There are many ways to tell history. I’m not a historian, and I don’t want to get involved in any arguments about how to do it. I am quite interested in history, though, and by that I mean past events. What happened? How did it happen? And what did it do to the people who lived through those times?
Maybe this final question is the one that I find most fascinating. It is one thing to read about the Holocaust, say, and to read that millions of people were killed; but when you start to read about what happened to individual people, then things start to look a bit different. Suddenly, there is a human component, regardless of whether you look at the killers or the victims. I think that in order to learn something (or maybe I should say anything) from history, you have to realize that people make history, or history is what happens to people - with the repercussion being that, in the end, in your own life history is something that either happens to you or that you can contribute to - circumstances allowing, of course.
My favourite books about history have always been the ones that introduced me to the people who experienced that history. Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich is one such book. With the nuclear accident in Chernobyl now being twenty years ago, what could have been the biggest desaster in the history of mankind - if there hadn’t been a few volunteers who agreed to give their lives to prevent a nuclear chain reaction (read about it in the book) - is history now. The Soviet Union has disappeared, and Chernobyl is a festering wound in one of Europe’s poorest country, Belarus, a run-down dictatorship.
There were many times that I thought “no, this cannot possibly be true” when I read Voices from Chernobyl, meaning, of course, “this must not possibly be true.” Some of the stories are heartbreaking, others are just outright painful, and then there are stories where you can’t decide whether you want to find them absurd, or sad, or both, like when you get to read the testimony of people who are happy they resettled to the poisoned lands around Chernobyl, having narrowly escaped death in other, war-torn areas of the former Soviet Union.
The testimonies in Voices from Chernobyl are based on interviews, but they are presented either as group narratives, or as monologues, and I think this is what adds a lot of power to them. Everything is very personal and authentic, and even though the communist society of the Soviet Union is hard to understand, you get a bit closer to understanding what was going on; or at least there is a human component added.
Now that we’ve seen all those “anniversary” photojournalistic essays, reading the voices of the survivors adds another layer to what we can only hope to be some sort of understanding of what happened in Chernobyl - and what might happen whereever else the next reactor will have an accident of that magnitude.