Sasha Dovzhyk on the haunting banality of Europe’s biggest nuclear catastrophe.

Serhii Plokhy, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy (Penguin, 2019), 432pp.

‘As the bus entered the grounds of the plant, he realized it could not just be the pipeline – the top of Unit 4 was gone. His heart sank. “This is my prison”, he said to himself’.

This paragraph describes the director of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Viktor Briukhanov’s arrival at the site of the world’s worst peacetime nuclear catastrophe, which took place in the north of Soviet Ukraine on 26 April 1986. This abstract, as I see it, also holds a key to the ‘history of a tragedy’, retraced by Serhii Plokhy in his new book about Chernobyl. Using contemporary interviews, Plokhy reconstructs Briukhanov’s initial reaction: ‘he would have to bear responsibility for the disaster, whether he was guilty or not’. This line of thought is but a symptom of a modus operandi forged by the decades of terror, when such instruments as show trials for sabotage and executions of managers were part of the state’s toolkit. The chief strength of Plokhy’s book is the exploration of the Chernobyl catastrophe in relation to the Soviet project at large. What was the disaster to the Soviet empire: a symptom? a mirror? a death knell?

As everywhere in the Soviet Union, the Chernobyl plant’s personnel focused on fulfilling production quotas, not safety requirements. On the night of the accident, the operators and engineers were determined to conduct a long-planned equipment test. Swayed by the nuclear industry’s mantra that reactors were safe as samovars, the team allowed breaches of procedure which triggered inherent hazards in the reactor’s design. The model’s technical flaws had already caused a lesser nuclear accident at the Leningrad plant in 1975. This did not prevent the model’s installation at numerous power stations all over the Soviet Union with no information about the design faults released to staff. Such paranoid silence was a military birthmark of the so-called ‘peaceful atom’ which eventually brought about the explosion of Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4.

At first, the operators and engineers in the control room could not comprehend what had happened. Having walked around Unit 4 twice during the next hour, the deputy chief engineer – the man in charge that night – realised the reactor had been destroyed but could not acknowledge this either to his team or the plant’s director. Neither could his colleague who climbed up to the roof of the reactor hall and glanced down its blazing mouth. Inert, depressed, absorbing lethal doses of radiation, the managers concentrated on using the phone and summoning their superiors to the station. After kicking the reactor’s ejected entrails around the premises, high-profile nuclear experts who came from Moscow during the day still denied the fact of the explosion. As Plokhy notes, ‘minor accidents could be blamed on the subordinates but the one they had just seen was too big to be handled that way’. It was only when the chairman of the government’s high commission, Boris Shcherbina, arrived from Moscow, that the truth became irrefutable. Shcherbina agreed to start evacuation of civilians – but not until the next day. Preventing panic was an overarching concern.

Plokhy’s skill in conjuring characters at the site of the catastrophe is mesmerising, and I carefully observe his leads, driven by the natural desire to find the one person responsible. However, the problem of responsibility in this case is linked with the absence of response. What response is possible within the system which cultivates silence as a survival strategy?

During days and weeks, the party leadership was silencing the news of the disaster from Moscow, and Ukrainian subordinates were following suit. As Plokhy observes, ‘subservience to Moscow was part and parcel of the historical DNA of the Ukrainian political elite’. For instance, it was not until the Soviet capital refused to accept farming produce from the contaminated areas for its stores that the Ukrainian government interrogated its readiness to fulfil the centre’s agricultural quotas. The price of silencing the impact of the accident was not equal for those giving orders from the Kremlin and those extinguishing the radioactive fire with sand, lead, and human lives in Ukraine. Plokhy’s exposure of the Soviet hierarchy brings to mind the classic question of postcolonial critique formulated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: can the “subaltern” speak?

According to the dictionary definition, “subaltern” is a junior officer in the British army. This term has been appropriated by postcolonial theorists to characterise diverse members of oppressed groups. For Spivak, the subaltern stand in an ambiguous position to power: subordinate yet heterogenous, never identifying with the rulers’ vision of themselves, they are nonetheless defined by the dominant discourses. Can this chain of silencing of the subaltern be broken and a basis for action found?

Plokhy’s research appears to suggest that Chernobyl became such a basis for the formation of the Ukrainian political subject. The metaphor of speech becomes even more pronounced considering that Ukrainian revolt against the Soviet system was spearheaded by writers. They were the ones to break the press taboo on the impacts of Chernobyl, to lead the first Kyiv rally not controlled by the Party, to create the first Ukrainian ecological foundation Green World (Zelenyi Svit) and the grassroots organisation Movement (Rukh). The latter would, according to Plokhy, ‘propel Ukraine into a democratic revolution’. For the regime’s ex-temporisers and long-term dissidents alike, the Chernobyl disaster became a token of the Moscow-sponsored destruction of the Ukrainian nation; the public debate about it was fashioned into ‘a tool of state and nation-building’. Five years after the accident, Ukraine, the second-largest Soviet republic, declared its independence.

The collapse of ‘The Last Empire’ (as reads the title of Plokhy’s book of 2014) disseminated the notion that the problem of Chernobyl – another name for the problem of the Soviet – had been dealt with. In the last chapter, Plokhy shows how economically-struggling Ukraine relied on Western aid to close the Chernobyl Power Plant and construct a shelter over its damaged reactor. For Plokhy, it exemplifies ‘the clash between the demands of individual nations for economic development and the security of the world’, a poignant argument which resonates with a number of contemporary debates, including climate justice.

What seems to me even more important is that resorting to victimhood allowed Ukrainian state-builders to factor out Ukrainian responsibility for the Soviet past and lay the blame entirely on Moscow. There was no screening of Soviet officials inside the newly independent country; its power structures and institutions remained infiltrated with the old functionaries of all ranks. In 2014, this self-delusion opened Ukraine, its army eroding, to a fresh imperialist fit, the Russian annexation of Crimea and military invasion of the eastern Donbas region. The fighting between Russian and Ukrainian armies (and Plokhy makes note of it) was taking place 322 km away from Zaporizhzhia, my home region as well as home to the largest nuclear power station in Europe. The Russo-Ukrainian war continues today – and every day it threatens to render not only Ukraine but the whole of Eurasia uninhabitable.

In his book Remnants of Aushwitz, Giorgio Agamben argues that the truth of the concentration camp is that ‘it has never ceased to take place; it is always already happening’. Its horror, its shame, its senselessness culminates for Agamben in the notorious ‘moment of normalcy’: a football match between the prisoners and the guards. Today, he claims, this normalising match is going on. Likewise, the Chernobyl catastrophe keeps unfolding, uninterrupted, not only because of its long-term health effects and contamination of the environment. We must remind ourselves that this catastrophe had started long before 1986, for only the system which had come up with Gulag camps could succeed in extinguishing radioactive fire with human bodies. We must realise that this catastrophe repeated itself in 2018 when we watched the World Cup matches played on the Russian football fields while the war was going on and Ukrainian political prisoners were declaring hunger strikes in Russian jails. As Agamben writes, the catastrophe ‘repeats itself in every match in our stadiums, in every television broadcast, in the normalcy of everyday life. If we do not succeed in understanding that match, in stopping it, there will never be hope’. Serhii Plokhy’s Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy can take us one step closer to understanding it.

Sasha Dovzhyk holds a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Birkbeck, University of London. She is a Wellcome Trust-funded postdoctoral researcher exploring the tropes of disease in the arts of fin de siècle.

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