Testimonies as a Mode of Reconstructing Memories 

in Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer
 Lakshmi K. Babu
Dr. Liss Marie Das

Memories undergo an inevitable process of selection before being considered as part of canon and archive. Those accounts that have the potential to question and problematize the functioning or competence of an authority or state are either eliminated, or glossed over during the process of remembering. Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer (2013) is a collection of testimonies of clean-up workers, families of fire-fighters, scientists, doctors, party members and others that give numerous perspectives on the explosion of Reactor 4 at Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986. Alexievich in search of the ‘missing history’ unearths the voices of many lives that were neglected since the event. The article exhibits the clash between remembering and forgetting exercised in literature, art and culture, and takes the instance of the accounts of the people of Chernobyl that rests in the inert space of the archive. It probes into the significance of validating and rendering visibility to individual perspectives. The article reviews the concept of home, identity and belongingness. It discusses the consequences of radiation, and how Alexievich represents memories of children snatched off their innocence of childhood; residents forcibly evacuated from their homes; liquidators who awaited a Chernobyl death; mothers who were uncertain of the future of their children ‘disabled’ from Chernobyl; and refugees who found harbor in poisoned lands. It also debates on how the information regarding the consequences of exposure to radiation were concealed from the ordinary people or from the soldiers stationed for clean-up activities.

Key Words: Memory, Remembering, Archive, Group Memories, Chernobyl, Testimony

Memory, space and time are constitutive in the formation of identity and belongingness. They also influence the production of history on individual and community levels. With regard to the context and mental disposition, every individual subjectively experiences the three. Also to actively connect with the past an individual has to associate with them. Although it is impossible to recapture the human experiences of the past in its full essence, it is possible to retrieve some fragments of it with intentional effort. The retrieved material is eventually represented in numerous forms like literature, theatre, monuments and others for the contemporary and posterity to interpret. In every society there are inherent opinions that decide what has to be repeatedly represented, and what has to remain fairly out of reach for the reader to consume. This briefly explicates the primary ideas that go into the making of the canon and the archive.

Memory theorist, Aleida Assmann argues that the canon is “the active dimension of cultural memory” that undergoes a meticulous process of “selection”, is “independent of historical change and immune to the ups and downs of social taste” (Assmann 100). Whereas the archive is “the passive form of cultural memory” (103). The knowledge stored in the archive is inert, yet it is potentially available for interpretation. It is a space “located on the border between forgetting and remembering; its materials are preserved in a state of latency, in a space of intermediary storage” (103). When a culture resolves to classify the canon and the archive, it inevitably exercises the principle of exclusion; or the dynamics of forgetting. Forgetting is at times necessary on an individual and collective level as it makes space for acquiring new information, ideas and challenges, and also aids the process of healing in case of dealing with painful memories. Assmann distinguishes between two forms of forgetting: active and passive. Active forgetting involves violent procedures, or intentional methods like trashing and destroying (97-98). It could be instituted like censorship intended at damaging cultural products and can be detrimental if aimed at a minority. Passive forgetting involves non-intentional methods such as losing, hiding, abandoning materials which are not physically destroyed, yet “they fall out of the frames of attention, valuation, and use” (98). The process of remembering also adheres to an active and passive side. The past can be brought to the present, or can be retained as the past itself by the institutions of active and passive memory, respectively. According to Assmann this tension can be demonstrated by observing different rooms in a museum. “The museum presents its prestigious objects to the viewers in representative shows which are arranged to catch attention and make a lasting impression. The same museum also houses storerooms stuffed with other paintings and objects in peripheral spaces such as cellars or attics which are not publicly presented” (98). Similar to the arrangements inside a museum, it is up to the interests of a community or culture to exhibit its chosen constituents of remembrance.

