Abandoned building in Pripyat

Abandoned building in Pripyat

Reviews The Chernobyl disaster. From the explosion to the closing of the plant

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, Serhii Plokhy, Penguin (2019), 432 pages, Winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize 2018

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:3, pp 101-103
Published on balticworlds.com on December 30, 2019

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Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy is a very much needed book, published in May 2018, one year before the miniseries Chernobyl was broadcast on HBO, and I wish that the book would get just a tiny bit of the attention that has been paid to the TV series during these last few months. The author of the book, Serhii Plokhy, currently works as a professor in history at Harvard University, but grew up in Western Ukraine around 500 km from the Chernobyl power plant. He was diagnosed with an inflamed thyroid. Obviously, Plokhy wants to enlighten readers about the dangers of nuclear energy, but he is first and foremost a historian, eager to create a chronological mosaic over what happened on that disastrous night, on April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine, and to grasp its consequences in the days, months, and years that followed in the aftermath of the catastrophe.

In his forward, Plokhy defines his book in terms of “the first comprehensive history of the Chernobyl disaster from the explosion of the nuclear reactor to the closing of the plant in December 2000 and the final stages in the completion of the new shelter over the damaged reactor in May 2018” (p. xiv). This quote captures the essence of the book, namely the ambition to write the complete Chernobyl story, based on various documents, including testimonies, diaries, interviews, and recently released archive documents. The question is: is it possible to write the complete story of the world’s greatest nuclear catastrophe that occurred 33 years ago and which still constitute a traumatic event on both a personal and a national level? Yes, it is, and Plokhy has succeeded exceptionally well with this task. Even more, I think this kind of comprehensive narrative constitutes an antidote for political mythmaking and the spreading of conspiracy theories about what is rightly referred to as the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

The narrative style of this book can be defined within the spectrum of what is usually referred to as New Journalism. The historical events are narrated like a story in a novel, peppered with concrete details specifying the place, day, and hour, what the weather was like, what clothes people were wearing, and what the “characters” were thinking and feeling in the particular situation represented. The greatest benefit of this biographical-chronological narrative, written in the third person by an omniscient narrator who escorts the reader through the story, is the possibility for the reader to gain a comprehensive overview of the historical events and identify with the people who participated in this disastrous chain of events. As an example, we become acquainted with the energetic, 35-year-old engineer with dark, curly hair, who in 1970 unexpectedly was awarded the highly prestigious task of constructing a new power plant in Ukraine close to the medieval city of Chernobyl (describing Viktor Briukhanov, who was to become the director of the nuclear reactor facilities at Chernobyl). Or the pregnant woman who ignored the regulations at the hospital in Moscow and despite the high levels of radiation to which she exposed her body kept visiting her husband until his death (describing Liudmila Ihnatenko, married to the fireman Vasil Ihnatenko, who’s testimony initially was published in Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer).


Nevertheless, at some points this technique of dramatizing the past contributes to weakening the relevance of the narrative. This is the case when details appear to be more gossip than relevant facts that helps enrich the narrative, such as the blood pressure of Briukhanov’s wife, or the fact that this Valentina Briukhanova has eyes so beautiful that her husband felt “he could drown in them” (p. 24). Yet another negative side of this narrative style is that the integrity of the voices quoted from the testimonies cannot always be maintained. When, for example, Liudmila is quoted from Alexievich’s book, her words appear to be much more prosaic compared to the poetic dimension of her voice in the complete testimony published in Chernobyl Prayer.

Having said this, Plokhy’s book is an impressive work, contributing to establishing a chronological weaving of the Chernobyl catastrophe. Actually, Plokhy’s book could be described as the very opposite of Alexievich’s book Chernobyl Prayer and therefore is a good complement to her book. While Plokhy’s main goal is to create a credible and coherent narrative of the chronological chain of events that occurred 33 years ago, Alexievich does everything in her power to avoid this omniscient narrator, eager to make conclusions about the past. In contrast to Plokhy’s narrative, suggesting that closure is possible, Alexievich’s book from 1997 — published only 11 years after the catastrophe — dramatizes hundreds of first-person narratives, confessing their memories of the Chernobyl catastrophe directly to the reader, thus informing us that the experiences narrated are far from being healed and not yet ready to be integrated into a coherent third-person narrative.

