THE PLAIN DEALER, WEDNESDAY MAY 10, 2006
It has been 20 years since the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl blew apart, spewing radiation that caused 100,000 people to flee their homes in Ukraine and Belarus. The accident has triggered a rise in cancer, neurological disorders and genetic mutations every year since.
In Voices From Chernobyl (Picador, $14, 236pp; translated by Keith Gessen), Ukrainian journalist Svetlana Alexievich collects the stories of those affected and lets them speak for themselves.
There’s newlywed Lyudmilla Ignatenko, who nursed her firefighter husband through radiation sickness until he was so ill that pieces of his skin broke away and stuck to her fingers. Two months after he died, Lyudmilla gave birth to their daughter. Four hours later, the infant was dead from multiple complications of radiation poisoning.
There’s the soldier, just back from Afghanistan in 1986, sent to Chernobyl as part of a minimally protected cleanup crew. Over the years, he has witnessed friends and fellow workers sicken and die horribly.
“I don’t know how I’m going to die,” he says. “I do know this: You don’t last long with my diagnosis. . . . I was in Afghanistan, too. It was easier there. They just shot you.”
This haunting, powerful book won the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction.