither was the audience of scientists that Legasov aims to convince with his speech. Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a Belorussian nuclear physicist who encourages Legasov to tell the truth, was not a real person. Do not get me wrong--there is no need to dispense with creative license. It is often the interpretive leap that professional historians take when they make their work not only informative but meaningful. The same is true for Mazin. The important question is thus not what is accurate or inaccurate in the series, as many reviews have focused on, but when and why Mazin bends the historical truth--or, at times, simply makes it up. On the whole, it seems like the producers assiduously attended to physical details (what a firefighter wore, what a miner's helmet looked like, how many buttons were in the control room) and the scientific details (what caused the explosion). Historical details--who was where when, what they said (when it is actually known, as in the case of Legasov's tapes)--are often embellished to allow Mazin to hammer home the main message: that Chernobyl was the result of the Soviet government's lies. Or, as Stellan Skarsgard ("Boris Shcherbina") puts it in "Inside Part 5," to show "the system was guilty" (3:01-3:04).
One problem with the distribution of historical accuracy in Mazin's retelling of the story is that the central cause of Chernobyl, as he sees it--that is, the state--is largely fabricated. What is the Soviet state in the eyes of the producers? It is, first, one in which state figures are obsessed with delusion, facts are debatable, and one's political status determines the power of one's analysis. As the Belorussian party boss puts it to the scientist Khomyuk, "I prefer my opinion to yours" (23:04-23:06). It is also a state that motivates and manipulates its population by brute force. For instance, in Episode 2 Shcherbina threatens to shoot Legasov if he does not tell him how a nuclear reactor works. In fact, many threats of summary execution are issued throughout the series, especially against Legasov. Mazin also sees the Soviet state as obsessed with its own ideology in its dullest form. On his own account, Mazin captured this language well in the opening speech of the trial where the judge asks "that justice be carried out on behalf of the people in accordance with the general goal of our party, as determined by its 20th, 21st, and 22nd Congresses, which is a Leninist goal, the only immutable goal of the Soviet state" (15:50-16:05).
But when the trial took place in 1987 there had been twenty-seven lauded party conferences. As Mazin explains in the fifth episode of the podcast, these lines were based an earlier Soviet speech--one of Brezhnev's--because to his mind it perfectly captured Soviet-speak (17:30-18:20). This is rather convenient. Here Mazin wants to make an important point about the nature of state language in the Soviet Union as well as ideology and, more broadly than that, the people's relationship to ideology and the Soviet project as a whole. Yet he ignores some basic facts about late Soviet history--for instance, threats of summary execution were no longer used--as well as a rich scholarly literature on ideology. It might seem like too much to ask that a popular television series engage two decades of the Soviet subjectivities debate, but why is academic history any less significant than the inner workings of a nuclear reaction, which is also no simple thing? Yet the real problem is that Mazin appears to make up history when it is convenient to proving his point--that the system was to blame, that ideology and the Soviet way of thinking were to blame. One wonders if he took a closer look at how the Soviet Union actually functions (and failed to function) in the 1980s, if he would be able to make the same point. What is worse is that this portrait of the Soviet state appeals so easily to contemporary audiences, and because the physical details of the series are so compelling, audiences are bound to assume Mazin gets everything right, including the state.
The bigger problem, however, is that Mazin curiously turns the worst nuclear disaster in history away from discussions of the general safety of nuclear energy and weapons. There are essential questions that the series, and the commentary that accompanies it, leave out. For instance, how safe are the more than 450 nuclear reactors that exist globally today? How does Chernobyl compare to other major nuclear disasters, like the United States' Three Mile Island in 1979 and Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Plant in 2011, which both had American-designed reactors? The series also sets the disaster completely in the past, ending two years after the explosion. It fails to explore the long-term effects of Chernobyl and nuclear radiation. In short, it is so easy to peg the problem on a political other, and far more difficult to ask how Chernobyl presents us with a global problem with which we ourselves must still contend. There is no call to action to mediate nuclear power today, which is the greatest shortcoming of the series.