Plokhy’s method of dramatizing history and writing the story of Chernobyl, from the beginning to the end, is perfect when trying to grasp this absurd, complex, and paradoxical historical event. What I really appreciate about the book is its ability to create a credible narrative of the everyday life and praxis that followed in the aftermath of the catastrophe. In spite of the chaos, traumatic experiences, and the lack of information, decisions had to be made and measures had to be taken. In short, life continued after the apocalypse. One example, nicely captured in the book, is the seemingly normal Saturday in Pripyat, April 26, a few hours after the explosions in reactor four at the power plant around 3 km away. While 132 people (firefighters, operators, and engineers) were being transported to the Pripyat hospital, life continued as usual in the city; couples were getting married, children were playing in the sand along the Pripyat river, and people were eating ice cream, fishing, and having a good time. Of course, signs of the accident were present at that point; the fire at the power plant was visible from a number of locations in Pripyat, a rumor about sick firemen was circulating, and the intercity telephone lines were cut. Nevertheless, hardly anyone could grasp the meaning of these signs, on some occasions not even the experts.


Another example of the contrast before and after the catastrophe is to be found on an ideological level. Soviet ideology nurtured a blind belief in technological progress, and when launching his electrification plan in 1920, Lenin defined Soviet power in terms of communism and “electrification of the whole country”. Before the Chernobyl catastrophe, Soviet reactors were regarded as indestructible, and Anatolii Aleksandrov, director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, described the RBMK reactor with the words “safe as a samovar” (p. 49). During the trial that was held against six managers and safety officers for violation of safety rules and negligence of duty, one of them refused to plead guilty to the charge against him regarding safety rules at enterprises subject to explosion: “He [Briukhanov] claimed that no instructions had ever defined a nuclear plant as an enterprise subject to explosion hazards” (p. 275). When the Soviet RBMK reactor exploded, it had severe consequences on the environment and on peoples’ health, but it was also fatal for the Soviet ideology, which is an important reason why Chernobyl has been regarded as contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later in 1991.

The collapse of this Soviet flagship stands in stark contrast to the chaos and primitive activities that followed. After the catastrophe, Soviet citizens were forced to become robots, so called “bio-robots”, thus completing the task that robots failed to fulfill because of the high levels of radiation. As a result, 3,000 soldiers were cleaning away the radioactive pieces of graphite on the roof of reactor three with the help of shovels. A few days after the first explosions in reactor four, the scientists feared further explosions, partly because of the increasing heat. In order to establish a freezing system under the reactor, it was planned to excavate tunnels under the reactor. Because of worries that the reactor building’s foundations would shift when using heavy machinery, the 380 miners that were hired for this task “had to dig virtually with their bare hands and push carts full of soil out of the tunnel also by hand” (p. 224). It was extremely hot in the tunnels, and of course no fans could be used because of this risk. Nevertheless, the miners did not walk around naked, as they do in episode three of the HBO TV-series Chernobyl!


Finally, to deal with this kind of catastrophe in a totalitarian system built on lies, disinformation, and propaganda seemed impossible. When empirical observations (graphite on the ground next to reactor four) indicated that one of the reactors must have exploded — two systems collided: the ideological system and the empirical observations at the accident site. Clearly, this collision contributed to slowing down the process of rational decision-making, not only because of fear of the authorities, but also because people simply could not believe what they were seeing with their own eyes, even less so regarding statements from other people. The fact that the technological equipment at the scene of the catastrophe was not siffucient did not make this decision-making any easier. According to the second KGB report, based on information available at 3:00 p.m. on April 26, the radiation levels near the reactor were estimated at 1,000 microroentgens per second. In reality the levels were much higher, but at that point the dosimeter at hand only had a scale of 1,000 microroentgens per second. The other dosimeter was locked away in a safe and no one among the persons present had the key.

Nevertheless, a system inhibiting efficiency in some areas can be extremely supportive in other areas. The central power in Moscow actually had all the power and resources necessary —  not least human resources — in order to deal with the consequences of the catastrophe in a highly efficient way. This leads me to the chapter in Plokhy’s book, which was most difficult to read, namely “Counting lives”. Here, we get to know the praxis that soon became established by the commission tasked with handling the cleanup work in the aftermath of Chernobyl. The efficiency of a certain effort was evaluated in relation to the number of human lives that had to be paid. The praxis in this particular case is a painful reminder of the way Soviet ideology functioned in general. When it comes to the sake of the Soviet state, human lives must be counted — the collective is always more important than the individual. In his epilogue, Plokhy reminds his readers of all the reactors under construction in the world, most of them outside Western Europe: “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? That is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union back in 1986” (p. 347).≈




Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, Serhii Plokhy, Penguin (2019), 432 pages, Winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize 2018