The abandoned city of Chernobyl, located near Pripyat in the north of Ukraine and south of Belarus, prompts numerous images in memory; of loss, suffering, death and uncertainty. A city that was formerly peaceful and held four nuclear reactors of Soviet RBMK-1000 designs became infamous after the disaster of 26 April 1986 that was a result of a poorly devised experiment by the technicians at Reactor 4 of the nuclear power plant. According to Britannia, the explosion occurred when the operators attempted to shut down the power regulating system and emergency safety systems of the reactor. The reactor continued to run at seven percent power when the operators removed the control rods from the reactor’s core. The situation aggravated and fell off hands when a chain reaction in the core led to several explosions and triggered a huge fireball that destroyed the reactor’s massive steel and concrete lid. A consequent meltdown released enormous amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere (“Chernobyl Disaster: Nuclear Accident, Soviet Union [1986]”). The air currents carried radioactive emissions to great distances affecting cities, waters, flora and fauna.

Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer (2013) attempts to collect testimonies of individuals who witnessed the explosion at Chernobyl; accounts of family members of the victims and of those who suffered the consequences of radiation. The text also holds testimonies of wives of firefighters, clean-up workers, mothers, children, scientists, soldiers, doctors, journalists, party members, photographers, residents of the areas affected by Chernobyl, historians, school-teachers, helicopter pilots and others. Many of these accounts give an insider story of how people endured trauma while they latched on to every inch of life. They provide multiple perspectives of the event as experienced by different individuals from their personal and social spaces. The characters of Alexievich’s text are taken from life; from her interviews conducted over a span of twenty years after the author probed each of the individuals to remember the event from their positions. Alexievich provides their identities and designations, but at times does not mention their names while scripting their accounts. This can be interpreted as the author’s intention to demonstrate commonality in human experiences regardless of age, gender and position in a community that endured a trauma, and also because few of them did not want to reveal their identities. 

In the Introduction to Chernobyl Prayer, Alexievich details the events that brought down the Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl power plant that triggered the explosion. The accident was “the gravest technological catastrophe of the twentieth century” (Alexievich I). The event released fifty million curies (Ci) of radioactivity into air and the 70 percent of it fell onto the lands of Belarus. Since then the country has encountered an increase in child mental retardation, genetic mutations, neuropsychiatric disorders and cancer (2). The cancer rates rose to 6,000 in 100,000 when earlier it was only 82 in 100,000. The mortality rate reached 23.5 per cent with the majority of the deaths occurring among previously able-bodied citizens between forty-six to fifty years of age. Alexievich declares that more than the statistics of the devastation, she was disturbed by the “missing history”; “the invisible imprint of our stay on earth and in time” (24). She then engaged herself to look out for the “shocked people”; people who breathed the effects of Chernobyl. “I paint and collect mundane feelings, thoughts and words. I am trying to capture the life of the soul” (24).

The land in Chernobyl had become inhospitable for the people who once considered it as their home. The people were clueless of the unfamiliar events of science that were transpiring around them. The information regarding the consequences of radiation were kept away from them. “This caesium was lying in my vegetable plot until it got wet in the rain. Sort of inky blue, it was… By one of the houses, somewhere in the street, they wrote, ‘70 curies’, ‘60 curies’. We’d been living on our potatoes, our spuds, forever, and here they were saying we couldn’t eat them!...They locked all the well shut, covered them in plastic sheeting” (38-39). “All the hens’ combs were black, not red: that was the radiation. And we couldn’t make cheese…the milk wouldn’t sour, it curdled into lumps…the vegetable plot. The whole plot went white, completely white, like it was dusted with something…the wind had sprinkled it.” (50). People began to fear the impacts of radiation and also the people affected by it. Since they were uncertain of how it looked: “some say it’s got no colour or smell, but others says it’s black. Like the earth! If it’s no colour, then it’s like God. God is everywhere, but you can’t see him… ‘it flies around in the air, like dust. It can fly’” (62). People remember how the everyday objects became contaminated matter. “You’re not allowed milk, not allowed beans. No mushrooms, no berries…our water can’t be drunk” (63).

