Voices From Chernobyl - Svetlana Alexievich
Hear the human stories of the disaster, from Nobel-Prize winning author Svetlana Alexievich, in Voices From Chernobyl. Now a 5 part HBO miniseries.
Please tell a friend this week about Illiterate!
EXTRA CONTENT NOTES:
HBO miniseries trailer (YouTube):
HBO podcast about Chernobyl (Spotify):
Craig Mazin’s script for “Chernobyl” online:
Interview with Svetlana Alexievich (YouTube):
Interview with Svetlana Alexievich (article):
The Door (Oscar nominated short film), YouTube:
La Supplication (artsy film version) trailer (YouTube):
The Dogs of Chernobyl relief effort:
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FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW:
Evan: This is Illiterate. My name is Evan.
Taylor: My name is Taylor. I read a book this week.
Evan: I watched an episode. We're doing voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear (Nuclear) disaster. My God! Written by Svetlana Alexievich.
Taylor: Here we go.
Evan: Is that right Taylor?
Evan: Good. Let's get into it. Voices from Chernobyl. As most of our current, relevant, hip listeners know the HBO series Chernobyl is out. It's been making quite a bit of noise. It's a five part series. I've watched the first episode, it’s all available now.
Taylor: It's based on the whole incident, which includes a lot of socio-political stuff-
Taylor: And so the book Voices from Chernobyl is what some elements of the show are based off of. Certain vignettes, certain characters, amalgamations of situations. The book was very interesting to me. I didn't I don't know anything about Chernobyl, which is also why they made the show-
Evan: Right, and to preface this all, we are not experts on the event of Chernobyl, Soviet culture, history. We're merely discussing this the human aspects of this stuff,
Taylor: And that's what the book was. It is a series of interviews that Svetlana did, and she did over 500 of them in a 10 year span, started in the mid nineties. Chernobyl the situation happened in ‘86 and so the book itself is over 50 or so of these, condensed and moved around, and situated in certain ways, I'm not going to go through all of them.
Evan: No, I want all. In want all the notes and all the research. If her, if her binders are available, I'd love to see the documentation -
Taylor: The napkins scrawled in the Starbucks. We want it all.
Evan: I want the- I want just the raw roll from the camera. I want these interviews.
Taylor: I'll give you some of them. But at the end here we'll talk about her because I felt like with Handmaid's Tale, I did go in a little bit of the author Margaret’s story, but this is much more interesting to me because there's something that happens at the beginning of the book and one of the interviews that she talks to one of these people, whose husband was involved in the cleanup and then got really sick, and an interview that I listened to with the author of Voices from Chernobyl, and it really stuck with me. I was like, Oh, this is how it's all connected and seems like why she's doing this and her whole history. So this book came out in ‘97, Voices from Chernobyl. Like I said, she took that 10 year period from when it happened to-
Evan: Oh, so she was like, it happened. She's just like I gotta-
Taylor: She was in the capital of, yeah, she was in the capital-
Evan: So she's hot on it.
Taylor: And she went down there immediately. The one that I read is a translation that came out in 2005, and there's also a new 2016 translation.
Evan: Oh. Okay.
Taylor: Which came out-
Evan: Interesting. I wonder what? Why they felt the need to do it again?
Taylor: I don't know.
Taylor: And it won the Critics Circle Award, which is this book award in 2005, the English translation did. More recently, though, Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015. So the Nobel Prize is awarded for your whole body of work. As opposed to a particular thing, and the Nobel Prize is like a cultural, whole world kind of thing, which is true. So only a few people have ever won this for being a non fiction writer because it's a Nobel Prize in literature. And so her work encompasses, which is what we're all about, human feeling and emotion. And that's really what she hits on is the facts are the facts. But when you talk to somebody about how they feel about it, you get the truth.
Taylor: So that's what she is really into.
Evan: It’s like the difference between a stack of papers reporting an incident and a painting of this, of what it looks like.
Taylor: Exactly. Yeah, and so that's probably all the prefacing we need. We're going to talk about the painting of this situation, and if you don't know anything about Chernobyl, we have a little bit of it. In the kind of preface of the book. It goes into a little bit of it, but I didn't know anything of the context of it. It’s just more interesting to hear these personal stories-
Evan: I also don’t know very much about the incident at all, so-
Taylor: It was a nuclear reactor, an accident. It brought in a bunch of radiation. There was a lot of cover ups and government, you know, negligence-
Evan: Right, It's become just a kind of a classical, you know, human happening, that we were, a cultural pinpoint of like, “And that's where we messed up as mankind,” like as a whole right here. And this is how bad things can be when we let things slide.
