My posts during April form part of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. I will be writing to a theme: book genres, largely taken from the comprehensive Goodreads list.
I chose this subject as I've long wanted to read Bruce Chatwin's "Songlines". But first I sought out the current Pulitzer Prize winning "Voices from Chernobyl" by Svetlana Alexievich and I'm afraid that it's rather taken over ...
The voices are varied: farmers in the immediate vicinity, families of firemen who were the first responders, liquidators who volunteered to work at the Reactor to carry out the dangerous work of cleaning up the building itself and the surrounding area, scientists who fought for government leadership and protection of the people, some young, some old, some farmers, writers, photographers. As the author describes them in her final line: "These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future."
For they have all faced death. Indeed, many died - and still do - in their thousands. Very few deaths are described, but they are grim indeed. Yet, even if you live, the impact upon your life is constant and continuing. Here is just a small selection of the voices from amongst the soldiers sent to Chernobyl to participate in the clean-up :
For those of us who remember the event, we can recall the secrecy, the initial insistence that nothing had happened, then that it was minor, then all under control. That was pretty much the case within the Soviet Union too. In the early days, there was no instructions on safety precautions to be taken, no insistence that people remain indoors and so everyday life continued as normal. There was no restriction in the movement of goods or raw materials, so produce from the area - milk and meat from slaughtered cattle in particular - continued to be fed into the national food chain. Then came the reaction, with villiages evacuated one at a time, with liquidators coming in and cleaning them up, burying what they could, including digging up top layers of soil only to bury it ... in more soil. It is clear that there was a lot of ignorance, a lack of knowledgeable supervision, and a thriving trade in black market goods which ensured that radiation affected items continued to escape. Information was withheld in order to prevent "panic" but even that action which could've been taken (such as adding iodine to the water reservoirs and milk supply) was not taken, despite stores of iodine being set aside for this specific reason. Lack of leadership and lack of action was rife.
But through it all, runs the one constant - that of the Russian psyche. These voices, collected by Alexievich, demonstrates that the hearts and minds of ordinary Russians is entirely different to anything I have ever experienced. There is still tremendous pride in their survival and success during the Great War (WWII) when their army had little to throw at the opposition other than bodies - lots and lots of bodies - and when civilians worked together to survive the privations of war. Russians think in terms of "we" and not "I".
The philisophy of their mindset crops up again and again throughout the book:
A group of East German workers in Russia at the time of the explosion demanded medical attention, a controlled food supply and equipment with with to measure radiation. The reaction of their Russian co-workers: " ... they're hysterical! They're cowards! ... Now our men, they're real men, Real Russian men. They're not worried about their lives. They get up on that roof with their bare hands in their canvas gloves."
The belief in their superior manhood is clear from the popular joke: "An American robot on the roof (of the Reactor) breaks down in five minutes. A Japanese robot on the roof breaks down in five minutes. The Russian robot is up there for two hours after which a command gets shouted out: 'Private Ivanov, another two hours and you can come down for a cigarette break.' "
Whist I felt a degree of exasperation and frustration at the faith and acceptance of the people, my strongest emotion was one of huge gratitude. Gratitude towards those extraordinary Russians who did what was necessary and so saved not only their own country, but the rest of Europe too.
I think the last word should go to one of the voices: "A Russian without a high ideal? Without a great dream? That's scary."
Faulty planning on my part ended up with this sequence of genres (memoirs, non-fiction and oral fiction) merging. This pantser's first attempt at planning shows a (big) crack in the pulling together phase. A good and useful lesson for me. What has this process taught you?