Svetlana Aleksievich and Chernobyl : the October 2015 Slavonic item(s) of the month

The 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Svetlana Aleksievich’s books bring together the narratives of witnesses to some of recent history’s most disturbing events.  The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster was the subject of her book Chernobyl’skaia molitva (Chernobyl prayer; C203.d.7984 (in Russian) and 429:4.c.95.5 (in English).  This post looks at Aleksievich’s book and others on Chernobyl.

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Chernobyl, in capital letters (ЧЕРНОБЫЛЬ), shown in a 1969 map of Ukraine (Maps.276.96.23).  The nuclear town of Pryp’iat’, famously evacuated after the 1986 disaster, would only be established in 1970.

Svetlana Aleksievich’s name had been discussed in terms of Nobel recognition for some time, and the 2015 prize was awarded to her “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.  In Chernobyl’skaia molitva, Aleksievich writes “this book is not about Chernobyl, but about the world of Chernobyl.  Thousands of pages have already been written and hundreds of thousands of metres of film recorded about the event itself.  What I am concerned with is what would be called “missed” history … I write and collect the feelings, thoughts, and words of everyday life … Chernobyl [for my subjects] is not a metaphor or a symbol: it is their home.”  This is her approach to all her work; her documentary prose provides a stark and compelling picture of events through its use of the voices of the ordinary people caught up in them, the “polyphonic” quality which won her the Nobel prize.  War has featured prominently in her writing so far, with women’s and children’s accounts of the Second World War and soldiers’ experiences of the Soviet-Afghan war accounting for three of her books.  These are among the nine books the University Library currently has by her; these are mainly in Russian (Aleksievich is a Russophone Belarusian writer*), but the number in English will doubtless rise thanks to her Nobel fame.

*(for an exploration of Belarusian (including Russophone) books in the University Library, please see this earlier post)

Chernobyl’skaia molitva contains 3 main chapters with 6 sections between them: The land of the dead, The soldiers’ choir; The wreath of creation, The people’s choir; Delighting in sadness, The children’s choir (this last section contains excerpts from interviews with seventeen children aged between 9 and 16).  These “choirs” provide the reader with an unforgettable depiction of the disaster and its aftermath.

Chernobyl is the subject of dozens of books in the University Library.  Click here to see a full list (based on the Library of Congress subject heading Chernobyl Nuclear Accident, Chornobylʹ, Ukraine, 1986).  They are chiefly in English, with Russian a fairly distant second.  Aleksievich’s book is among the three most recent Russian-language additions.  The other two are both 2011 publications. Chernobyl’ : bol’shaia lozh’ (Chernobyl : a big lie; C203.d.2888) is by Alla Iaroshinskaia, a journalist and Gorbachev-era politician who has written several times on the disaster.  The other book is rather less standard University Library fare.  Chernobyl’ : real’nyi mir (Chernobyl’ : the real world; C203.d.2426) is described on its front cover as a “sensation”.  Written by two people now living in the closed zone around the plant, it is a bizarre mixture of curious insights into the world of the closed zone (which many original inhabitants refused to leave) and distasteful exploration of the area in terms of popular disaster fiction books and video games.  Its front cover (below, right) speaks volumes.  By no means an academic publication, this book is nevertheless a useful addition to the Library as an example of the way in which Chernobyl’ has attained the status of science fiction in some parts of society.

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L-R: covers of: Chernobyl : a big lie, Chernobyl prayer, and Chernobyl’ : the real world.

Chernobyl books have come in steadily over the years, with 27 items from the first five years after the explosion and publication peaks for anniversary years (8 in 1996, 6 in 2006).  The thirtieth anniversary of the disaster, in 2016, will doubtless see further books be added to our collections.

Mel Bach

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