Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich Read Free Book Online

Book: Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich Read Free Book Online
Authors: Svetlana Alexievich
it was kid's stuff. But there were others like me. We had guys from all over the Soviet Union. Russians, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Armenians ... It was scary but also exciting, for some reason.
    So they brought us in, and they took us right to the power station. They gave us white robes and white caps. And gauze surgical masks. We cleaned the territory. We spent a day cleaning down below, and then a day above, on the roof of the reactor. Everywhere we used shovels. The guys who went up, we called them the storks. The robots couldn't do it, their systems got all crazy. But we worked. And we were proud of it.
    *
    We rode in—there was a sign that said, Zone Off Limits. I’d never been to war, but I got a familiar feeling. I remembered it from somewhere. From where? I connected it to death, for some reason . .
    We met these crazed dogs and cats on the road. They acted strange: they didn't recognize us as people, they ran away. I couldn't understand what was wrong with them until they told us to start shooting at them . . . The houses were all sealed up, the farm machinery was abandoned. It was interesting to see. There was no one, just us and the police on their patrols. You'd walk into a house—there were photographs on the wall, but no people. There’d be documents lying around: people's Komsomol [Communist Youth League] IDs, other forms of identification, awards. At one place we took a television for a while—we borrowed it, say—but as far as anyone actually taking something home with them, I didn’t see that. First of all, because you sensed that these people would be back any minute. And second, these things were connected somehow with death.
    People drove to the block, the actual reactor. They wanted to photograph themselves there, to show the people at home. They were scared, but also really curious: what was this thing? I didn't go, myself, I have a young wife, I didn't want to risk it, but the boys downed a few shots and went over. So ... [Silent.]
    *
    The village street, the field, the highway—all of it without any people. A highway to nowhere. Electrical wires on the posts to nowhere. At first there were still lights on in the houses, but then they turned those off. We'd be driving around, and a wild boar would jump out of a school building at us. Or else a rabbit. Everywhere, animals instead of people: in the houses, the schools, the clubs. There are still posters: “Our goal is the happiness of all mankind." “The world proletariat will triumph.” “The ideas of Lenin are immortal." You go back to the past. The collective farm offices have red flags, brand-new wimples, neat piles of printed banners with profiles of the great leaders. On the walls—pictures of the leaders; on the desks—busts of the leaders. A war memorial. A village churchyard. Houses that were shut up in a hurry, gray cement cow-pens, tractor mechanic’s shops. Cemeteries and victims. As if a warring tribe had left some base in a hurry and then gone into hiding.
    We’d ask each other: is this what our life is like? It was the first time we saw it from the outside. The very first time. It made a real impression. Like a smack to the head. . . . There’s a good joke: the nuclear half-life of a Kiev cake is thirty-six hours. So ... And for me? It took me three years. Three years later I turned in my Party card. My little Red book. I became free in the Zone. Chernobyl blew my mind. It set me free.
    *
    There’s this abandoned house. It's closed. There's a cat on the windowsill. I think—must be a clay cat. I come over, and it’s a real cat. He ate all the flowers in the house. Geraniums. How'd he get in? Or did they leave him there?
    There’s a note on the door: “Dear Kind Person, Please don't look for valuables here. We never had any. Use whatever you want, but don’t trash the place. We’ll be back." I saw signs on other houses in different colors—“Dear house, forgive us!" People said goodbye to their homes like they were

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