Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer first appeared in 1997, eleven years after a series of explosions rocked the Chernobyl reactor in the middle of the night, sending 50 million curies (Ci) of radioactivity into the atmosphere, of which 70 per cent fell upon Belarus.

After crafting a new form of oral history with her books The Unwomanly Face of War and Boys in Zinc, she used the form to assemble a chorus of voices, from survivors to those who witnessed the tragedy from afar.

At its best, Alexievich captures reminiscence but also the poetic effects on the natural world, the science behind the radiation influx, and a few lasting insights into the state of the Russian mind.‘My characterization, if you want it: a hybrid between a prison and a Kindergarten, that’s what Socialism is, Soviet Socialism.’

Those words are taken from one of the most intricate and moving monologues in the book – the voice of Gennady Grushevoy, member of the Belarusian Parliament, chairman of the Children of Chernobyl Foundation. He speaks below.

Monologue on Cartesian philosophy and on eating a radioactive sandwich with someone so as not to be ashamed.

I lived among books. For twenty years, I lectured at a university… I am an academic. A man who picked out his favourite period in history and resides there. Totally preoccupied with it, immersed in his own space. In a perfect world… That was how it would have been ideally, of course. Because, at that time, the philosophy we had was Marxist-Leninist, and the topics on offer for a thesis were the role of Marxism-Leninism in the development of agriculture or in clearing virgin lands. Or the role of the leader of the world proletariat… All in all, they had no time for Cartesian thought. But I was in luck. My undergraduate dissertation was entered into a competition in Moscow, and somebody made a phone call from there, saying: ‘Don’t touch this fellow. Let him write.’ I was working on the French religious philosopher Malebranche, who undertook to interpret the bible from the perspective of the rational mind. The eighteenth century was the Age of Enlightenment. Faith in reason, the idea that we are capable of explaining the world. As I now realize, I was lucky. I was saved from the mincer. Saved from a lot of aggravation. A miracle! Before that, I was warned more than once that the choice of Malebranche for my dissertation could be seen as interesting, but for my thesis I would have to think carefully about the topic. That was a serious matter. Here they were, they said, allowing me to stay on to do postgraduate work in the department of Marxist-Leninist philosophy, and I was proposing to emigrate to the past… Surely I could see the problem… Gorbachev’s perestroika began. We had waited so long for this moment. The first thing I noticed was how people’s expressions immediately began to change, all of a sudden their faces were different. They even began to walk differently. Life was subtly altering the way they moved.

They were smiling at each other more. I picked up on a different energy in everything. Something had changed. Completely. To this day, I am amazed at how quickly it happened, and as for me… I was pulled abruptly out of that Cartesian idyll. Instead of books on philosophy, I now read the latest papers and magazines, eagerly awaiting each new perestroika-inspired issue of Ogonyok. In the morning there were queues at the news-stands; never before – or after – had people read the papers with such relish.They would never again believe them so unquestioningly. There was an avalanche of information. Lenin’s political testament was published, which had been locked away for half a century in some special archive. The bookshops began stocking Solzhenitsyn, then Shalamov, Bukharin. It wasn’t so long ago that you could have been arrested for possessing those books. You could have earned yourself a prison sentence. Andrey Sakharov was brought back from exile. For the first time, they broadcast sessions of the USSR’s Supreme Soviet on television. The whole country sat glued to their screens. We talked and talked. You could say out loud things which until recently would only be discussed in the privacy of your kitchen. For so many generations we had been whispering in our kitchens. So many people went to waste, whiling away their time in dreams, throughout our seventy-odd years of Soviet history. Now, though, everybody was going to rallies and demonstrations. Signing something, voting against something. I remember one historian appearing on television. He brought a map of Stalin’s camps to the studio. The whole of Siberia was dotted with red flags.We discovered the truth about Kurapaty… What a shock! Society was left reeling. Belarusian Kurapaty was the site of a mass grave in 1937. Belarusians, Russians, Poles and Lithuanians were buried there together in their tens of thousands. The NKVD’s ditches were dug two metres deep, and people were stacked in two or three layers. Once that place had been a long way outside Minsk, but later it fell within the city limits. It became part of the city, you could catch a tram there. In the 1950s, the area was planted with young trees, the pines grew taller, and the city people suspected nothing. They had picnics there at the weekends. In winter they skied there. People began excavations. The authorities – the Communist authorities – had lied. They tried to wriggle out of it. By night the police filled the graves back in, but in the daytime people dug them open again. I saw documentary footage: rows of skulls cleaned of soil. And each one had a hole in the back of the head…

The fear didn’t set in for a long time: for almost a month everyone was on tenterhooks, waiting for them to announce that our scientists, our heroic firemen, our soldiers have once again conquered the elements.They have won an unprecedented victory; they have driven the cosmic fire back into a test tube.