In addition to a geographical space, home is a place of belonging; identity and companionship. The testimonies indicated that when people were evacuated, they resorted to writing their names on their homes, logs and fences (47). “It may be poisoned with radiation, but this is my home. There’s nowhere else we’re needed. Even a bird loves its nest” (48). People had established memories with objects that they did not want to abandon. But official commands compelled them to leave all belongings and depart (50). When the people shifted to new houses one of them testified that they were reluctant to hammer a nail to the walls of those foreign buildings as they felt everything was strange (51). People imagined going back to their homes because they were unsuccessful at establishing a bond with foreign buildings. “Every day, I dreamed about my house. I was returning home: one time I’d be digging in the vegetable plot, another time making the bed. And I’d always find something: a shoe, or some chicks. All good omens, signs of happiness to come. Of a homecoming” (53). Some had left their homes with notes on the doors marking the date that they had deserted it. They bid farewell to the buildings as if they were parting from a person (78). Alexievich describes the agonies of people who were forcibly evacuated from their homes without an explanation. “they were doing the resettlement. Storming the houses. People were locking themselves, hiding away. There was cattle mooing and children crying. Like in the war” (40). Maria Volchok testifies on how a mute and sixty year old, Anna Sushko, disappeared during resettlement. She attempts to outline Anna’s appearance and character. Anna was taken away in an ambulance to an unknown destination. As she was uneducated they did not have hopes on receiving a letter from her. “They carted off people on their own and the disabled to homes. Hid them away. Nobody knows the addresses” (64). For the people who had returned from the war, the area of Chernobyl was a better place to live unlike the warzone. The Mother from the K. family says, “The war. It’s all I can talk about. Why did we come here? To the Chernobyl Zone? Because no one will kick us out. From this land. It’s nobody’s, God has taken it over. People have deserted it” (68). Unlike the people who desired to return to the homeland, the K. family dreaded returning to theirs. They had fled from the communal clash between Kulobi and Pamiri Tajiks and found refuge in Chernobyl. The mother testified how it was like to live in times of war; to walk amidst violence, and gunshots in fear of death. 

The site of Chernobyl had become another place in time after 26 April 1986 on multiple levels. It became a location of fear, hostility and suspicion. Since the air, land, and water was poisoned from radiation, people had to abandon their homes and professions; many lives had to be sacrificed that included the lives of animals and pets. One of the previous residents testified, “in the space of one night we shifted to another place in history. We took a leap into a new reality, and that reality proved beyond not only our knowledge but also our imagination. Time was out of joint” (25). After the explosion, Chernobyl became a performative space for the people who once inhabited the land. “I watched people transform from their pre-Chernobyl selves into Chernobyl people” declares Alexievich (29). A radiation monitoring technician recalls his life after he got home from Chernobyl. He reminisces about going to a dance when he fell in love with a girl, and asked her out. The girl responded, “what for? You’re a Chernobyl guy right now. Who’d want to marry you?” (87). 

After the explosion many workers and soldiers were stationed to assist immediate rescue work and clean up at the Chernobyl site. They were called liquidators, and were appointed without granting genuine and sufficient knowledge on the after-effects of the exposure to radiation. A soldier testifies that they were provided assault rifles just in case there was an attack from the Americans and also given lectures on sabotage operations by Western intelligence (82). They were shown dosimeters but were not allowed to touch them. Though they were given gas masks none of them knew why they had to wear them. When they were allowed to go home they were instructed to buy vodka. They were not given any other advice on what to expect in life later on. A soldier recalls being summoned by a KGB officer (Committee responsible for the state and domestic security, and foreign intelligence) before he went home. The officer warned all the men to never speak a word of what they had seen at Chernobyl to anyone they met. “When I got back from Afghanistan, I knew I’d live! After Chernobyl, the opposite was true: it was when you were back home that it would kill you. I’m home now. And it’s all just beginning” (83). All of them were sent home with a certificate of commendation and hundred-rouble bonus (173). Some received medals and some died before receiving them. Another soldier recalls an order that his men received from a captain at the municipal army enlistment office to go to Krasnoe village to attend reservist training. But the next morning their passports and military IDs were taken away, and they were transported to an unknown location in a bus. One among the men wanted to know whether they were being taken to Chernobyl. But he was threatened with court-martial for spreading panic. On the first day the soldier remembers seeing the power plant from a distance, and on the second he remembers clearing the debris that included plastic sheeting, metal fittings, wood and concrete around the plant with ordinary spades (90). After the work they were forced to sign ‘a non-disclosure agreement’ (91). 

