Russian-Language Responses to Černobyl′/Čornobyl′: the Case of Svetlana Aleksievič

The 1986 accident at the Černobyl′ nuclear power station in Ukraine brought about varied literary responses. Within months of the explosion, works appeared in the Soviet Union representing many genres, including novels, short stories, drama, lyric poetry, and even, according to Natalie Kononenko, at least one example of a duma, the traditional Ukrainian epic poem sung by a kobzar, or minstrel. Despite their range in genre, early literary responses to Černobyl′, whether Vladimir Gubarev’s play Sarkofag or Jurij Ščerbak’s Černobyl′: dokumental′naja povest′, shared an impulse to get to the “truth” of the accident, to retrace the mistakes made prior to and after April 26, 1986. In part, this impetus comes from the nature of the accident, in part, it is a general characteristic of literature of the glasnost′ period. For although the policy of glasnost′ predated the Černobyl′ accident by several months, it was only really put to the test in the aftermath of the disaster.

My paper examines a work not written during the heady days of glasnost′ and perestrojka, but rather one of the post-Soviet period: Svetlana Aleksievič’s Černobyl′skaja molitva, published in Moscow in 1997. In distinction to early literary responses to Černobyl′, Aleksievič’s work is less concerned with naming the “heroes” and “villains” of the accident and its immediate consequences, but rather the fate of those who are living in its aftermath. Moreover, whereas earlier works seem more oriented to the past in their attempt to put the events of the accident in their proper order and perspective, Aleksievič’s book, despite the benefit of retrospection, appears more open-ended. In an interview in Literaturnaja gazeta the author admits, “I write this book and it does not feel like I’m a chronicler of the past. It seem that I’m describing the future” (Rišina 3). Černobyl′ after all, is not an event of past history, but one whose ramifications are still being felt.

Another issue I address in my paper is the tension between Aleksievič’s own authority as a writer and that of her witnesses in Černobyl′skaja molitva. While Aleksievič presents a variety of voices in her work, interjecting her own voice only rarely, her authority can still be found in her selection of the interviews and their placement in the book. Aleksievič discusses how the book was written: “For more than three years I traveled around interviewing people who one way or another had been involved with Černobyl′: scholars, medics, soldiers, liquidators, evacuees, farmers, children, the elderly, women …. The most difficult part is when it comes time to turn that chaos, that terror into an example of art, a testimonial about time and the enigma of a person as a whole” (Rišina 3). Even in this work, which presents first-person testimonials, the author plays a crucial role in filtering the voices of others. Although eyewitness accounts can bring a certain amount of immediacy, and, it would seem, legitimacy, to the larger story, they can sometimes fall victim to the very object of witnessing, due to either the stress of the moment or the deliberate dissembling of others. James E. Young, who has studied the witness-diarists of the Holocaust, notes, “But where the writing from within the whirlwind may be ontologically privileged insofar as it is empirically linked to events, it is not thereby more real or authentic if these terms denote factual veracity” (Young 33).

Finally, I will examine questions of language policy and Černobyl′ literature, looking at the various reasons why certain works by Ukrainian and Belarusian writers were published first, or in some cases only, in Russian. The fact that Aleksievič’s work appeared in Russian suggests some similarities with Ščerbak’s novel, which was published first in Russian in 1987 and in his native Ukrainian only in 1988. In one interview, Aleksievič, who grew up in Belarus and lives presently in Minsk, calls into question Belarusian nationalism, particularly in the aftermath of Černobyl′: “I’m a cosmopolitan by nature, as much as that disturbs our Belarusian nationalists … . I cannot say that I feel like a person of any one piece of land … . I don’t understand at all how Belarusians can be nationalists after Černobyl′. That’s a real mystery to me” (Igrunova 207–08).

Selected Bibliography

Aleksievič, Svetlana. Černobyl′skaja molitva. Moskva [Moscow]: Ostož’e, 1997.

Goble, Paul A. “Readers, Writers, and Republics: The Structural Basis of Non-Russian Literary Politics.” The Nationalities Factor in Soviet Politics and Society. Ed. Lubomyr Hajda and Mark Beissinger. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990. 131–147.

Igrunova, Natal′ja. “A potom ja napišu o ljubvi … .” Interview with Svetlana Aleksievič. Družba narodov 10 (1993): 203–208.

Kononenko, Natalie. “Duma Pro Čornobyl′: Old Genres, New Topics.” Journal of Folklore Research 29.2 (1992): 133–54.

Onyškevyč, Larissa M. L. Zaleska. “Echoes of Glasnost: Chornobyl in Soviet Ukrainian Literature.” Echoes of Glasnost in Soviet Ukraine. Ed. Romana M. Bahry. North York, Canada: Captus UP, 1990. 151–170.

Rishina, Irina. “Černobyl′skaja molitva. Mne kažetsja, a zapisyvaju buduščee … .” Inteview with Svetlana Aleksievič. Literaturnaia gazeta 24 April 1996: 3.

Semicvetov, Igor′. “Žizn′ posle Strašnogo suda: Svetlana Aleksievič. Černobyl′skaja molitva.Ogonek. 11 February 1996. 48.

Ščerbak, Jurij. Černobyl′: dokumental′naja povest′. Moscow: Sovekskij pisatel′. 1988.

Young, James E. Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1988.