Of course, we lived with the feeling that we were taking part in a revolution. In a new phase of history.

Don’t worry, I haven’t digressed from the topic. I want to remember the general mood at the time Chernobyl happened. Because they will always go together in history: the downfall of Socialism and the Chernobyl disaster. They coincided. Chernobyl hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union. It blew the empire apart.

And it made me into a politician.

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It was 4 May, day nine after the accident, when Gorbachev made his appearance; it was cowardice, of course. Befuddlement. Like in the early days of the war, in 1941. The newspapers were writing about enemy ploys and Western hysteria, about the anti-Soviet commotion and damaging rumours spread by our overseas opponents. I remember how I felt in those days. The fear didn’t set in for a long time: for almost a month everyone was on tenterhooks, waiting for them to announce that, under the leadership of the Communist Party, our scientists, our heroic firemen, our soldiers have once again conquered the elements. They have won an unprecedented victory; they have driven the cosmic fire back into a test tube. The fear took a while to set in. For a long time, we kept it out. Yes, that was it. Absolutely! As I now realize, we could not make the mental connection between fear and peaceful nuclear energy. From all the textbooks and other books we’d read, in our minds we pictured the world as follows: military nuclear power was a sinister mushroom cloud billowing up into the sky, like at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, incinerating people instantly; whereas peaceful nuclear energy was a harmless light bulb. We had a childish image of the world; we were living life as depicted in children’s stories. It wasn’t just us; the whole of mankind wised up after Chernobyl. We all grew up, became more mature.

What struck me most was the combination of beauty and fear. Fear could no longer be separated from beauty or beauty from fear.

A few conversations from the early days:

‘There’s some nuclear power plant on fire. But it’s happening a long way away, in the Ukraine.’

‘I read in the papers that we’re sending combat vehicles there. The army. We’ll overcome it!’

‘In Belarus, we don’t have a single atomic power station. We aren’t worried.’

My first trip into the Zone: I went there thinking it would all be covered in grey ash, in black soot, like in Bryullov’s painting The Last Day of Pompeii. But I got there and everything was beautiful.Breathtakingly beautiful. Meadows in flower, the gentle spring green of the forests. I love that time of year. Everything is coming to life. Flourishing, singing… What struck me most was the combination of beauty and fear. Fear could no longer be separated from beauty or beauty from fear. Everything was turned on its head, topsy-turvy. I realize that now. There was a strange sensation of death…

We arrived as a group. Nobody sent us there. A group of Belarusian deputies from the opposition. What times they were! What times! The Communist authorities were backing down. They were weakening, losing confidence. Everything was fragile, but the local authorities treated us with hostility: ‘Do you have permission? What gives you the right to stir up the people? To ask questions? Who gave you this assignment?’ They alluded to instructions received from above: ‘Do not give in to panic. Await orders.’ As if to say,‘Don’t you go scaring people when we need to fulfil our quotas, our grain and meat quotas.’ What worried them was not people’s health, but hitting their targets.The quotas for the republic and the quotas for the nation… They were afraid of their bosses. And their bosses were afraid of those above them, and so on up the chain, all the way to the general secretary. One man decided everything from his celestial heights.That was how the pyramid of power was built. It was headed by a tsar: at that time, a Communist tsar.‘Everything here is contaminated,’ we told them.‘None of the food you’ve produced can be eaten.’ ‘You are rabble rousers. Stop your enemy agitation. We’ll make phone calls. We’ll report this.’ And they made their phone calls. They reported it to ‘the appropriate authorities’.

The village of Malinovka: fifty-nine curies per square metre. We went into the school. ‘So how are you doing?’

‘We’re all scared, of course. But we’ve been reassured: all we need to do is wash the roof, close off the wells with plastic and tarmac the country lanes. Then we can go on living here. Though the cats keep scratching for some reason, and the horses’ noses are dribbling mucus on to the ground.’

The head teacher invited me to her home for lunch. It was a new house. She’d held a housewarming there two months earlier. In Belarusian it’s called ‘vkhodiny’: when people have only just moved into a house. Near the house they had a sturdy barn and a root cellar. What was once known as a kulak farmstead. These were the kind of people dispossessed under Stalin’s dekulakization. Enough to make you stop, stare and envy.