Taylor: And a lot of people say that this is the straw that broke the camel's back of the Soviet Union because it was unavoidable in the sense that the radiation was found in Sweden and people are like, well, this is none of our reactors in Europe, so it must be happening over in the Soviet Union, and they had to be held accountable for it. So just some historical context the way that she starts out the book - Voices From Chernobyl. The situation was like the opposite of the World Trade Center. Or this is this translator explaining, kind of for some historical context, that it's the opposite of the World Trade Center, where they were ready for the survivors. They had tons of paramedics and crew, and devastatingly there were hardly any. But there was all that preparation and care put into, how can we help people who’s here, but
Evan: Five seconds I think was, you know, they responded immediately. But Jon Stewart was on Capitol Hill last week saying that exact thing because the Congress people wouldn't even meet with him about everything that happened to the rescue crews,
Taylor: the opposite happened with Chernobyl, where the initial blast that then started the fire and the radiation leaking, killed only one worker and then reporting there were fewer than 30 people died from radiation in the next couple weeks following. this was April 26th 1986. But the fallout afterwards, hundreds of thousands of people are affected. Forever that land is tainted. The radiation spread out over, you know, by May 2nd of that year, they sensed the radiation in Japan. By May 5th, it was in the U. S. and Canada at elevated levels. So it wasn't the immediate response that was the problem. It was all of the survivors after-
Evan: The lasting effect, the compounding effect of this stuff.
Taylor: And so this author is from Belarus, which is just a little bit north-
Evan: It’s like it’s happening in slow motion, which is almost a little more terrifying.
Taylor: And it's invisible-
Evan: It's a little more nightmarish. Imagine 9/11 happening to you, you know, for years to come. I mean, And that did happen to the, like we were saying about the rescue crews, but yeah. Nightmare unfolding in slow motion.
Taylor: So Belarus has a population of around 10 million. During World War 2, one out of every four Belarusians was killed. So a quarter of their population in World War 2. And comparing that to what happened with Chernobyl - today, one out of every five people that lives there lives on contaminated land, is pretty close to the same problem. And it was just- so this is very personal to this author.
Evan: Well, I mean, I think that's kind of what it's become such a touchstone, is it's personal to the entire world. It did affect the entire world in a way. And it's not about, you know, a political, you know, it's not about the specific people going around. I think it's just mankind, turning, you know, just being a little ignorant and a little cavalier and unwilling to accept the mistake as it was happening.
Taylor: So tying a little bit into, I'll just start with some of the prologue and go into the way that she structures it is just - this is a monologue about such and such. And then, at the end of the monologue, she says who it was and if they wanted to be identified or what their position was. So she goes through all different kinds of people: scientists, doctors, soldiers, miners, resettlers, people that left and then came back even though the land was contaminated. The wives of people that, what they call liquidators, who went out there to fix the problem. The government of all of these Soviet bloc countries requested aid- sometimes forcibly, sometimes not. And then these people that went out that were just plumbers or schoolteacher, whatever they were like “Here, grab a shovel, start covering stuff.”
Taylor: And that ties a little bit, what I'm getting at, is from my limited knowledge, the culture and what some of these people are saying in these interviews is that, because of the Communist background of the culture in the society that was looked upon as heroic, like you were shunned if you were like, “No, I'm not going to do that.” They were just like, “Hey, we got to go. We're doing this.” And people are like, “Oh, well, that's my job. We're all in this together.” And then, same thing in being in the land. It's like, Why would you go back to that? It’s like we have- this is our land. This is what we built our life on. We're a community. I'm not just going to disappear and never come back to this thing that is our home.
Evan: Yeah. At a certain point, like push come to shove. It is where your life is rooted and so the people just can not walk away. Some people can, but most probably can’t.
Taylor: Or you're a part of a collective farm. And you're,so you have that in your mind.
Evan: A lot of people have a lot of things holding them where they are.