Luckily we are not left to interpret the disaster from the television series alone but have at our fingertips two new serious and elegantly written histories based on new archival materials and attempts to conceptualize the long-term significance of the nuclear disaster and its meaning for the present. Serhii Plokhy's Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe offers a page-turning narrative of the nuclear meltdown that takes, like some parts of the miniseries, a minute-by-minute approach to the unfolding of the event, though the historian also embeds that microhistory in a larger narrative of the region, the development of nuclear power in the USSR, and the history of the specific reactor that melted down at Chernobyl, the high-power channel-type reactor, known (and popularized in the miniseries) as the RBMK reactor. The chronological focus of the book is April 1986 through December 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The book incorporates new archival materials from the Central Archives of the Public Organizations of Ukraine (TsDAHO) and the Archive of the Ukrainian Security Service (Arkhiv SBU), opened in part by the Maidan uprising and the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. The strength of this work is its masterful prose and the uniquely detailed account of the world's worst nuclear disaster, yet it presents some of the same problems as the miniseries.
One way in which Plokhy's Chernobyl diverges from Mazin's miniseries is in its depiction of Viktor Briukhanov, Nikolai Fomin, and Diatlov. Whereas the miniseries depicts them as career-driven, irresponsible, ruthless individuals, essentially confirming the Soviet record on this one point, Plokhy challenges the record, portraying Briukhanov as not an antagonist but a protagonist, who along with Fomin and Diatlov did all he could once the accident happened to respond quickly and carefully. He points out the injustice of their sentences: they all received ten years of hard labor, despite different degrees of involvement with the test that caused the meltdown--Diatlov directly overlooked the test on the reactor that melted down, and Briukhanov was not present at the plant at the time of the disaster--and despite the fact that all three responded immediately to the life-threatening situation, ultimately paying with their bodies and health.
In Plokhy's retelling, it is the aftermath of the explosion that shaped the ultimate legacy of the event. Each person on the scene had a different assessment of the situation; few could agree on the fact of the explosion, let alone on how to respond to it; and pressure--not from local party officials like Mazin's Zharkov but from party officials in Moscow--encouraged those on the ground to underemphasize the severity of the situation. Plokhy contrasts this drama with unsuspecting and uninformed inhabitants of the areas surrounding Chernobyl. Citizens in Pripiat' continued life as usual: wedding parties paraded through town, children played outside, and one man sunbathed on his apartment rooftop, while first responders were hospitalized with symptoms of acute radiation poisoning. Orders to evacuate Pripiat' were given only at 4:00 pm on 27 April 1986. Several days later, on 1 May 1986, Kiev registered dangerously high levels of radiation, but authorities continued with the May Day parade per plan. The contrast suggests the cruelty of the Soviet state and how it refused to take the lives of its citizens seriously.
Yet pursuing the question of blame, Plokhy arrives at some of the same conclusions as Mazin. Like Mazin, he points the finger at the Soviet government in conjunction with a powerful military-industrial complex prone to secrecy of information for failing to distribute information in a timely manner. Plokhy also blames the Soviet centralized economy and argues that demands for quick and unprecedented economic growth that characterized perestroika contributed to the meltdown. The centralized economy bared its head in the very test that triggered the meltdown: the test ran according to the schedule not of nuclear experts but of the central power grid in Kiev. The spirit of the 27th Party Congress and the desire "to get rich fast" were also to blame. This point resonates with the miniseries. When Legasov is asked at the trial why the tips of control rods in RBMK reactors use graphite, he replies, "It's cheaper" (52:10). Here, however, one might ask what "getting rich fast" under socialism meant. This was, after all, the Soviet Union, not Silicon Valley. Here Plokhy perhaps unintentionally reduces Soviet socialism to American capitalism, which erases important historical differences between the two main Cold War players. If there are striking similarities, then there is at the very least a missed opportunity here to explain what they are.
In addition to reevaluating the question of blame, Plokhy takes up the problem of the Soviet collapse, and in this way he makes an important conceptual contribution to the broader discussion of Chernobyl. Many argue that Chernobyl blew cracks in the Soviet system, revealing the weakness of the Soviet state and draining (along with other leaks) the state's coffers. Even Gorbachev made this argument in a 2006 media statement: "The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl ... was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later." (4) The historian Stephen Kotkin sees Chernobyl as part of a broader "implosion" of the Soviet state that started with the collapse of oil prices in the 1970s. (5) For Plokhy, however, the "explosion" outranks the "implosion." He links Chernobyl to the Soviet collapse by tracing how the Soviet government's mishandling of the meltdown accelerated the development of the Ukrainian independence movement.
