Ukraine, Gorbachev, and nuclear power

This week, the news from Ukraine has been tentatively positive, as the concerted counter-attack against the Russian army in the south of the country has been getting under way.  But ongoing concerns about the situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant have also been in the headlines as, of course, has been the death of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev was adored and hated for the actions he took and for the events that happened during his time as Soviet leader.  It was Yeltsin who formally acknowledged Ukrainian independence, but Gorbachev’s time that saw the circumstances of the Soviet Union shift towards that possibility.  Largely praised abroad for bringing the Cold War to a close, Gorbachev is remembered in some former Soviet countries chiefly as the overseer of violent suppressions of pro-independence activities in 1989 and 1990.  For those who mourned the loss of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev was also a guilty party.

The fears about the Zaporizhzhia nuclear station, currently occupied by Russian forces. are of course particularly troubling in the context of the nuclear disaster in Ukraine 36 years ago.  The item shown here, Mikhail Gorbachev’s speech on Soviet television, May 14, 1986, contains the translated text of the speech he made in the light of the appalling accident that had occurred on 26 April at Chornobyl’ (Ukrainian; Chernobyl’ in Russian).  The 14 May speech was the first full statement by the Soviet leader about what had happened weeks before. Continue reading

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.


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. Continue reading