Taylor: Yeah. So that was interesting to me because I think also as Americans (if you're listening to this and you’re American) we don't have that in our culture, we have more of an independent, get up and go. We're not rooted.
Evan: It's on you.
Taylor: We can do whatever we want-
Evan: And if you don't get it. It's your funeral, like you didn't try hard enough.
Taylor: And why don't you stick up for yourself? Or supposed to? Well, maybe there's more people involved, and you should just stay quiet and deal with it, because that's what you're supposed to do.
Evan: Compromise. Communicate.
Taylor: Yeah, and that's what's better for everybody. So the- in the very beginning. The prologue, probably the most devastating one. She's talking to a wife of somebody who's a liquidator who got called to go out there. She starts out saying, “Should I talk about death or love?”Which, remember that because we'll get to that at the end with the author. Her husband was a fireman. They were newlywed. They lived at the firehouse. The situation happened. He had to go over there and deal with it. They shipped him out, and then they shipped him over to a special hospital in Moscow. And she's pregnant already, and the doctor asks if she has kids, and says that she does have them, because if she's pregnant, she's saying she's lucky that she could hide it. They don't know what is happening, or what they're going to do to anybody. She says that she she loved him (exclamation point). The way that she's writing this is also very interesting. Because she puts in brackets. There's no like interview, the interviewer, asking a question. It's just all one big monologue of the person. So it's an unbroken thing, so you don't get the back and forth, but sometimes they'll be in brackets where it'll be like [she was silent for a long time] or something like that. Or just an indication of what the person is doing, which is sort of weird, because you feel like you're in a movie almost, where you're watching the person tell you about. She was saying, “The only thing that saved me was that it happened so fast,” referring to her husband wasting away in the hospital. She says, “In 14 days a person dies,” which we presume is how long she was there after he- because he was in the thick of it right up on the roof. They wouldn't let her hug him or kiss him or anything in the hospital because he was contaminated, but eventually because she was so persistent, the nurses just let her go in and they were like, “You think you can stop her? She'll go through the window!” Like, she got that reputation, that she was going to be with him every single day. When they were together before this, she said, “he only fell asleep after taking my hand.” It was like a little ritual that they had whenever they went to bed that they would hold hands. And she said when he was in the hospital, she would pull her hand away and his skin would be stuck to her hand. There'll be a lot of graphic, I’ll try to
Evan: Yeah, but that's like, it's the truth of it.
Taylor: And he's coughing up all this stuff, and eventually he dies. And they sealed them in these zinc caskets because that's what everybody was so concerned. Even if they're in the ground they’re, they have radiation coming off of them. She called them all heroes of the state, going back to what I was saying about this is the mentality, like you did this for your country. There's so many allusions and references to people saying “Oh yeah, this is like a war,” like “Oh, we're being shipped off to war,” and it's easy to comprehend it in that way. But then it's also very conflicting in a lot of these survivors’ minds because there's nobody to fight. There was nothing fighting, or it was presented in the news as “Oh yeah, there was a fire at this building, and now it's under control in six hours.” And then for months and years later, people are dying. So she gives birth later because, like I said, she was pregnant and her daughter died after four hours, because the radiation. She said “She didn't have a name yet, just a soul.” And then in these brackets that says [she becomes incomprehensible] in the interview. But she believes that her daughter took the radiation because now she's fine. Like her daughter was like a lightning rod for this and-
Evan: Just was like a sponge. Maybe it attracted it on that. That's fascinating.
Taylor: Which is a huge conflicting mental problem, and be like, “Why am I alive? And did I do this?”
Evan: Oh God, you'd never get it. I mean, that's-
Taylor: And then this monologue ends with, “Nobody wants to hear about death about what scares them.” And then she remembers and says, “But I was telling you about love, about my love”- which was her husband. So that's how the book starts. And I believe that this is one of the main characters in the HBO series about this one guy who's the fireman and the lady who's pregnant.
Evan: Yes, yeah, you're introduced to them in the first episode. The first episode is, is strictly the event as it's unfolding, and it kind of lets off after, once they- once everybody's actually coming to realize that the core is exploded, which was thought to be impossible. So he's just been there, fighting the fires and everything realizing, “what's going on? This is strange. There's a graphite on the ground,” You know things. So that's where they leave you at the end of the first episode. So I've haven’t got to see him deteriorate, really,
Taylor: She comes back, yeah, yeah. It that, the way that that was presented was interesting to you as a listener, there is a more artsy take on this, kind of a, Terrence Malick. Kind of like very-
Taylor: Esoteric, yeah, there’s a Luxemborgian director-
Taylor: The film came out in 2016. It's called La Supplication, which is “The prayer”-
Evan: It’ll be in the show notes.