Plokhy argues that the government's mishandling of Chernobyl sparked the rise of the Ukrainian nationalist movement, activists who cut their teeth on trying to procure information of life-or-death significance about Chernobyl and later supported full-fledged Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union. This argument offers an interesting history of Ukrainian independence, which will no doubt resonate in parts of Ukraine today, but one wonders why Chernobyl did not trigger a comparable independence movement in the Belorussian SSR, which had an even larger territory within the disaster zone of Chernobyl than Ukraine. One also wonders why the same independence activists, as Plokhy points out, supported keeping Chernobyl open in the 1990s. Furthermore, this argument contradicts Plokhy's previous study, which contends that the key to understanding the Soviet collapse is in the four months from the August 1991 coup to Gorbachev's resignation speech in December 1991. (6)
In the end, however, the book stops not with the Soviet collapse but with the present moment, and in this way his account does much more than the miniseries. According to Plokhy, the chief lesson learned from Chernobyl concerns the dangers of granting authoritarian regimes nuclear capabilities, even in the form of power plants. In the epilogue, he notes that "a whopping twenty-one new reactors are under construction in China, plus nine in Russia, six in India, four in the United Arab Emirates, and two in Pakistan." He continues: "Are we sure that all these reactors are sound, that safety procedures will be followed to the letter, and that the autocratic regimes running most of those countries will not sacrifice the safety of their people and the world as a whole to get extra energy and cash to build up their military, ensure rapid economic development, and try to head off public discontent?" "This," he underscores, "is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union back in 1986" (347). His argument lends itself to a conservative politics of global distribution of nuclear potential. It also overlooks the weaknesses of nuclear energy everywhere--including the United States and Japan, the only two places where accidents at nuclear power plants rivaled Chernobyl--and how every country that permits nuclear power plants on its soil tacitly accepts the potentially disastrous consequences they pose to the population.
In the end, the shortcoming of Plokhy's book is the same as Mazin's miniseries: both fail to use Chernobyl to assess the magnitude of questions Chernobyl raises for the global present. Namely, how did the human-guided outcome of Chernobyl compare to other major nuclear disasters, including Three Mile Island and Fukushima? How "democratic" is the circulation of information about nuclear energy even in countries that are not authoritarian, particularly when information on nuclear power plants, testing facilities, waste storage areas, and weapons alike can be classified as "national security concerns"? What standard of information dissemination can be expected by citizens of any state, autocratic or not, that would accept nuclear energy at a potential risk to the population? Plokhy also fails to ask why, even after Chernobyl, the same complaints about lack of dissemination of information were made in Japan in 2011, and why did the Japanese government respond to its population in the same way the Soviet regime responded, saying they did not know exactly what was going on or what the consequences would be? That these questions remain absent from the book and miniseries is the result of the same phenomenon: both writers point to the Soviet system as the problem, making it difficult to see ourselves in the shadow of the political other.
It is in taking on these questions that Kate Brown conveys a wholly new story about Chernobyl that makes a compelling case for how understanding Chernobyl reshapes our present and our global 20th-century past. Rather than taking the minute-by-minute approach to the meltdown itself, she conveys the essential details in the introduction and then focuses her narrative on the doctors and scientists involved and affected by the meltdown and, most importantly, the inhabitants of the region of Polesia. Rather than focusing on the Soviet Union, she takes a global approach, opening up questions about how more than Soviet actors were involved. She sets off on this journey with a few central questions: Why, even after Chernobyl, do we not have a clear protocol for how to deal with new meltdowns? How, after Fukushima, was the Japanese government able to recycle many of the lines spoken by the Soviet government after Chernobyl? And why has the Exclusion Zone come to be portrayed as verdant and lush, free from traces of the world's worst nuclear disaster except for the fact that nobody is allowed to live there? Was the world's worst nuclear disaster not really all that bad?
Answering these questions requires a sturdy arsenal of sources, and the lengths to which Brown went to build her archive exemplifies historical research at its most creative and best. The book incorporates sources gathered at no less than 27 archives in the former Soviet Union, Western Europe, and the United States. At some, Brown was the first historian to peruse the collections. She also sought out documents in personal collections, including a one-of-a-kind copy of the transcript of the 1986 Politburo meeting where Soviet leaders decided to blame high-ranking plant personnel for the disaster. She took cues for shaping her archive from the documents themselves. She tracked down signatories of petitions now housed in the archives and scientists who authored papers on radiation. She interviewed three dozen scientists, doctors, and Chernobyl survivors. She attended scientific conferences in order to learn how to measure and quantify radiation (no simple matter) and followed scientists through Polesia to learn to read the irradiated landscape. In these well-trained hands, each twisted tree and pile of leaves that refuses to decompose become sources for understanding the history of Chernobyl.
