The Chernobyl tragedy played a fundamental role in precipitating the decline of the USSR. In its nascent form the perestroika programme, announced by President Gorbachev in April 1985, did not entail any political reforms: its objective was merely to improve the country’s economic system. Chernobyl happened the following April, almost exactly a year later. Fast forward another eight months to the January 1987 Communist Central Committee Plenum, and glasnost was being proclaimed in the USSR, with a concomitant relaxation of media censorship and a lifting of the ban on the discussion of previously taboo subjects.
Chernobyl thus occured between two critical phases of perestroika. Articles and books about the tragedy, which started to appear in 1987, constitute the first practical realisation of the theoretical notion of glasnost. The open discussion of the tragedy in the media, underpinned by criticism of the regime’s actions, was unprecedented in the history of the USSR, and would have been inconceivable even in 1986 (information on Chernobyl was initially suppressed, as per old habits). Just a year on, however, it was the reverse — a media blackout around the disaster had become impossible to imagine.
Chernobyl grew into an extensive metaphor — a metaphor, in fact, for the entirety of Soviet life. It came to be regarded as a portent, a harbinger of societal disaster both domestic and global. For years, Soviet propaganda had terrified the populace by cultivating the idea of a threat — people lived in daily fear of nuclear war with the west; but the blow had come from within, and the country was suddenly a danger to itself.
Contamination from the disaster extended far beyond the 30-km exclusion zone. Forests and lakes hundreds of kilometers away were affected, as was the atmosphere. The “zone of alienation”, a notion coined by the Strugatsky brothers in their sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic and cinematised in Tarkovsky’s Stalker had become a frightening reality. Chernobyl began to be interpreted as a kind of retribution for the violence wreaked upon nature by humanity. Anthropogenic disasters were deemed to be nature’s way of retaliating against her criminal treatment at the hands of homo sapiens (the shrinking of the Aral Sea, another 80s-era geo-disaster, provoked a similar reaction).
The Chernobyl tragedy also had a cathartic dimension of sorts, facilitating a return to oneself via purgation and repentance. It is associated with the question of ethical and moral responsibility. In the immediate aftermath of the accident in April to May 1986, the regime attempted to conceal the ensuing catastrophe from the public eye. Instead of mounting an evacuation, the authorities proceeded to hold the usual May Day parade on Kiev’s Khreshchatyk Street. Chernobyl came to epitomise the moral and spiritual degradation of society — hence the coining of the expression “spiritual Chernobyl”. Meanwhile, the term “sarcophagus”, used to refer to the special concrete structure enclosing the damaged nuclear reactor, became associated with one of the principal monuments of the Soviet regime — Lenin’s Mausoleum on Red Square. People construed the accident as a sign that they “couldn’t go on living this way”. Much like nuclear radiation, the dissolution of all conscience, of moral and professional responsibility, is invisible to the naked eye; in both cases, however, the consequences are catastrophic. Once poisoned, society’s soil and atmosphere must be decontaminated — fully, not partially. A poisoned society requires a profound metamorphosis, not just superficial change.
Finally, Chernobyl entailed the shattering of illusions. The Soviet utopia was over. Sergei Belyakov writes in the introduction to his work The Liquidator that the book represents “an attempt to convey on paper the emotions and perceptions of a man extricated from a cocoon of illusions”. (Liquidators were “workers who entered areas designated as ‘contaminated’ between 1986 and 1989 to help reduce further damage from the explosion.”) Though liquidators’ memoirs are documentary in nature, they’re also replete with powerful artistic imagery. “I sensed that the old barrack system, its guts filled with human stuffing, finally relaxed.” In them, Chernobyl comes to be understood as an elemental, life-devouring force.
Over 600,000 liquidators played a part in the clean-up and recovery operation, thousands of them committing their impressions and recollections to paper — and thus giving birth to the new genre of “Chernobyl writing”. These works do not merely document the tragedy; they also represent a kind of collective therapy. Liquidators (as well as people living in the impact zone) filled entire volumes with their reflections on the disaster. Since the 1990s, though, buying works on Chernobyl or Pripyat, the town where many of the power plant’s workers lived, hasn’t been a straightforward matter of popping into a bookshop. Such works have proven unprofitable and bookshops rarely stock them. Books dealing with the tragedy are often published independently or else with sponsorship backing.
Chernobyl often serves as a springboard for tales of lost childhood, friendship, adventure; it provides the subject-matter for psychological dramas, historical novels and love stories. One of the most famous examples of this sort of literature is Anatoli Demski’s Fumes. Involved in the recovery operation from 1986 to 1993, Demski describes everyday life amongst the liquidators — the work, the drinking, the widespread thievery, the competitive scientists. And so began the gradual de-glorification and mythologisation of the subject.
Official Soviet literature responded to the tragedy in its usual fashion, attempting to be true to the “scale of the tragedy”. In 1989, Ukrainian writer Volodymyr Yavorivsky penned Mary with Wormwood at the End of the Century, a novel which grew out of his work as a Chernobyl correspondent and is set in a village located within the 30-km exclusion zone. It is remarkable that almost a decade previously, Yavorivsky had written Chain Reaction, a typical socialist realist novel which glorifies the work of the people who built Chernobyl. Meanwhile, Ukrainian poet Boris Oliynyk wrote the poem Seven in 1988 — and dedicated it to the firefighters who perished in the disaster. Evil Star, a novel by Belarusian Soviet writer and Hero of Socialist Labor Ivan Shamyakin, is written along similar lines. The novel revolves around an ordinary Soviet family. The paterfamilias, a former military man, is a guard at the power plant, the younger of his sons works there as an engineer, while the elder is a pilot who meets his end in Afghanistan. The novel, which begins in the socialist-realist vein, ends tragically: almost every character dies.
