In the spring of 1986 the English language, and nearly every other, acquired a new word for catastrophe: Chernobyl. On April 25, 1986, when Reactor No. 4 at the nuclear power station near a leafy village some 80 miles north of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev began to melt down, the world had no notion of the disaster about to unfold. Neither did Moscow. In a classic confusion of priorities that would open the floodgates for glasnost and, in due time, a rethinking of the Soviet nuclear landscape, the Politburo was concerned above all with bad press. A year earlier a new general secretary had arisen, Mikhail Gorbachev. Yet even as word spread that the accident at the station had already reached an unprecedented scale, with the specter of a radioactive Armageddon rising over Europe, Gorbachev and company seemed less concerned about the damage issuing from Chernobyl than the damage to Moscow's reputation.
Having entered the English vernacular, "Chernobyl" has gained currency in the 20 years since the accident. "To go Chernobyl" — whether it be a relationship, teakettle or political career — is to melt down. Yet as scientists will tell you, what is commonly called the "accident" at Chernobyl was anything but. For this disaster was born of human decisions. The engineers at the plant had long been eager to test a theory. Those on the night shift decided to conduct an unauthorized test. Not specialists in nuclear science, they powered the reactor down, disabled emergency backup systems in order to see how long the turbines could operate and, hoping to learn how the reactor's coolant system would function on low electricity, instead learned how its core would melt. The explosion tore off the reactor's 1,000-ton steel-and-concrete roof, spewing the now famous radioactive maelstrom into the heavens. In all, Chernobyl released 100 times more radiation than the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The true death toll will never be known. The government of Ukraine has tallied more than 8,000 dead, nearly all victims of the fire and cleanup. The toll, in environmental and chromosomal damage, continues today and will for generations.
The Kremlin's first reflex was to try to conceal the mess — even from rescue workers. Firefighters and thousands of other local workers were dispatched to the burning station with no warning. The scientists who flew in from Moscow came with only their razors. (They imagined they would stay just a couple of days.) No special clothing was distributed. No one was immediately evacuated from the nearby settlements, the so-called nuclear villages where the station's workers and their families lived. Thirty-one workers died immediately from exposure. Hundreds more fell violently ill in the first hours. Only after the Swedes detected the fallout did Moscow admit that Chernobyl had become a man-made nuclear Vesuvius. Finally, more than thirty-six hours after the fire broke out, villagers were evacuated. The 48,000 inhabitants of Pripyat, the settlement in the woods closest to the plant, left their homes with as much as they could carry. By May 5, anyone living within 20 miles of the station was evacuated. The marshes and woods around Pripyat were cordoned off from the rest of the world. The region, comprising some 76 villages and settlements where more than 100,000 people once lived, has been known ever since simply as "the Zone."
The world has lived for 20 years with the word "Chernobyl," but few have ever heard of tiny Belarus, a forlorn nation of 10 million devastatingly contaminated by the "test" at Reactor No. 4. More than 18,000 children in Ukraine have been treated for radiation fallout. They have suffered all varieties of cancer, kidney and thyroid ailments, digestive and nervous disorders, loss of hair and skin pigmentation. But an estimated 70 percent of the radionuclides released from Chernobyl fell on Belarus. Hitler leveled 619 Belarussian villages. Chernobyl took almost as many: 485. Of these, the "liquidators" — the Soviet term for the workers condemned to perform the cleanup — buried 70 in their entirety. Today, one-fifth of the territory of Belarus, a country of farmers, is contaminated.
Svetlana Alexievich's remarkable book, recording the lives and deaths of her fellow Belarussians, has at last made it into American bookstores. (The book was published in 1999 by the British house Aurum, in a translation by Antonina Bouis.) Hers is a peerless collection of testimony. The text is well translated by Keith Gessen, but it is unfortunate that the book's American editors have altered its title. "Voices From Chernobyl" which just won the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction, appeared in Russian in 1997 as "Chernobyl'skaya molitva" ("The Chernobyl Prayer"). The original title is not only more poetic but more accurate. Alexievich has not merely given us a work of documentation but of excavation, of revealed meaning. It is hard to imagine how anyone in the West will read these cantos of loss and not feel a sense of communion, of a shared humanity in the face of this horror.