The chronological center of Manual for Survival is 1988 to 1990, when the Soviet Union did not hide behind a curtain of secrecy and lies, as Mazin might put it, but actually invited Western scientists into contaminated parts of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia to conduct what Brown calls "Science Across the Iron Curtain." In 1988, the Soviet government convened an international conference on nuclear energy in Ukraine, where specialists from around the world convened to proclaim that the meltdown at Chernobyl had not been as harmful as one might expect. The Soviet government invited the World Health Organization (WHO) to follow up and evaluate the USSR's new permissible level of radiation, which, in the wake of Chernobyl was raised to 350 mSv. After a quick and sloppy study, WHO officials declared that even three times higher levels of persistent radiation would not damage inhabitants' health. These conclusions shaped how many people were evacuated and were given clean food and water, among other decisions that had to be carefully orchestrated after the meltdown.
Chernobyl presented a host of problems, but it also offered an opportunity: namely, to study the effects of low-dose chronic radiation on human beings and the environment and to better understand how many people have been affected by Chernobyl. This investigation did not happen--at least not systematically Brown asks why WHO officials failed to use this opportunity to fill this enormous gap in knowledge, especially as nuclear power plants proliferated around the world and nobody could rule out the potential of a similar disaster. She closely examines the attempts of international organizations--including WHO, the United Nations, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), and IAEA--to study the consequences. In every single case, the studies failed to come to fruition and/or ended with the conclusion that there would be no long-term health effects of Chernobyl, that the radiation rates were simply too low.
In the absence of thorough medical studies that showed the effects of low-dose radiation on human bodies, it is left to the historian to piece together the archival record in an effort to convey this information, which is just one of many ways, as Brown shows, that the historians voice remains indispensable to our understanding of Chernobyl and its significance. In pursing 27 archives around the world, Brown uncovers countless documents that record the illnesses that spiked in Chernobyl-contaminated lands. Diseases included autoimmune disorders, heart disorders, and damaged intestines--all illnesses known to come from radiation exposure, though they can also come from other factors, both genetic and environmental. The one disease that was hard to associate with anything else was thyroid cancer, especially in children. Belarus experienced on average 1.9 cases of childhood thyroid cancer before 1986; the republic experienced 54 cases in 1991 alone. The reports of every international agency failed to account for this staggering rise in thyroid cancer and only predicted that there would be "a few" more cases of "easily diagnosable" and "easily curable" cancer in the future.
By focusing a global lens on Chernobyl, Brown suggests that there is more to the disaster than Soviet actors' lies and secrecy. Relentlessly staying on the case, she asks why the international agencies invited into the Soviet Union in the late 1980s did not give better answers--and in some cases gave even worse answers--to the questions about Chernobyl? Here--and this is the central contention of Manual for Survival--Brown argues that for international organizations to admit that the burnt-out reactor posed severe threats to the health of human beings and the environment would have made it too easy to show that the radioactive isotopes that blanketed the northern hemisphere from nuclear weapons testing also posed a threat to human health. Chernobyl has been dubbed "the worst nuclear disaster in history," Brown points out, but "the total emissions from nuclear tests were a thousand times greater than emissions from Chernobyl" (248). While Chernobyl released 48 million curies of radioactive iodine alone, nuclear bombs released 20 billion curies (248). In Brown's argument, one of the most immediate threats Chernobyl posed was to the nuclear defense industry. But, she suggests, that threat could be diffused "if someone could show that Chernobyl ... caused only the death of a few score of firemen and no other health effects" (248).
Thus, Brown argues, the staggeringly low official counts on Chernobyl fatalities that range from 31 to 54 are not just "Soviet" numbers. They are the result of international collaboration to hide the effects of radiation to which Cold War states had long exposed their own populations. This raises one of the basic factual questions about Chernobyl: how many people died? Brown points out that official tallies ranging from 31 to 54 reflect only the deaths of first responders within several months of Chernobyl. We need other ways to measure. She looks at how many people the Ukrainian state pays compensation to because their spouses died from Chernobyl-related health problems. That number is 35,000. But, she qualifies, this number is problematic. It only accounts for victims old enough to have married, and only in Ukraine. "Off the record," she writes, "a scientist at the Kyiv Institute of Radiation put the number of fatalities at 150,000 in Ukraine alone. An official at the Chernobyl Plant gave the same number. That range of 35,000 to 150,000 Chernobyl fatalities--not 54-is the minimum" (311).
