In the summer of 1986, I landed at Athens airport. When I glanced at my wrist watch to make sure I caught my connecting flight, it had stopped. That watch never worked again. A few years later, over lunch with a colleague, reminiscing about spending summers in Europe, we got to chatting about the summer of the Chernobyl disaster. Miles away that very summer of 1986, this woman I wasn’t to meet until years later, landed at Zagreb airport where she noticed, rushing to catch a connecting flight, her watch had stopped, never to tell time again. A peculiar coincidence. To this day, I still think Chernobyl had something to do with it. At the time, in my early twenties, looking forward to a summer of beach-reading and flirtation, had Chernobyl registered? Yes, yes, it had: it was a seminal moment, like reading the first article about AIDS in the Common Room of my liberal arts college (in the NYT Magazine), a moment, like today’s pandemic that will mark and define every young person’s life. Of the two, AIDS changed us, as the pandemic will do. Did Chernobyl? I can’t really say it did. It loomed; a frightening spectre, but it didn’t change me, the way that AIDS article did (what sad losses it brought). Chernobyl and the fear and threat of radiation, so insidious, so invisible, like the fog, coming on “little cat’s feet,” I noted my strange watch-loss and forgot about it in the Aegean’s sparkling surface. Reading Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight In Chernobyl brought it back, not only reminding me of that stopped-wrist-watch, but informing me about a disaster that loitered, continued to wreak death and destruction years after it was out of sight, out of mind for many of us who followed the event in the news at the time.
Higginbotham’s account is compelling reportage. It doesn’t read as history, doesn’t put the disaster in a context, or draw strong conclusions about where it will fit in 20th century accounts. What it does best is bring the people and events alive. It breaks down heroes and villains: no one looks terribly brave, only caught in a time and place. There aren’t villains either, oh, there’s blame and negligence and intransigence, but no outright evil intent. There are bumblers and there are people who behaved responsibly and well. There is a great sense of the lumbering beast that was the Soviet Union: entrenched in a behemoth of immovably wrong-headed ideology, constantly pushing that square peg into a round hole, never moving from its position of the great, glorious Soviet revolution, its heroic WWII role, its great works and dreams. Chernobyl stands like Ozymandias and the beast is no more.
Higginbotham’s narrative describes this with elegant prose. His ability to draw character and describe scene, to infuse science with drama, and drama with data impressed me. His pacing and narrative structure kept me quickly turning those Kindle pages. Here is his description of a post-evacuation scene:
The beaches were deserted, the restaurants empty, the playgrounds silent. Now the streets echoed with new sounds: the barking of bewildered pet dogs, their fur so contaminated with poisonous dust that their owners had been forced to leave them behind; the whine of civil defense reconnaissance vehicles; and the relentless throb of helicopter engines, as the pilots and engineers of the Fifty-First Guards Helicopter Regiment returned again and again to fling bags of boron and sand into the mouth of the radioactive volcano.
Reading Higginbotham’s vivid prose descriptions of deserted Pripyat and Chernobyl’s twisted, frightening, fatal wreckage during a pandemic, our streets deserted and an invisible, insidious enemy on the move, what came through the strongest was human vulnerability and ignorance.
What else struck me was how the Chernobyl nuclear disaster exposed the weakness, hypocrisy, and corruption of the Soviet state, as the pandemic is doing to the “mighty ship of state” (thank you, Leonard Cohen) to Canada’s south. This passage was particularly powerful and telling:
Slowly at first, but then with gathering momentum, the Soviet public began to discover how deeply it had been misled — not only about the accident and its consequences but also about the ideology and identity upon which their society was founded. The accident and the government’s inability to protect the population from its consequences finally shattered the illusion that the USSR was a global superpower armed with technology that led the world. And, as the state’s attempts to conceal the truth of what had happened came to light, even the most faithful citizens of the Soviet Union faced the realization that their leaders were corrupt and that the Communist dream was a sham.
Après le déluge, dissolution. After that, Putin.
And yet, one passage I loved that gave me hope was an account, years after the disaster, when scientists entered the reactor, despite danger to themselves:
And yet the scientists found their work so fascinating and important that some refused to leave at the end of their assignments; many deliberately left their dosimeters in the office to avoid officially registering their maximum dosages and being sent home.
I loved these anonymous heroes, not altruists, not self-sacrificing, laying lives down for their brothers, but simple human curiosity, the compulsion to know and understand. It may hold us in good stead yet.
I read Higginbotham’s Midnight In Chernobyl, published by Simon and Schuster Canada, on my Kindle. I recommend you read the book, but get a paper copy to mark and muse over.