Soldiers who returned began to desire an ordinary death, and not a “Chernobyl death” because death had become a mystery and arrived in multiple and surreptitious forms. All those who returned had carried the morbid effects of radiation, and those who lived in the radiation prone areas could be killed by a blade of grass, a fish, a bird, or by an apple. The people of Chernobyl became research specimens in a nature laboratory. People around the world approached them to take their interviews, write theses and monographs. Nikolai states that “the world has been split into two: there is us, the people of Chernobyl, and you, everyone else” (135). The world had established a different perspective of the people of Chernobyl. But for the latter an unfathomable thing had destroyed their entire lives beyond repair, the effects of which would remain for one billion years on earth (136). Sergey Vasilyevich Sobolev, the vice-chairman of Chernobyl Shield Association of Belarus remembers how humans were devised as biological robots. During the clean-up work many radio-controlled handling equipment failed because of high radiation damaging the electronic circuitry. And “the most serviceable robots were soldiers”. Sobolev remembers that these soldiers were nicknamed “green robots” after their uniforms and more than three thousand six hundred of them labored on the roof of the reactor (173). He also confirms the ban on filming anything relating to Chernobyl. If anybody dared to record anything, the authorities would confiscate the material and demagnetize the tapes. “We have no documentary material about how people were evacuated or livestock was moved out. There must be no filming of a disaster, only of heroism” (175).

Memory provides a common platform for the creation and enhancement of group identities. Collective remembering arranges a sense of belonging over time and space. In “Soldiers Choir”, Alexievich collects group memories; memories of a section of society that share a common sentiment, knowledge and attitude (76). The testimonies of clean-up workers, policemen, drivers, captains, radiation monitoring technicians and others demonstrate the challenges faced by the front line workers during the clean-up work. One of them testified about his experience working at the power plant after the explosion. “Gave us white coats and white caps; gauze face masks. We cleaned the grounds… Did all the work by spade… We sometimes got blood coming out of our ears, our noses. A tickling in the throat, your eyes stinging. There was this constant drone in your ears. You felt thirsty, but lost all appetite. We weren’t allowed to do our morning exercise, to keep us from breathing in extra radiation” (77). A pilot recollects his indecisive position of being stuck between the idea of duty and the reality of life in danger. He had flown over the reactor multiple times. Though they followed the scientists who instructed the helicopter and its seats to be covered with lead and found chest protectors made from thin lead sheeting, the protection was insufficient. Their faces went red and burned and they couldn’t shave. Still they were not informed about the magnitude of the situation they had experienced until three or four years later these men started to fall sick. “When the first man fell ill then the second. Someone died, another man went mad, another killed himself. That’s when we began thinking more deeply” (81).

Nina Konstantinovna Zharkova, a teacher of language and literature, and Nikolai Prokhorovich Zharkov, a teacher of design and technology, explains how the lives of children were altered by Chernobyl. In a classroom, children were more interested in speaking about death and the fear of it. “They’ve lost their love of the classics. I recite Pushkin to them: their eyes are cold and detached. There’s an emptiness…It’s already a different world around them” (129). Nina and Nikolai believe that the shift in attitude is because the children were used to the subject of death; since everyday they witnessed someone or something being buried; people, houses and trees. These children had already lost the spirit of happiness, and it was impossible to cheer them. They could not stand for fifteen or twenty minutes in school assembly as their noses would bleed. They were pale and tired most of the time, and they developed very slowly. Larisa Z., a mother to a child born with multiple pathologies explained the predicament of her daughter who thought it unusual for a life outside hospital (94). Her daughter did not know that people lived in their homes as all her friends were from the hospital. She underwent four surgeries in a span of four years and still fought for life. Larisa protests that it took four years for the doctors to give her a medical certificate that affirmed a link between her daughter’s pathologies and ionizing radiation. The doctors refused to issue it to follow protocol, and claimed it as a disability since birth. But Larisa was defiant and confirmed that there was not a single history in their family tree that can claim it, and that her “daughter was disabled from Chernobyl” (96). Larisa looked at the future of her daughter in pain, fear and uncertainty.

