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Forgetting To Be Afraid

The greatest threats emerge when knowledge outstrips wisdom. These are the moment that should drive us to our knees.

It is the fate of some places to become synonymous with crime and disaster. Lockerbie, Dunblane, Beslan….Chernobyl. It is over thirty years since the worst nuclear accident in the world and most people have remaindered it in their imagination. This is not possible for those who experienced it, for the cancers and deformities which stem from the disaster continue their diabolical course through generations. Though few are in doubt about this, it is almost impossible to prove causality, thus diminishing a disaster which has destroyed the lives of thousands.


Media coverage has long since run its course, but Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 has given voice to the ordinary people of the region in Chernobyl Prayer, enabling a strange, disturbing story to be told which will endure for following generations. Alexievich specialises in an unusual but compelling hybrid of journalism and authorship, having transcribed the stories of Russian veterans of Afghanistan and the immediate post-communist world that Chernobyl did much to bring about.


The accident on April 26, 1986 was criminally suppressed by Soviet authorities until there was no option but to admit it, by which time, many thousands of people had been contaminated. Those conscripted to perform clear up work were usually poorly informed and equipped to deal with the threat of radiation and many died as a result. There are stories of mind-bending bravery; people who knew they would die badly but plunged in to try and save others. An empire steeped in the rhetoric of individual sacrifice for a greater good encouraged many to give their lives voluntarily. As with all communities, this was mixed in with acts of ignorance and foolishness.

Alexievich has been especially concerned to tell the story of her native Belarus. Most think of this as a Ukrainian disaster, but in an introduction, she makes the following point:


During the Second World War, the Germans wiped out 619 villages on its territory along with their inhabitants. In the aftermath of Chernobyl, the country lost 485 villages and towns: seventy remain buried forever beneath the earth. During the war, one in four Belarusians was killed; today, one in five lives in the contaminated zone. This adds up to 2.1 million people, of whom 700,000 are children. Radiation is the leading cause of the country’s demographic decline.

Seventy percent of the radiation fell on Belarus.

No wonder many of her storytellers use the language of war to describe their experience. There is no other ready category for an event like this; the invisibility of the foe adding fear and anxiety to ordinary human functions like walking in the countryside and eating farm produce. The scale of the disaster is global, meaning no-one can be sure of its true ambit. The area around Chernobyl itself is not expected to be safe for human habitation until twenty thousand years have passed.


The disaster caused a spike in the purchase of Bibles in the ostensibly secular eastern block. In Revelation 8, it says:

…a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter (10-11)

The word for wormwood in Ukrainian is chernobyl. You can see why they found this unsettling.

Alexievich’s storytellers ask repeatedly of the disaster itself, what does it mean? Prometheus stole fire from the gods, and there is an element of this myth in the nuclear era. Opinion is divided over the merit of nuclear power, though no-one could deny the deep need for proper safety protocols. One observation of those who caused the explosion in Reactor number 4 is that ‘they forgot to be afraid’ in their handling of the core.


Today there are many reasons to be afraid of the power we have unlocked. One storyteller from Chernobyl observes how our capacity for science has outstripped our maturity to handle it. On finishing the book, one issue troubles the soul: what if Chernobyl is not simply the careless product of a defunct ideology and a metaphor for the wasting of human life in the last century but an outlier for the one we live in? The greatest threats emerge when knowledge outstrips wisdom. Those are the moments that should drive us to our knees in supplication to the God whose power created all we can see.


In patiently listening to their stories, Svetlana Alexievich has dignified those who are often derided as ‘Chernobyl people’, affording honour to people who are made in the image of God; an image which the poison of radiation cannot destroy.



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