‘CHERNOBYL PRAYER’ and ‘THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR’ by Svetlana Alexeivich

Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexeivich

So you want to cheer yourself up with a good book eh?
Well, if the slow, aching death by radiation poisoning and cancers of both locals and the one hundred and seventy thousand ‘volunteers’ who performed the ‘clean-up’, the loss of livelihood and traditional lands of millions of Belarusians and Ukrainians, a massive government coverup and news blackout, nuclear fallout of cesium and strontium across Europe and Northern Africa and other forms of catastrophic mayhem does it for you then, fuck me, you’ve got issues pal.
This is powerful journalism, told in the voices of those who remained, those who lost loved ones, those scientists who did their best to spread warnings to both people and the government and the voices of those in the government who felt that keeping the people ignorant was the best thing to do at the time.
Chernobyl was both a catastrophe and a milestone. It signalled the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union and its effects are generational both in the health and well-being of those areas covered in fallout (i.e. there is little health and no well-being) and in the way the Soviet Union lurched from state control to free reign free market capitalism that created billionaire oligarchs and a gaping chasm of inequality.
You cannot help but feel for the survivors in the area around Pripyat. Not just for the sheer scale of the loss of their loved ones and the deformities of their children, but also because they were forcibly denied their deep cultural tie to the land and because when they were moved they were ostracised by their own society. Those refugees were simply called ‘Chernobyl’, mocked for glowing at night and discouraged from reproducing freaks.
Russia being Russia, contaminated equipment was looted and spread its way around the Soviet Union causing more cancers, more reproductive deformities, making more orphans.
This book is a first hand chronical of a disaster that poisoned a large swathe of the world through negligence and a dark need for control.
You cannot read this and not feel a twinge of relief that New Zealand is declared nuclear free…
Not that we are immune from some of the effects of Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Alexeivich is a worthy Nobel Literature winner.

Jonathan Corfe

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexeivich

I read the most cheerful things.
God help the world if Svetlana Alexeivich ever decided to do travel writing because this, coupled with her other book Chernobyl Prayer, leaves a mark on the psyche of the reader and not in a way that involves skipping, picnics or candyfloss.
The Second World War started for the Russians in 1941 and it started on their doorstep. Their Army was overrun, underfed and, famously, under-equipped. Two soldiers were given one rifle and told that when the rifle holder was killed the other soldier had to pick up the rifle and carry on fighting. I say soldier rather than man because, unlike just about every other country in the second great bunfight, Russian women demanded enmass to fight at the front in combat roles.
This book tells the first hand stories of female pilots, anti-aircraft gunners, sappers, snipers, partisans and front-line medics that were literally untold for over thirty years. They went through appalling privations that would have killed any other nationality in their tracks; they witnessed death on a truly awesome scale. There are passages in this book that make you just have to stop and wonder how anyone came out alive… and when they did they returned to a civilian world that ostracised them.
Many of these women never married because of the stigma of a woman fighting at the front- they must have been prostitutes, whores and good time girls. Quite the opposite was true. They were valued, protected and respected at the front by male soldiers who only behaved abominably toward Polish and German women once they were on foreign soil, pillaging, murdering and gang-raping their way to Berlin.
While the women of this book were cherished and recognised with decorations by their male peers, it took 30 years for the government to celebrate them publicly. Most… all of the interviewed women only talked about their war reluctantly. The stigma for them remained.
They talked about shelving their femininity during the war, the charred, torn bodies they saw, the gnawing ubiquitous hunger and the sheer scale of bewildering catastrophe that befell Western Russia.
God help you if you were captured though because even if you escaped you got sent to a Gulag as a traitor afterward – a whole new torturous misfortune that you’d be lucky to survive.
You cannot read this book and not feel empathy for them as people, as women, as parents, as children, as victims of circumstance.
Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to quietly water the garden in the evening shade.
9 out 10.

Jonathan Corfe

unwomanlyjacket    chernjacket

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