Monday, September 7, 2009


For a long time, people said that Chenobyl had a lot to do with the collapse of Communism. Some said it was a direct cause of the collapse; and some said it was really just a symbolic event that epitimozed the more general problems within Soviet society that had led to the fall of Communism as an ideology. Since this question always seemed more technical than political or economic or cultural to me, I ignored it for a long time. However, I’ve read two books on the Chenobyl disaster in recent months and this has given me a slightly broader perspective. The first is a treatise on the biological impact of the nuclear disaster on surrounding areas. It’s a good book that doesn’t really sensationalize the event or its aftermath. Clearly, some forms of long-term destruction were sensationalized, if for good reason since nobody had seen a similar catrastrophe and naturally feared the worst. And the book further focuses on the irony that the immense area that has been depopulated as a result of the melt down has now become—at least in a few important ways—an unparalleled natural habitat for previously endangered European species. In any event, despite evidence that some of long-term consequences of nuclear contamination remain unknown, the author is the first to admit that some of the Ukrainian and Beylorussian areas that have been contaminated will require thousands upon thousands of years to recover. Although it’s hard to admit, a lot of the damage is therefore permanent. And the author further discusses how radiation has circulated the globe, spread through waterways, etc. The shelter that contains the reactor itself is apparently already collapsing. And the costs to repair this structure with something else are astronaumical. The other book, Voices of Chernobyl [?], is a much more profound book. This is oral history at its best. The rescuers, the soldiers, the evacuated, the medical personnel, the mothers of damaged babies, the scientists, the people who stayed behind in polluted forests or who returned to contaminated homes—all are allowed to speak for themselves. The results are utterly poetic if also apocalpytic. This book makes the disaster a metaphor for the end of the world. It says “this is the way the world ends.” It is biblical revelation combined with science fiction. It reminded me of nothing so much as a brilliant B-grade nuclear horror film entitled, The Hills Have Eyes, in which a gang of no-longer-human monsters survives the Alamo testing grounds but must feed on humans to survive in their mutated condition. Reading Voices of Chernboyl in light of more realistic appraisals of the disaster, one is tempted to say that eyewitness acounts of a disaster are not the most objective sources of history. But saying this doesn’t detract from the right of survivors to say whatever it is that they feel like saying. And saying that some of the effects of radiation have not, apparently, been quite as disastrous and hideous as originally feared, does not mean that the fears of survivors are not real, or that they are not actually more realistic in terms of what might happen to the human race in the future, for instance if an actual nuclear war does in fact occur some day. For if nuclear war comes, Chernyboll’s paranoia will be the only real precursor for what survivors should expect. I can’t recall too many of the actual oral histories so many months after reading this book, but I remember reading about the link to communism. One previously enthusiastic young Communist said that he volunteered to help after the disaster, and didn’t immediately become cynical about the Soviet way of life. However, four years later he repudiated his membership in the Communist Party. And for this reason he said he learned that in his case: Communism had a half-life of four years. It’s a stunning indictment and clearly shows that the disaster really did have something to do with the way Communism collapsed; and probably it had everything to do with the way Ukrainian nationalism reasserted itself.

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