‘But soon you’ll have to leave.’

‘Out of the question! We’ve put so much work into this place.’

‘Take a look at the dosimeter.’

‘They’ve been coming here, those bloody scientists! They won’t let people live in peace!’

The husband waved his hand and went off to the meadow to fetch his horse without saying goodbye to me.

The village of Chudyany: one hundred and fifty curies per square metre.Women were digging in their vegetable plots, children running about the streets. At the end of the village the men were hewing timber for a new log house. Our car stopped near them. They clustered round, asked for a smoke. ‘How are things in the capital? Are you getting vodka? We keep running dry here. A good job we’re brewing our own. Gorbachev doesn’t touch a drop himself and he won’t let us drink either.’

‘Aha, so you’re deputies. The tobacco situation is pretty lousy around these parts too.’

‘Listen, guys,’ we began explaining to them. ‘You’re going to have to leave here soon. See this dosimeter? The radiation where we’re standing is a hundred times over the limit.’

‘Oh, come on, don’t give us that crap. Hell, what do we want with your dosimeter! You won’t be hanging around here long, but we’ve got to live in this place. You can stick that dosimeter of yours where the sun don’t shine!’

I’ve watched the film about the Titanic a few times, and it reminded me of what I saw with my own eyes.I experienced it myself, in the early days of Chernobyl. Everything was just like on the Titanic. People were behaving in exactly the same way. The psychology was the same. I recognized it. I even made the comparison at the time. You had the bottom of the ship already pierced, this tremendous surge of water was flooding the lower holds, overturning barrels and crates. It was creeping forward, breaking through all obstacles. While up above, the lights are bright, music is playing, champagne is being served. Families carry on squabbling, love affairs are being kindled. And the water is gushing up the staircases, into the cabins…

The lights are bright, music is playing, champagne is being served…

Our mentality is a separate topic. For us, everything revolves around feeling. That is what gives us our grandness, elevates our lives, and is, at the same time, so disastrous. The rational choice for us is never enough. We gauge our actions with our hearts, not our minds. The moment you wander into someone’s yard in the village, you are their guest. They are so pleased. Then they are upset. They will anxiously shake their heads.

‘Oh dear, we’ve no fresh fish, nothing to offer.’

‘Perhaps you’d like some milk? I’ll pour you a mugful.’

They won’t just let you go on your way. They’ll beckon you into their cottage. Some of the others were afraid, but I was willing. I went in, sat at their table, ate radioactive sandwiches, because that was what they were all eating. I downed a drink with them and it gave me a sense of pride to know I had that in me. I had it in me! Yes, that’s right! I told myself, ‘OK, so maybe I can’t change a thing in this man’s life, but what I can do is eat a radioactive sandwich alongside him, so I won’t be ashamed. Share his fate.’

That is the attitude we take to our own lives. And yet I had a wife and two children. I was responsible for them. I had a dosimeter in my pocket. I realize now,this is just our world, it’s who we are. Ten years ago, I felt proud of being the way I was, while today I’m ashamed of it. All the same, I would still sit with him and eat that wretched sandwich again. I’ve thought about it, thought about what kind of people we are. I couldn’t get that damned sandwich out of my mind. You had to eat it as an act of the heart, not the mind.

I told myself, ‘OK, so maybe I can’t change a thing in this man’s life, but what I can do is eat a radioactive sandwich alongside him, so I won’t be ashamed. Share his fate.’

A writer put it well when he observed that in the twentieth century, and now in the twenty-first, we are living, as we were taught to, by the precepts of nineteenth-century literature. Lord knows, I’m often plagued by doubts. I’ve discussed this with many people. Who on earth are we?

I had an interesting conversation with the wife, now the widow, of a helicopter pilot. She was an intelligent woman. I sat talking to her for a long time. She wanted to understand too; to understand and find meaning in her husband’s death in order to be able to accept it. She just couldn’t.

I read many times in the newspapers about the helicopter pilots working above the reactor. At first, they were dropping lead panels into it, but they vanished down the hole without trace. Then someone remembered that lead vaporizes at 700 degrees Celsius and the temperature down there was 2,000 degrees. After that, sacks of dolomite and sand were dropped down. Up where the pilots were it was as dark as night from the dust being raised. Pillars of dust.