In post-Soviet states and beyond, Brown's book suggests, we should care about Chernobyl because the catastrophe was in many ways the result of global collaboration and a global history with nuclear reactions. There are other reasons we should care, too. For one, the winds that scattered clouds irradiated by Chernobyl did not stop at national boundaries or even the Iron Curtain. They scattered radioactive isotopes across Europe. In many cases, the way those states dealt with irradiated spaces and goods was no better than what many associate with the Soviet Union. In Greece, for example, grain harvest shortly after Chernobyl was so radioactive that intended Italian purchasers refused to accept it. The dispute reached high-pitched screams before the European Community intervened and bought up the grain. They then mixed the "hot" grain with "cool" grain and sent it to the German Democratic Republic and African countries as aid. The situation touches on one of the key themes that comes out in Brown's study about what bodies matter, where, and when--which had everything to do with how doctors and scientists decided that Belorussians, Ukrainians, and provincial Russians would be okay living with high levels of radiation.
Chernobyl is also a global story, as Brown points out, because human beings are creative, working, trading creatures. The movement of goods they produce also moves radioactive isotopes released by Chernobyl. This is particularly the case with one of the most prolific products of the swampy, sandy region surrounding the Exclusion Zone: berries. Berries efficiently draw radioactive isotopes out of plants, making them among the most irradiated products of Polesia. But by local standards, berries fetch their pickers an excellent wage, which encourages locals to collect them. The price that berries earn depends on their level of radioactivity, but even "hot" berries make their way to market. Brown relates the story of a semi crossing from Canada to the United States that registered a radioactive hotspot so strong that border patrol suspected there was a bomb on board. Relieved to find it was just Ukrainian berries, they passed the shipment into the United States and, effectively, the berries into the US food supply.
In all these ways Chernobyl is a global problem with global ramifications. It is not enough to point the finger vaguely eastward, as Mazin and Plokhy do. Doing so will not prepare us any better to live in the nuclear era. The virtue of Brown's book is that it provides, as the title suggests, a manual for survival in the nuclear age. We learn here that blaming authoritarianism will not help us address the global problem of nuclear power and our already irradiated surroundings. We also learn the playbook used by the Soviet government, UN, WHO, and others to cover up the grave consequences of Chernobyl. Knowing this playbook will help prevent its use in the future. We can also learn from the heroes of the book, who have learned to contend with the outcome of Chernobyl without ignoring its effects, and how to measure radiation in their surroundings and food. This is the reality of living in the nuclear era--a reality that invites us to live differently and requires us to understand how we all are part of the story of Chernobyl.
427 Mahar Hall
State University of New York at Oswego
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(1) Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl, trans. Keith Gessen (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2005), was among the first attempts to preserve the history of Chernobyl through a collection of first-person narratives of those who experienced the nuclear accident from a variety of positions. Adriana Petryna's publications on Chernobyl make a tremendous contribution to our understanding of the aftermath of the nuclear disaster as well as citizenship in post-Soviet Ukraine. In Life Exposed (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), she argues that in the wake of the Soviet collapse, many Ukrainians mobilized their proximity to Chernobyl to access welfare benefits in the transition to the market economy. In this process, citizenship for many became deeply entangled not only with one's relationship to Chernobyl but with exposing one's health condition to the state. See also Petryna, "Sarcophagus: Chernobyl in Historical Light," "Anthropologies of the Body," special issue of Cultural Anthropology 10, 2, (May 1995): 196-220; and Petryna, "Biological Citizenship: The Science and Politics of Chernobyl-Exposed Populations," "Landscapes of Exposure: Knowledge and Illness in Modern Environments," Osiris 19 (2004): 250-65.
(2) An additional recent work not included in this review is by the journalist Adam Higgenbotham [Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster [New York: Simon and Schuster, 2019]).
(3) Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl, 5-23.
(4) Mikhail S. Gorbachev, "Turning Point at Chernobyl," Daily Times, 17 April 2006, available at http://www.gorby.ru/en/presscenter/publication/show_25057/.
(5) Stephen Kotkin, Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
(6) Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (New York: Basic Books, 2014).
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|Title Annotation:||Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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