The testimonies of the people of Chernobyl showcase a conflict between remembering and forgetting in order to come to terms with life. There also existed a tremendous current to wipe all potential information that questioned the competence of the state that it was convenient for the  people to forget than remember. A lecturer at Gomel State University, Yevgeny Alexandrovich Brovkin stated “all of a sudden, I’ve started wondering whether it’s better to remember or forget. I’ve asked my friends. Some have forgotten, others don’t want to remember, because there’s nothing we can change” (97). He affirmed that after the explosion, all books on radiation – on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and on X-rays disappeared from libraries. There were rumors that it was directed from the authorities to keep people from panicking. He also admitted, “I suspected another reason was at play. I began wondering why so little has been written on Chernobyl. Our writers keep on writing about the war, about Stalin’s camps, but they are silent on Chernobyl. There are almost no books on it” (98). He stated that the people believed in every word that was printed, but unfortunately there was no truth in them.

A poem by a Pripyat refugee, Lyubov Sirota (2010), “They Did Not Register Us” captures how the Soviet had forgotten the existence of many people like her. The poem is dedicated to Vasily Deomidovich Dubodel who lost his life in 1988, and to all the victims of Chernobyl. Her poems express the anguish and rage experienced by the refugees of Chernobyl after they were abandoned by their government. She recounts that the news media had kept silent about the happenings of Pripyat for two months. Sirota writes,

They did not register us
and our deaths
were not linked to the accident.
No processions laid wreaths,
no brass bands melted with grief.
They wrote us off as lingering stress,
cunning genetic disorders . . .
But we—we are the payment for rapid progress… (185)

In 2006 the European Committee on Radiation Risk had put forth a volume dedicated to the liquidators of Chernobyl who had risked their lives to save the rest of the world. ECRR Chernobyl: 20 Years, On Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident European Committee on Radiation Risk Documents of the ECRR 2006 No1 (2006) edited by C. C. Busby and A.V Yablokov was a collection of scientific responses and observations made by eminent scientists on the magnitude of the consequences of Chernobyl disaster, and the incompetence of the counteractive measures adopted until then by governments and organizations. The evidence from the chapters reveal the impact of low dose radiation that trigger subtle changes in the genome of a body and intensify the rate of general mutation. 

The effects of genomic instability are apparent in the evidence of massive harm to the organs and systems of living creatures at low doses of internal exposure, resulting in a kind of radiation ageing associated with random mutations in all cells. At the higher doses in the ‘liquidators’, after some years, their bodies seem to simply fall apart. In an astonishing statement we hear from Yablokov [Alexey .V. Yablokov. Councilor, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow] that in Moscow 100% of the liquidators are sick, in Leningrad 85%. These are men that ran like hares into the radiation fields with improvised lead waistcoats cut from roofs and who, by stabilising the situation at the reactor, saved Europe from a nuclear explosion equivalent to 50 Hiroshima Bombs - an outcome that would have made most of it uninhabitable. They are forgotten. (Busby and Yablokov p.2)

In “The Chernobyl Catastrophe - 20 Years After (a meta-review)” Alexey V. Yablokov (2004) records the increased number of stillbirths, spontaneous abortions and deaths from cancer. In 1986-1998 the rate of cancer mortality increased by 18-22% among the evacuated people and Ukrainian territories polluted by radioactivity. In the period between 1990 and 2000, Belarus depicted a 40% upsurge in cancer (Busby and Yablokov 6). Konstantin N. Loganovsky in “Mental, Psychological and Central Nervous System Effects: Critical Comments on the Report of the UN Chernobyl” reports that mental disorders are one among the significant medical and social problems confronted by the survivors of Chernobyl even after twenty years of the incident. The survived liquidators face challenges that include brain damage, psychological disorders, suicide, neurodegeneration, accelerated aging, schizophrenia spectrum disorders and chronic fatigue syndrome (74). Loganovsky criticizes the insufficiency of the mental health care system and stresses the need for psycho-rehabilitation of survivors.

Busby and Yablokov estimates it as a “scandal” for the agencies of the United Nations, chiefly the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), and the World Health Organization (WHO) instituted for the welfare of humanity to ignore the substantial amount of information from the Chernobyl incident that demonstrates its detrimental effects on life. Yet Norman Gentner, the representative of UNSCEAR stated in the 2001 conference of WHO on Chernobyl that, “The risk of leukaemia doesn’t appear to be elevated even among the recovery workers. No scientific evidence for increases in cancer incidence or other non malignant disorders that could be related to the accident” (Busby and Yablokov (3). In 2003, an international workshop in Oxford organized by Committee Examining Radiation Risk from Internal Emitters (CERRIE) discussed reports of anecdotal evidence of increased cases of ill health and infant leukemia in territories affected by Chernobyl in the ex-Soviet Union. On that occasion the Russian scientists drew attention to the fact that there were many significant reports in Russian language literature on Chernobyl that were not translated into English by the United Nations, or the World Health Organization. According to the scientists, it was due to this reason that the territories affected by Chernobyl were “being ignored or glossed over” (3). Busby and Yablokov added that if these works were translated it would be fatal to the nuclear industry that releases vast amounts of radioactive materials to the environment with license granted by the governments.

Unlike genocides committed by totalitarian governments, the holocaust or disasters that struck a community, the trauma endured by the people of Chernobyl did not receive much representation in art and culture. This is merely one reason why the event of Chernobyl is sidelined from heated debates circling health, welfare and environment. Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer runs counter to this tide of forgetting, and highlights individual voices that suffer amidst illness, negligence by authorities and time. Each voice exhibits a genuine response to the disaster from each of their socio-political spaces. They represent the ethos of a community that battle death, illness and visibility. Alexievich’s interest in the “missing history” probed her to look out for ordinary voices and validate them in language and these testimonies reconstruct the surviving notions surrounding the event at Chernobyl.

Works Cited

Alexievich, Svetlana, Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future. Translated by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait, Penguin Books, 2013. (Original work published 1997)
Assmann, Aleida, “Canon and Archive,” Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook. Edited by Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning, Walter de Gruyter, 2008, pp. 97-107.
Busby, C.C., and A.V. Yablokov, editors. ECRR Chernobyl: 20 Years, On Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident European Committee on Radiation Risk Documents of the ECRR 2006 No1. Green Audit Press. United Kingdom, 2004.
“Chernobyl Disaster: Nuclear Accident, Soviet Union [1986]”. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d., https://www.britannica.com/event/Chernobyl-disaster. Accessed 12 April 2022.
Nelson, David Erik, editor. Perspectives on Modern World History: Chernobyl. 1st ed., Gale and Greenhaven Press, 2010.
Sirota, Lyubov. “They Did Not Register Us”, Translated by Leonid Levin & Elisavietta Ritchie, Perspectives on Modern World History: Chernobyl. 1st ed, Edited by David Erik Nelson, Gale and Greenhaven Press, 2010, pp. 185-186. (Original work published 2003)
Lakshmi K. Babu
PhD Research Scholar
St. Xavier’s College for Women, Aluva
Kerala, India
Pin: 683101
Ph: +91 8921998738 
email: lakshmi_75757@yahoo.co.in
ORCID: 0000-0003-2936-6244


Dr. Liss Marie Das
Assistant Professor
St. Xavier's College for Women
Pin: 683101
Ph: +91 9946812524
email: lissmariedas@stxaviersaluva.ac.in
ORCID: 0000-0002-2340-9058