In order to drop their ‘bombs’ accurately, they opened the cabin windows and aimed by eye to get the correct banking of the helicopter, left–right, up–down. The radiation doses were ridiculous! I remember the headlines of the newspaper stories: ‘Heroes of the Sky’,‘Falcons of Chernobyl’.

And then there was this woman. She admitted her doubts to me. ‘Now they write that my husband is a hero. Yes, he is, but what does that mean? I know he was an honest, dutiful officer. Disciplined. He came back from Chernobyl and was ill within a few months. They presented him with an award in the Kremlin, and he saw his comrades there. They were ill too, but glad to have met up again. He came home happy, with his medal.

I asked him then, ‘Could you not have avoided being so severely affected? Protected your health better?’

‘I probably could, if I’d thought more about it,’ he said. ‘We needed proper protective clothing, special goggles, a face mask. We had none of that.We didn’t follow standard safety procedures ourselves. We weren’t thinking about that at the time.’

Actually, none of us were. What a pity that, in the past, we did so little thinking! From the viewpoint of our culture, thinking about yourself was selfish. It showed a lack of spirit. There was always something more important than you and your life.

I understand today: Chernobyl liberated us.We learned to be free.

1989: the third anniversary of 26 April. Three years had passed since the disaster. Everyone had been evacuated from a thirty-kilometre zone, but over two million Belarusians were still living in contaminated areas. Forgotten. The Belarusian opposition planned a protest for that day, and the authorities responded by declaring a ‘volunteer Saturday’ to clean up Minsk. They put up red flags, brought out mobile food stalls with delicacies in short supply at the time (fresh smoked sausage, chocolates, jars of instant coffee). Police cars were on the prowl, heavies in plain clothes snooping about taking photos, but – a sign of new times! – people just ignored all that. They were no longer afraid of them. They began assembling at Chelyuskin Heroes Park, more and more of them. By ten o’clock, there were already 20,000–30,000 (I’ve taken that from police estimates later reported on television), and the crowd was growing by the minute.We hadn’t expected that ourselves. Everything was just getting bigger and bigger. Who could stem this tide of people? At precisely ten o’clock, as we’d planned, the march moved off along Lenin Prospect towards the city centre, where the rally was to be held. All along the way, new groups were joining us, waiting for the march on parallel streets, in side streets, in gateways. A rumour spread that the police and army patrols had blocked the roads into the city; they were stopping buses and cars with protesters from other places and turning them back, but no one panicked. People got out and walked on to join up with us. That was announced over a megaphone and a great ‘Hurrah!’ swept over the march. Balconies were thronged, windows thrown open, people stood on windowsills to wave to us. They were waving shawls and children’s flags. Then I noticed, and everybody around started talking about it: the police had melted away – and the boys in plain clothes – taking their cameras with them. I understand now that they were given new orders; they retreated into courtyards, and locked themselves in cars concealed under tarpaulins. The authorities had taken cover and were waiting to see what would happen. They were scared. People marched on in tears, everybody holding hands. They were crying because they were overcoming their fear. They were liberating themselves from the intimidation.

The rally began, and although we’d been preparing for a long time, discussing the list of speakers, it was promptly ignored. People came to the hastily erected platform and spoke without notes: ordinary people from the area around Chernobyl. The list reformed itself spontaneously. We were hearing witnesses, testimony. The only prominent figure to speak was Academician Velikhov, one of the former directors of the centre in charge of dealing with the accident, but his was not one of the speeches I remember. The ones I do remember are:

A mother with two children, a boy and a girl. She brought them up on to the platform with her. ‘My children have not laughed for a long time now. There is no naughtiness. They don’t run around in the courtyard. They have no strength. They are like a little old man and woman.’

A woman involved in the clean-up operation. When she pushed back the sleeves of her dress to show the crowd her arms, we saw her sores and scabs. ‘I washed clothes for our men working near the reactor,’ she said. ‘We did most of the laundry by hand because not enough washing machines were delivered, and they soon broke down because they were so overloaded.’

A young doctor. He began by reciting the Hippocratic oath. He talked about how all the data on radiation sickness were being stamped ‘secret’ or ‘top secret’. Medicine and science were being dragged into politics.

This was Chernobyl’s public inquiry.

I will not attempt to hide it. I openly admit that this was the most memorable day of my life. We were so happy.

The next day, those of us who had organized the demonstration were summoned by the police and convicted for the fact that a crowd thousands strong had blocked the avenue and obstructed the free movement of public transport. Unauthorized slogans had been displayed. Each of us was given fifteen days under the ‘aggravated hooliganism’ article of the penal code. The judge passing sentence and the policemen accompanying us to the detention centre were shamefaced. All of them. We were laughing. Yes, because we were so happy!