But the tragic thrust of these early fictions gradually gave way to another tendency: the genre of Chernobyl writing became a little less heavy with the emergence of “jaunty”, “ironic” stories about the disaster. Little by little, tragedy morphed into tragicomedy.
And now this tragedy of old has been definitively “adventurised”, as demonstrated by the comparatively recent release of the first Chernobyl-themed computer games: STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007), STALKER: Clear Sky (2008), and STALKER: Call of Pripyat (2009), all published by the small Ukrainian developer GSC Game World. The STALKER series, which has now attained cult status in Ukraine and Russia, is set in the near future and takes place in the exclusion zone.
The games, in their turn, have inspired numerous Russian fantasy and thriller novels. Bizarrely enough, even books by actual liquidators are now being released with fantasy-style covers.
The zone of alienation, a concept invented in the 1970s by the Strugatsky brothers and subsequently made flesh, is now being reduced to the status of video-game fodder. The market has won; even radiation can be commoditised. A few blurbs suffice as demonstration: “In the aftermath of the disaster, the Zone expanded, morphing into something altogether different. New breeds of mutants, never before seen in these parts, came onto the scene.” “Hell opened up without warning. The territory of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant became a hostile Zone, brimming with predatory mutants and deadly booby traps.” “The strangers hire two stalkers to deliver a secret device into the very heart of the Zone — the Chernobyl NPP. But will they succeed in their mission?”
It might be argued that no “great work about the tragedy” has materialised in all these years. And yet, two works on Chernobyl do merit serious artistic assessment. One is Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Alexievich’s work, like that of many others, is based on eyewitness testimonies — but her literary talent allows her to mould these testimonies into a unique symphony of human grief and courage while maintaining a confessional tone. The novel is really a prayer; its pages weep. “Two catastrophes coincided,” writes Alexievich, “the cosmic catastrophe of Chernobyl and a societal one: the sinking of the socialist Atlantis. This second calamity overshadowed the first because it was of more immediate concern to us and more comprehensible.”
The other important Chernobyl-themed work is the movie Innocent Saturday. Directed by filmmaker Alexander Mindadze, and released in 2011 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the disaster, Innocent Saturday was entered into the Berlin Film Festival. Its opening 15 minutes show us the disaster through the eyes of Valery, a young Communist Party official who learns of the explosion the very night it happens but isn’t permitted to talk about it. Valery tries to persuade his girlfriend to flee Pripyat, but a combination of circumstances prevents them from doing so.
The two ultimately find themselves at the wedding of a mutual friend, where people, still insensible to what’s going on, continue their revelry. Mindadze: “This scenario — Pripyat’s oblivious young inhabitants partying in the immediate fallout of a tragedy — is a metaphor for the whole of human existence.” The idea of Pripyat is an important one for Mindadze: the ninth Soviet nuclear town, it was founded in 1970 and conceived as the model Soviet city of the future. But in the blink of an eye, it was deserted and buried alive — a blow not only for the USSR but for the entire Soviet utopia. On April 26, the day of the disaster, 16 weddings were scheduled throughout the city, and almost 85% of the film’s screentime is devoted to wedding scenes. “That’s how we all exist,” says the director. “We play out our weddings against a background of cataclysm. It’s the consumer society larging it up atop a powder keg. We’re blown to smithereens, crises scare us stiff, and yet we still seek out distraction and oblivion.”
The disaster occurred on the territory of the Soviet Ukraine, a province of an empire which would cease to exist in four short years. Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine have each constructed their “own Chernobyls”, memorialising the tragedy in their own distinctive fashion. Ukraine and Belarus very much remain in a “space of reflection”. For example, 2005 saw the release of the Belarusian film I Remember, whose protagonist cannot escape his oppressive memories of Chernobyl (his family, residents of a small village in the Gomel Region at the time of the disaster, have been affected by the radiation). Years later, the protagonist returns to the village, where, much to his surprise, life has continued; they’ve even built a new church… Belarusian cinema recalls that of the USSR: you can commemorate the tragedy, but only as long as you end on a positive, hopeful note. Any reflection on Chernobyl is thus censored: filmmakers are forced to mitigate the pain.
Across the border, meanwhile, Chernobyl still plays an integral role in Ukraine’s tragic self-identity. It is a tragedy that “gives no peace”, the elapsed decades notwithstanding. Two recent Ukrainian Chernobyl-themed films are Aurora (2006) and Land of Oblivion (2011). Aurora is a girl from a Pripyat orphanage who’s exposed to a huge dose of radiation, while Land of Oblivion traces the personal journey of a young Pripyat resident who’s lost her loved ones to the disaster. Similarly, the Ukrainian series Moths tells a love story set against the backdrop of the tragedy. Exploring human destinies during the incident and in its aftermath, these works are all characterised by a far greater level of realism than any product of the fantasy adventure genre.
Will the 30th anniversary of the disaster serve to generate even a minimal degree of rapprochement between Ukraine and Russia — or will it just spawn further recriminations? Paradoxical though it may seem, the memory of the Chernobyl disaster now has the potential to become a basis for emotional reconciliation. Chernobyl liquidators remain a potent societal force in all three countries (and, in Ukraine, even a political one). Liquidator communities are capable of achieving a great deal, even if the events of the last two years may have eclipsed any communal memories.
Text: Andrei Arkhangelsky
Want more stories delivered to your inbox? Sign up to our newsletter here:
A last glimpse of Moscow’s beautiful and derelict Soviet cinemas
Trace the fate of one anti-tsarist caricaturist and his seditious images