Reflections on the legacy of Chernobyl on the 30th anniversary.
A photograph of what used to be a public gym, Chernobyl, 2008.Image by Flickr user Philippe Simpson.
By Stewart L. Sinclair
Up the street from my apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, there’s an office building, and on its side, drilled into the brick with rusting bolts, hangs an old black and yellow fallout shelter sign. A Cold War relic. A reminder that we once believed a nuclear strike from Russia was an imminent possibility; a reminder that “Duck-and-Cover” was a song sung by schoolchildren to simultaneously reinforce their fear of a nuclear holocaust while assuring them that the Civil Defense Force was logistically capable of managing such a nightmare scenario. But the signs are now almost entirely detached from the systems they signified. Now, they mainly add cultural cachet to a building’s façade.
Over the last winter—the axial tilt-based, non-nuclear variety—I read Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl, a chronicle of how, as one of the survivors of the city’s meltdown describes it, “the frightening things in life happen quietly and naturally.” Which, I think, is why these signs have been more visible to me as I wander around the city. Somehow, they have undergone an eerie alchemy, transforming from red flags above “safe” shelters, to neglected pieces of tin from a bygone era, to the aesthetic ornaments of kitsch. In an alternate universe, these signs might be a metaphor for hubris in a bombed-out and depleted New York. They would survive as just another reminder of how we had so fully resigned ourselves to the possibility of complete annihilation from a man-made disaster. After all, the “frightening things” are not just the disasters themselves. In some ways, the fire and fallout from Chernobyl are secondary crises—products of the Kafka-esque absurdity of life during the Cold War.
And it’s hard for me, as someone born three years after the Chernobyl disaster, to understand that mindset, even as we live in a world still deeply defined by Cold War policies. We are only beginning to transition from the political leadership of that era, driven by the fear of Communism, the orchestration of proxy wars and the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction; toward a time of leadership more significantly influenced by terrorism from non-state actors. Ted Cruz’s anti-Castro rhetoric sounds antiquated and anachronistic beside Donald Trump’s frightening Islamophobia. After all, the day I started writing this essay, I woke up to learn that three men had walked into an airport in Brussels, Belgium, two with bombs strapped to their chest, and blew themselves up outside of the security check-point, killing dozens, allegedly in the name of their fledgling caliphate, the Islamic State. Meanwhile, before the sun has shined its last light on the same sad day, Obama stood on Cuban soil, before Raul Castro, and announced that he had “come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.”
The sun sets on one disaster, or one fear, as another comes over the horizon, and we become blind to one in the harsh blaze of the next.
The boogey-men that my generation have been warned about are different than the ones my parents were warned about. Most of the tragic moments in their lives are distinct from the ones that defined mine. And even the most human part of the whole equation—the moments when people are unified in despair—the meltdowns and the massacres—dissipate in the fog of history. Just as I had to learn in school about the explosion of the Challenger or the Cuban Missile Crisis, so, too, did I find myself, in 2011, struggling to answer a thirteen-year-old girl who asked me what 9/11 was. The sun sets on one disaster, or one fear, as another comes over the horizon, and we become blind to one in the harsh blaze of the next.
Historians, I believe, are dedicated to fighting against the tide of our social amnesia. The reason they continue to write books about the Holocaust, or Appomatox, or the earthquake in Haiti, is to try to help us remember the suffering and the extent of the damage. Some try to humanize, and others turn to abstraction.
Take Alexievich. Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awarded Alexievich the Nobel Prize in literature last year, stated that the author’s work is “not really about a history of events. It’s a history of emotions—what she’s offered is really an emotional world, so these historical events she’s covering in her various books—the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet war in Afghanistan—these are in a way just pretexts for exploring the Soviet individual and the Post-Soviet individual.” Voices is as much a record of the banal, existential agony and absurdity of life in a fallout zone as it is a chronicle of a singular incident in human history. An incident whose consequences will be playing out across generations, on a scale of time that our brains have not yet evolved to easily comprehend. Many of the liquidators had already died from cancer and pulmonary disease by the time Alexievich finished her book, or else they were living as invalids. The incidence of birth defects in Belarus jumped from 20 percent to 80 percent in the years following the accident. And those children have or will grow up, and many of them will begin to cough, and to feel lumps develop in their throats, and discover that a deadly cancer is ravaging their lymph nodes. It is a disaster in slow motion. Alexievich chose to eschew her own narrative, and to give voice to these survivors, so that anyone who reads the book will feel Chernobyl as immediate. The homage is timeless because the crisis has no end.
Chernobylites would disperse across the Soviet Union, like ionized particles in a radioactive cloud.
That’s why it was interesting to read Keith Gessen’s translator’s preface for Voices, which begins not when the haunting blue fire emanated from the reactor, but when the first plane hit Tower One of the World Trade Center, when countless volunteers rushed to Ground Zero to donate blood, to provide help to the injured. But “the blood and triage stations turned out to be unnecessary. There were few survivors of the collapse of the two towers.” Where 9/11 was an immediate harbinger of death, Chernobyl was, and continues to be, an “accident that produced, in a way, more survivors than victims.”
Gessen tries to show how Chernobyl is a different type of disaster than any that has occurred in human history. The tragedy does not have the gut-punch feeling of standing over the U.S.S. Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor; nor the awful impact of looking down at the Ground Zero reflecting pool where not long ago the world looked up. Gessen wants to emphasize that Chernobyl was a disaster whose repercussions stretch on beyond the realm of our comprehension. And it’s true that there is a difference. Only one person died in the initial blast at Chernobyl, and less than thirty would succumb to radiation poisoning in the weeks immediately following the disaster. Chernobylites would disperse across the Soviet Union, like ionized particles in a radioactive cloud. And from the confines of their own villages and hospital beds, their legs would swell, their cancers would metastasize and their skin would fall off of their bones, their children would come into the world missing limbs or unable to see and speak. It’s a disaster that feels more dystopian, surreal, fanciful and horrific than anything in our species’ collective memory. The victims won’t simply pass away over time, but multiply, and they will have to create the language to describe this suffering. Their tragedy will transpire over lifetimes, generations, eons.
2,996 people died immediately when the Twin Towers fell. The incomprehensible aspect of 9/11 was not the unfathomable nature of geologic time; it was the inability to comprehend so much carnage compressed into a single moment. And that moment seemed to arise, literally, out of the clear blue sky. But even to say that is to neglect and unintentionally dismiss the chronic issues that plague 9/11 first responders. To be fair, a case study on the long-term health effects of working in the 9/11 dust cloud was still in progress when Gessen wrote his preface in 2007. But anybody managing that crisis, and anybody with any working knowledge of respiratory illness, or of asbestos exposure, or any of the other heavy elements that were undeniably settling in that dust, knew that there were going to be long-term ramifications for every person working in it—mask or no mask. It doesn’t matter if it’s Chernobyl or Manhattan. Facts get lost in the mythology of disaster: tragedy and heroism, death and rebirth, leadership and political ineptitude.
Over 500,000 Soviets entered the radioactive hot-zone in order to contain the reactor. In New York, between sixty thousand and seventy thousand first-responders worked tirelessly in the dense and carcinogenic dust cloud. For their efforts, on both accounts, first responders were praised by their governments and the public. A special medal was created for the Chernobyl responders (liquidators, they were called): a red cross with a central detail depicting traces of alpha (α) and beta (β) particles and gamma (γ) rays over a drop of blood. Likewise in the United States, the First Responder Service Medal was created to recognize those who are willing to sacrifice themselves “to save lives and protect property.”
It becomes difficult to differentiate between the participants in each event. Soviet liquidators were exposed to radiation levels far beyond acceptable dosages. The worst impacts were experienced by the liquidators charged with clearing the roof of the destroyed reactor. It took over 350,000 liquidators working in shifts ranging from thirty seconds to three minutes—enough time to shovel up one scoop, or to pick up, by hand, a piece of radioactive concrete—to clear the roof. And yet, government officials often refused to acknowledge that their later diseases were caused by that radiation. And then in the US, 9/11 first-responders have had to fight for Congress to permanently fund the Zadroga act, the fund to treat the health effects which first responders incurred from their work at Ground Zero. The seventy thousand citizens who worked bucket brigades and fire hoses, who drove ambulances and searched through rubble for survivors, had found themselves over a decade later trying to argue why their health issues were a matter of national importance. The issue of their health was lost among the evolutionary failures of human memory and the political brinksmanship of today’s partisan politics.
What was 9/11 but a punctuated moment in the sprawling disaster of policy, human rights, religion, economics and basic understanding that we have come to call terrorism?
The more I think about Chernobyl, the Cold War, 9/11, and any of the other natural or man-made disasters that have come about before and during my lifetime, the more I have come to see Gessen’s special distinction for Chernobyl as superficial. The dichotomy between a singular catastrophic moment and something that plays out over huge expanses of time is false. When I really think about it, what was 9/11 but a punctuated moment in the sprawling disaster of policy, human rights, religion, economics, and basic understanding that we have come to call terrorism? It reaches back to the Crusades and extends to some future point, beyond ISIS, somewhere that we have yet to determine. It encapsulates Lockerbie, Oklahoma City, and the Syrian Civil War. The World Trade Center attacks, and the deaths and disease wrought by them, can be added to all of the other end-products of failed states, neoliberal policies, globalization and religious intolerance.
And what was Hurricane Katrina but one manifestation of the effects of man-made climate change? Here, too, it is a culmination of a failure of civil engineering; a failure of local, national and global governance; and sadly just one catastrophe in company with Typhoon Haiyan and Superstorm Sandy, whose effects are magnified by rising sea-levels, exacerbating the plight of island nations and the world’s poorest people in sinister disproportion to the inhabitants of wealthy nations.
The irony is that the human will to persevere and to thrive seems to encourage action more than reflection. While that same will is what allowed San Francisco to arise from the great earthquake and fire of 1906 to become a model city for earthquake resistance; and allowed Japan to arise from nuclear annihilation to become one of the most highly developed places on the planet; it also explains how The War to End All Wars became simply the first in a (so far) two-part series. And it explains how, in the wake of the attacks in Paris, Brussels, Turkey, San Bernardino, and in so many other places, our response is unfortunately not to look inward and find a way to heal, but to look for a strong-man who will carry on some non-existent battle between good and evil in perpetuity, banning Muslims and building walls.
But that thought brings me back to Chernobyl, and to a new way of looking at Gessen’s own conclusion. Rather than being an incomprehensible disaster, Chernobyl is perhaps the only disaster we have which gets us close to that feeling of permanence. In the end of the book, Alexievich wrote an addendum, “In Place of an Epilogue,” in which she concludes, “These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future.”
What is any disaster but a warning—and a premonition—of things to come.
Stewart Sinclair is a writer from Ventura, California. His work has been featured in The New Orleans Review, The Morning News, and The Millions. He now lives in Benshonhurst, Brooklyn. Find him on twitter: @stewsinclair