Now the question was: what more are we capable of? What should we do next?

In one of the Chernobyl-affected villages, a woman fell to her knees in front of us when she heard we were from Minsk. ‘Save my child! Take him with you! Our doctors can’t understand what’s wrong, and he’s suffocating, turning blue. He’s dying.’ [Falls silent.]

I went to the hospital. The boy was seven. Thyroid cancer. I wanted to take his mind off it and began joking. He turned to the wall and said, ‘Just don’t tell me I’m not going to die. I know I am.’

At the Academy of Sciences, I think it was, I was shown an X-ray of someone’s lungs that had been burned through by ‘hot particles’. They looked like the sky at night. The hot particles were microscopic pieces of radioactive material created when the burning reactor had lead and sand tipped into it. Atoms of lead, sand and graphite combined and were shot high up into the atmosphere. They were dispersed over great distances, hundreds of kilometres. Now they were entering people’s bodies via the respiratory tract. The highest mortality was among tractor and truck drivers, people who ploughed the land or drove along the dusty country roads. An organ in which these particles settle glows in X-rays. It is peppered with hundreds of tiny holes, like a fine sieve. The person affected dies, literally burns up; but whereas they are mortal, the hot particles live on. A person dies, and after a thousand years will have turned back into dust. The hot particles, though, are immortal, and their dust will be capable of killing again. [Falls silent.]

Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich
Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich

I came back from those trips… I was overwhelmed. I told people what I’d seen. My wife is a specialist in linguistics. She’d never taken an interest in politics before – any more than she had in sport – but now she kept asking me over and over again, ‘What can we do? What should we do now?’ And we set out on a course which common sense would have told us was impossible. It was the kind of thing a person could only countenance in a time of upheaval, of complete inner emancipation. That was such a time, a time when Gorbachev was making the running, a time of hope, of faith! We decided to save the children. To reveal to the world the peril Belarusian children were living in. To ask, to shout for help. To raise the alarm. The authorities were silent. They had betrayed the people, but we would not be silent.

Very soon, a group of dedicated helpers and like-minded supporters came together. Our watchword was: ‘What are you reading? Solzhenitsyn, Platonov? Welcome!’ We were working twelve hours a day. We needed to think of a name for our organization. We went through dozens of possibilities before settling on the simplest: the Children of Chernobyl Foundation. Today, it’s impossible to explain or even imagine all our doubts at that time, the arguments, our fears… Today, there are countless funds like ours, but ten years ago we were the first: the first civil initiative, unsanctioned by anyone in authority. The response from all officials was identical: ‘Foundation? What foundation? We have the Ministry of Health for this sort of thing.’

I understand today: Chernobyl liberated us. We learned to be free.

I remember… [Laughs.] I can picture it right now! The first refrigerated lorries bringing humanitarian aid drove into the courtyard of our apartment block, to our home address. I looked out of my window and saw them, and couldn’t imagine how we were going to unload and store it all.The trucks had come from Moldova, with seventeen to twenty tonnes of fruit juice, dried fruit and baby food. By then there were already rumours that the best way to draw out radiation was to eat lots of fruit, have lots of fibre in your food. I telephoned friends, some at their dachas, others at work. I and my wife began unloading the trucks by ourselves, but gradually, one by one, people came out of our block (which was, after all, nine storeys high), and passers-by stopped to ask, ‘What are these trucks doing here?’

‘They’ve brought aid for the Chernobyl children.’ They dropped whatever they were doing and rolled up their sleeves. By evening, the trucks were unloaded. We packed the goods into cellars and garages, made arrangements with a school. We laughed at ourselves later, but when we brought these gifts to the contaminated areas, when we began distributing them… people usually assembled in the local school or at the House of Culture. Something’s just come back to me now. One time, in Vetka District… a young family. They, like everyone else, had been given little jars of baby food, cartons of fruit juice. The father sat down and wept. These jars and cartons were too late to save his children’s lives. They could make no difference, but he was crying because, after all, they had not been forgotten. Someone had remembered them. There was hope.

The whole world responded. People agreed to take our children for treatment in Italy, France, Germany… Lufthansa flew them to Germany at the airline’s expense. There was competition among the German pilots to come here. We got only the best! As the children were walking out to the aircraft, they all looked so pale, and they were so quiet. There were some odd moments. [Laughs.] The father of one boy burst into my office and demanded his son’s documentation back:

‘They’ll take our children’s blood! They’ll conduct experiments on them!’

Of course, the memory of that terrible war still festers. People have not forgotten. But there was something else at work: we had lived behind the barbed wire for such a long time, in the ‘Socialist Camp’. We were afraid of that other world. We knew nothing about it.

The Chernobyl mothers and fathers were a different problem. To continue the conversation about our mentality, the Soviet mentality. The Soviet Union had fallen, collapsed, but people were still expecting to be coddled by a great, powerful country, which no longer existed. My characterization, if you want it: a hybrid between a prison and a kindergarten, that’s what Socialism is, Soviet Socialism. A citizen surrendered his soul to the state, his conscience, his heart, and in return received his rations for the day. Beyond that, it was a matter of luck: one person got a bigger ration, another a small one. The only constant was that you got it in return for selling your soul. And the thing we most wanted to avoid now was our foundation turning into a distributor of that kind of ration: the Chernobyl ready- packed meal. People were used to waiting and complaining. ‘I am a Chernobyl victim. I am entitled, because I am one of the victims.’ As I see it today, Chernobyl was a major test of our spirit and our culture.

That first year, we sent 5,000 children abroad. The second year it was 10,000; and in the third, 15,000.

Have you talked to the children about Chernobyl? Not the adults, the children. They often have unexpected ideas. As a philosopher, I’m continually surprised. For example, one girl told me their class was sent out into the countryside in the autumn of 1986 to harvest the beetroots and carrots. They were constantly coming across dead mice, and they joked among themselves that the mice would die out, then the beetles and worms, then the hares and wolves, and then us. People would be the last to die out. They began imagining a world without animals and birds.Without mice. For a time, there would be only people alive, all alone. There would not even be flies buzzing around. Those children were aged between twelve and fifteen. That is how they saw their future.

I talked to another girl. She went to a Young Pioneers’ summer camp and made friends there with a boy.‘He was so nice,’ she recalled. ‘We spent all our time together.’

But then his friends told him she was from Chernobyl, and he never came near her again. I even corresponded later with that young girl. ‘When I think about my future now,’ she wrote, ‘I dream of completing school and going to some far-away place, so nobody knows where I come from. Somebody will fall in love with me there, and I will forget everything.’

Yes, yes, write all this down, or it will slip people’s memory and be lost. I only regret not writing everything down myself.

Another story. We came to a contaminated village. The children were playing ball by the school. The ball rolled into one of the flower beds. They stood there, walked around it, but were afraid to go and retrieve it. At first I couldn’t see the problem. I knew things theoretically, but I didn’t live there. I wasn’t constantly on the alert.

I came from the normal world. I walked over to the flower bed and immediately all the children shouted, ‘No! No, mister. You mustn’t!’ In the past three years (this was in 1989), they had got used to the idea that you mustn’t sit on the grass, or pick flowers, or climb a tree. When we took them abroad and said, ‘Go for a walk in the forest. Go down to the river. Have a swim, sunbathe!’ you should have seen how hesitant they were to go into the water, to stroke the grass. But then, afterwards… there was so much joy! They could dive in the river again, they could lie on the sand. They were forever walking around carrying bunches of wild flowers, and weaving them into circlets. What am I thinking right now? I am thinking that of course we can take them abroad and get treatment for them, but how are we to give them back the world they knew? How can we give them back their past? Or their future?

There is a question we cannot escape: who are we Russians? Until we answer it, nothing will change. What does life mean to us? What does freedom mean to us? We seem capable only of dreaming of freedom. We could have become free, but it didn’t happen. We missed the boat again. For seventy years, we were building Communism, and today we are building capitalism. We used to worship Marx, and now we worship the dollar. History has passed us by. When you think about Chernobyl, you come back to the big question: who are we? What insights have we gained into ourselves? Into the world we inhabit? In our military museums, and we have more of those than we have museums of art, you find collections of old machine guns, bayonets, hand grenades, and out in the courtyard you see tanks and grenade launchers. Children are taken there on school trips and told: ‘This is war.This is what war is like.’ But actually, nowadays, it’s completely different. On 26 April 1986, we faced war again; and that war is not over.

As for us… Who are we?

Gennady Grushevoy, member of the Belarusian Parliament, chairman of the Children of Chernobyl Foundation.

Extracted from Svetlana Alexievich, Chernobyl Prayer, Penguin 2016, translated by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait.