The EBRD’s screening of the documentary about the construction of the New Safe Confinement, the Chernobyl sarcophagus designed to prevent radioactive elements from breaking into the atmosphere for 100 years, marked the recent completion of this ten-year project. While the film celebrated the achievements of engineering – the sarcophagus is the largest construction ever moved across land by humans – it once again raised questions about the consequences of and response to the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, as well as the general safety of nuclear energy.
One way or another, the Chernobyl catastrophe touched many lives. The biggest nuclear disaster in human history put the entire European continent at risk of becoming uninhabitable. Last year’s 30th anniversary brought Chernobyl back into the spotlight. The abandoned city has become an unlikely tourist destination, resulting in a new wave of pictures of decaying buildings with occasional engravings of Soviet relics, as if frozen in time.
This documentary screening by the EBRD served a different purpose, concentrating on the immense work done over the past ten years to build the new sarcophagus. The project has been a perilous one – not only was the sarcophagus enormous in size (36,000 tonnes) and had to be moved across land to cover the old plant, but the construction itself was made difficult by the high levels of radiation still present near the sight – the radioactive materials produced by the explosion will keep the area uninhabitable for humans for a further 20,000 years. This meant that working hours often had to be limited and everyone on the site had to be regularly checked for levels of radiation.
The numerous precautions that have had to be put in place for the workers, thirty years after the explosion, emphasise the enormous effort and sacrifice Soviet engineers and other workers had to make to construct the original sarcophagus back in 1986. Most firefighters who arrived immediately after the explosion died within the space of a few weeks. Hundreds of thousands of so-called ‘liquidators’ – the workers sent to deal with the consequences – received extremely high levels of radiation and became very sick. Nor did governments ever amass reliable estimates of the total number of victims.
Despite the notoriety of Chernobyl, little is known about these people – those who helped to prevent a full-scale European nuclear catastrophe. As in so many other conflicts and wars of the Soviet Union, the experience of the victims was never the focus of attention; – their sorrows judged of marginal importance. Chernobyl has long been more the subject of horror stories than of the enormous human suffering it caused. For me, as for some others, this changed with the discovery of Voices from Chernobyl, a book by Svetlana Alexievich.
When Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in 2015, this came as a surprise to many, in particular within the Russian literary circles. For a start, people questioned if her works could even be considered literature – they are, after all, made up of interviews of people who took part or were witnesses to certain historical events, including the Soviet-Afghan and Second World Wars. What’s more, few people had ever heard of her: by 2015 most of Alexievich’s books were out of print and it was no easy task to get hold of them.
Holding Voices from Chernobyl in my hands in January 2016 felt like an achievement. What followed was an incredible journey into the devastated hearts and minds of those who lived through the disaster. Russian literature (Alexievich is from Belarus, but she writes in Russian) is famous for its infinitely austere, almost unbearably dark stories of human suffering with little trace of hope for a better future.
In that sense, Voices from Chernobyl is truly keeping up with the tradition. People’s voices are screaming from the pages of the book, they want to be heard, to be recognised. Sometimes they’re angry, sometimes sad, but much more often they talk about love. Love is the key topic of the book. There is a woman, whose husband was a liquidator and died soon after coming back from Chernobyl. Her memories of him are endlessly painful, but again and again she repeats: “I was so happy. I was insanely happy”. Again and again she talks about the man she loved. Another woman, her husband one of the firefighters sent to extinguish the fire after the explosion, says: “What should I talk about? About death or about love? Or are they the same?”
The history of Pripyat, the city in Ukraine next to the Chernobyl nuclear plant, the place most damaged by the disaster, is special. It was established in 1970 for the sole purpose of serving the plant. Many young professionals and scientists from the USSR were encouraged to move there and were offered interesting jobs, decent pay and newly built facilities – a dream for young people in the Soviet Union. It was a city of hope; its residents felt that they were marching ahead of the world, leading human progress in engineering and sciences. This peaceful existence was brought to a sudden and horrifying end at 1.23 am on 26 April 1986.
“Voices from Chernobyl” is not a book about the scientific details of the catastrophe – these have been described at length in the past and are, for most part, well-known facts. Instead, the book reveals the human side of the tragedy. It makes us question the most fundamental things in life – love and death. It also makes us question the things that we so easily assume we’ve conquered – though there are still opponents to nuclear energy, an overwhelming majority of policymakers and scientists believe it’s now safe. Are we once again falling into the complacency of assuming that humans can rule nature? Only time will tell.
What we can do, is to learn from those who lived through Chernobyl. As Alexievich said,
these people have already seen what for others is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future.
This realisation and the urgency of the voices screaming from the pages of the book led to my idea of bringing the stories to the stage. Given the verbatim nature of the book, it’s simply so well suited to performance, to be told aloud by people and to people. Adapting it for stage was nonetheless a major challenge (skilfully tackled by Germán D’Jesús) – finding the balance between the darkness and the lightness and making sure that each voice, each point of view is presented.
Yet the more time we spent with this project the clearer it became to us that it had – absolutely – to be done. Staging Alexievich’s book is a duty, something we owe to those who lived through the disaster and its aftermath. But perhaps more importantly, it’s a duty to our and future generations to make these stories – these Voices from Chernobyl – heard.
Voices from Chernobyl, staged by Ténéré Arte Productions, will premiere at the Cockpit Theatre on 8 & 9 March 2017. Bookings can be made by clicking on the image below.