Voices from Chernobyl — and an interview with their translator

The worst nuclear power accident in history happened twenty years ago next week.

The full effects of the Chernobyl meltdown are still unclear, but Greenpeace estimates that nearly 100,000 people will die in coming years of cancer caused by the radiation. And the same report suggests that 200,000 people in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus may already have died as a result of Chernobyl-related medical conditions.

Voices from Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich’s powerful collection of oral histories and winner of the year’s National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction, was translated into English by Keith Gessen of n+1. Excerpts have appeared in The Paris Review. Gessen, who left Russia in 1981, agreed to this short email interview about the translation.

My knowledge of Russian, like most Americans’, is limited to words like “samizdat” and “perestroika,” and then only in their English renderings, so I can’t compare your translations of these histories with the originals. But you’ve done a tremendous job of evoking the individual voices and horrors here —

Thank you!

— And it’s fascinating to see the separate testimonies cohere into an overarching story about human suffering, confusion, bravery…. Well, I could keep throwing out these abstractions, but I’m thinking of people like the pregant woman who sat with her dying husband in the hospital as his skin flaked off and stuck to her hand, of the little girl born with “no pee-pee, no butt, one kidney” whose mother desperately wanted to keep her alive, of all the people out farming in the days following the storm before they were told to abandon their crops and their houses and evacuate. You’ve said that you translated as you read. Did the accounts stay fairly discrete in your mind while you worked, or did you eventually see them mounting into a larger narrative?

The stories did eventually become a larger narrative, though it took a little while — there’s a real immersive quality to the book, where you spend a lot of time gathering individual stories from people who are fairly confused about what took place before you get the story of someone who actually knows — who was high enough in the administration, or was a scientist with access to information. It’s kind of shocking, in that way: you see how most of these people are just being shuffled about by their overlords, told to gather up their belongings — but not their pets — and leave town. The thing about the pets is probably the best example, actually: People keep talking about how they had to leave their favorite cat or dog, and eventually I started wondering — because this is always a problem in war zones, or killing zones, or evacuated zones — what happened to the dogs and cats, then?

And then I got to the interview with the chairman of the Volunteer Hunters and Fishermen of Chernobyl club — and I found out what happened to the dogs and cats. That was a hard interview to translate, partly because the chairman has his two sidekicks and they seem to be drunk because they keep interjecting little comments while he’s trying to tell the story — and on the one hand you want to communicate the macabre quality of this scene, where the chairman of the Volunteer Hunters club is explaining what happened to the pets, while his two drunk buddies make their philosophical interjections, and on the other hand you want to be fairly unobtrusive about it, because this story is just pretty incredible and awful — of how they went into the zone and killed all the dogs and cats.

Oh, the macabre quality of the scene comes across. Believe me.

One of the most fascinating aspects of these testimonies is the way they conjure up not only the horrors of the explosion and its aftermath, but also the randomness and confusion that characterize any catastrophe. A woman recalls standing outside with her family and exclaiming over a beautiful shimmering off in the distance. A boy doesn’t remember feeling fear after the explosion, but does remember “lots of weird things”: people burying money, his grandmother fretting about her samovar and Singer sewing machine, and the rage and anxiety he felt toward the objects — including a blanket with a glowing spot on it — that his parents retrieved from their apartment a month later. A man was splitting up with his wife and stewing over her infidelities when he was assigned to work in the Chernobyl area after the disaster, and going back over the events years later reignites his anger toward her.

I know you write and translate fiction, too. Did the problem of realistically translating all of this randomness feel almost like a fiction writer’s dilemma?

Well… there’s a whole section in there about this kind of randomness, which if this were an American book someone would quote Auden’s poem about Breughel’s Icarus — while Icarus falls out of the sky someone is doing her math homework — but actually what I think the book does cumulatively with this randomness is suggest that, well, splitting up with your wife is more important than Chernobyl. These major events organize experience, they form a backdrop to experience, but they do not constitute experience as such. I’m not sure how much leeway I had as the translator, in this regard, but, functionally, the book is framed by these two devastating monologues by women whose husbands received very heavy doses of radiation and then just literally fell apart in front of their eyes, and these are just horrible — but in between there’s a lot of funny stuff, or random stuff is more like it, that fills in the background to those stories. Like the little bit about the couple that’s on one of the buses evacuating people away from Chernobyl, and the husband is yelling at his wife because while everyone else took clothes and food, all she brought were these three big empty glass canisters, because her mother-in-law lived on the way and she was hoping to return them. The Soviets were always saving their big glass canisters. And the whole ride away from Chernobyl people hear these canisters clinking and clinking.

Yes, exactly. Armageddon is at hand, but that doesn’t stop people from clinging to small objects, airing petty grievances, or obsessing over a lover’s infidelities.

On a completely different note, many Americans, especially scientists, harbor a strangely superior attitude about the Chernobyl disaster. I used to know a guy studying toward a PhD in nuclear engineering. He was incredibly condescending toward people (i.e., me) who expressed fear about living near a reactor, and he dismissed Chernobyl as an event precipitated by the unique failings of the Soviet system. But when he started working in the field and realized how vulnerable the systems are to human error, both at the physical operations level and in the planning and calculations, and how U.S. businesses focus on the bottom line and not on safety, he changed his tune. Suddenly he had no interest in living near a reactor, Soviet, American, or otherwise.

I know you’re not an expert on nuclear reactors. But having lived through a corrupt Soviet regime, and having experienced life in the States, and our administration’s heavy reliance on false science, do you think our privatized energy system is any less susceptible to faulty regulation and human error? What’s your gut reaction?

There are a lot of things I have no interest in living near! But I feel like the best parts of this book aren’t very nuclear-specific: one of my favorite monologues is by Vasily Nesterenko, the Soviet James Hansen — he was director of the Nuclear Energy Institute of Belarus, and when the accident occurred he was in Moscow, and he immediately called the First Secretary of the Belarussian Communist Party, and said: We’re in trouble. And the guy running Belarus answers: Oh, no, I just talked with some physicists, they say everything’s fine. And you can just imagine Bush with his favorite scientists, hearing what he wants to hear about climate change. So Nesterenko yells at this guy and then spends the next twenty years trying to convince everyone of the seriousness of the situation.

Which, incidentally, not surprisingly, they still won’t acknowledge.

On a related note — there’s an interview with a highly placed official from the CP at the time, and it’s very touching. These people weren’t maniacs — most of them just weren’t very bright, they were political appointees, including a lot of the people actually running and inspecting these power plants — but this guy in particular really tries to explain the bind he was in. He didn’t want to break Party discipline and tell everyone to get the hell out of there — and what’s more, he wouldn’t let his kids leave, either. He clearly feels very badly about the whole thing. And you sense that the Soviet system, bad as it was, and ultimately as unstable as it was, and screwed-up, at least wasn’t placing total sociopaths in positions of authority. You look at the Politburo photos from the 1970s and 80s — they all look like Wilford Brimley. It’s a grim bunch, but they’re not psychotic, the way Lukashenko [president of the Republic of Belarus, and, as Gessen says “the last real dictator in Europe, unless you count Putin”] is clearly psychotic — or, in a different way, the way Putin is.

The Communist Party would have sifted these guys out, at some point — just as it would have sifted out George W. They’d have been like, “W., you have now run three collective farms into the ground. What is your problem? We are not going to promote you any more, comrade. We’re putting you in charge of the Kiev Dynamo soccer team. Also you get to import wine from Moldova without any fees. And you have to inspect the nuclear power plants, ok? Don’t forget. We’re running out of patience here.”

Pity we don’t have those same common-sense safeguards here. Thanks, Keith.


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