Chernobyl and God

Ever since hearing about the catastrophe that happened there, Chernobyl fascinated me. So when I heard about Svetlana Alexievich's book, Voices from Chernobyl, I knew it was a "must read" book. I wasn't disappointed. Alexievich interviews many people with connections to Chernobyl -- evacuees, workers conscripted into helping stop the radiation, government officials and others. Their stories give a heart-wrenching look at the reality of nuclear power gone awry. Some of the stories recount the confusion of people around Pripyat as they were told to leave their homes. Others describe the horror of death by radiation poisoning, brought on by spending just 90 seconds on the roof of the damaged reactor.

One brief account conveys some of the anguish people there have experienced:
    "We were expecting our first child. My husband wanted a boy and I wanted a girl. The doctors tried to convince me: 'You need to get an abortion. Your husband was at Chernobyl.' He was a truck driver; they called him in during the first days. He drove sand. But I didn't believe anyone. The baby was born dead. She was missing two fingers. A girl. I cried. 'She should at least have fingers,' I thought. 'She's a girl.'"

A similar account describes more anguish:

    "I'm afraid of staying on this land. They gave me a dosimeter, but what am I supposed to do wtih it? I do my laundry, it's nice and white, but the dosimeter goes off. I make some food, bake a pie-- it goes off. I make the bed -- it goes off. What do I need it for? I feed my kids and cry. 'Why are you crying, Mom?'

    "I have two boys. They don't go to nursery school or kindergarten-- they're always in the hospital. The older one-- he's neither a boy nor a girl. He's bald. I take him to the doctors, and also to the healers. He's the littlest one in his grade. He cann't run, he can't play, if someone hits him by accident and he starts bleeding, he might die. He has a blood disease, I can't even pronounce the word for it. I'm lying with him in the hospital and thinking, 'He's going to die.' I understood later on that you can't think that way. I cried in the bathroom. None of hte mothers cry in the hospital rooms. They cry in the toilets, the baths. I come back cheerful: 'Your cheeks are red. You're getting better.'

    "'Mom, take me out of the hospital. I'm going to die here. Everyone here dies.'

    "Now where am I going to cry? In the bathroom? There's a line for the bathroom -- everyone like me is in that line."

A theme that struck me several times was people's reliance on God as a way to cope with the trauma their lives and bodies were experiencing. Here are a two excerpts that illustrate this point:

    "Now I sing in teh church choir. I read the Bible. I go to church -- it's the only place they talk about eternal life. They comfort a person. You won't hear those words anywhere else, and you so want to hear them."

    "Why did that Chernobyl break down? Some people say it was the scientists' fault. They grabbed God by the beard, and now he's laughing. But we're the ones who pay for it."

From someone living in the Forbidden Zone, where radiation levels will remain high for hundreds of years:

    "I'm not afraid of anyone -- not the dead, not the animals, no one. My son comes in from the city, he gets mad at me. 'Why are you sitting here! What if some looter tries to kill you?' But what would he want from me? There's some pillows. In a simple house, pillows are your main furniture. If a thief tries to come in, the minute he peeks his head through the window, I'll chop it off with the axe. That's how we do it here. Maybe there is no God, or maybe there's someone else, but there's someone up there. And I'm alive."

One of the children interviewed was a 6-year old girl at the time of the accident, and 9 when interviewed by Alexievich. She recalled:

    "There was a black cloud, and hard rain. The puddles were yellow and green, like someone had poured paint into them. They said it was dust from the flowers. Grandma made us stay in the cellar. She got down on her knees and prayed. And she taught us, too. 'Pray! It's the end of the world. It's God's punishment for our sins.' My brother was eight and I was six. We started remembering our sins. He broke the glass can with the raspberry jam, and I didn't tell my momthat I got my new dress caught on a fence and it ripped. I hid it in the closet."

This is a simple book, but one of the most poignant I have ever read. It will leave you thinking about your loved ones, about how quickly life as you know it can change, and about how people try to make sense out of tragedy. Voices from Chernobyl is an outstanding book, well worth reading. It will stimulate your thinking about life and death, God and theodicy, love and horror.

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