Taylor: Yeah, it'll be in the show notes. And if that interests you more than the direct, humanistic element. There's a version of these stories where they directly go off of the book, and there's the monologues and it's-
Evan: A whole other way to digest-
Taylor: A whole other way to digest it. Yeah, more of like a tonal feeling kind of thing. So then we are just going into some more of these monologues. This is from a resident of a nearby town who then had to leave. The way that he starts a monologue. He's saying “It happened 10 years ago and it happens every day” Like you were talking about how it just keeps coming back slowly.
Evan: It’s still happening.
Taylor: And he said, “We turned from a normal person to a Chernobyl person,” which is also a different mental way of reckoning, with the fact that a lot of these people identify as that and, are like a Chernobylite, where you are-
Evan: I'd previously mentioned about the Columbine episode, about the massacre there, and people take on that identity as well. When something in an event happens, that happened just the same for that community-
Taylor: That you are an other. So he, in this monologue, the guy’s talking about the one thing that they wanted to take, cause they were just like, at a certain point for these various villages, some of them they didn't tell people, some of them they told people. The communication was all over the place. Some of them like, “Oh, you're going to be gone for three days and then you're going to come back.” And then it was months and they had hundreds of thousands of cleanup crews doing all sorts of stuff. Then some people forcibly came back, out of their own volition because they wanted to, because it was their farmland. So this guy, they’re like, “You just got to go,” and he wanted - He says it's so weird. But he wanted to take the door to their house because there was a ritual of like, it was part of their funeral ceremony that you'd lay the dead person on the door and carry them. And he was like It also had all the etchings of like, when I was raised, how tall I was when I grew up, my daughter, all of that stuff. And he was like, I couldn't leave that That's my family's legacy, which is a weird thing to take, but also a very strong visual. He said, his daughter said, because she got super sick afterwards, “Daddy, I want to live. I'm still little,” and he ends up putting her on the door like they did with his father, and so he's glad that he took it, and was able to keep it outside of that. And so this is kind of his request, he said. “My daughter died from Chernobyl and they want us to forget about it.” So there is a short film that was made called The Door, and it's on YouTube, I will put a link to it, and it was nominated for the Oscar for Best Live Action Short in 2010 and it's just this story, this monologue, translated into a short film, about the guy and them having to leave and then the daughter, and the door and yeah, so that's pretty interesting. It's like Russia subtitled-
Evan: My mind is going back to how the series probably came to be. That probably has a lot to do with it. That, and then a few years later, the author getting the Nobel Prize for Voices. But just that these, the Chernobyl event is turning up compelling human stories, in, now it's bleeding into even the Oscars. That's where a producer is certainly, like there's something here.
Taylor: Yeah, that we’re not talking about. And the creator of the show, Craig Mazin, Who has a- There's a podcast that's the HBO Chernobyl podcast where they deep dive into the episodes with him and-
Evan: And they released, also, listeners should know this. They released with the podcast all of the scripts for the series. So if you have seen the series and are interested in that, you can go back and look, listen to the writer talk about it episode by episode, and look at his writing compared with the show itself now. And now here is the quote unquote source material-
Taylor: And there's tons of information there, he was saying in an interview, I was listening, the big question was why this happened? Because people know that it happened. But as he's looking it up, people know Chernobyl, but they're like, I don't know anything actually about the situation-
Evan: How it came to pass.
Taylor: And so he felt like there needed to be another piece of material where he could go into what was going on. Three portions of the book, it's just shorter monologue vignettes, and this one is called The Soldiers Chorus. So it's all people that were directly there involved in the fix up of the situation. A big part of it was the animals that they had to leave. This one guy was saying how there's always cats in these houses and dogs, like you think it's empty. And there's a note from a kid saying, “Don't kill our cat” or like bring it back to us or something, like that was what the kid could leave. And there's still animals in these areas. Yeah, these zones where people are not allowed to be. There's actually, I looked up. There's a, through the SPCA or something, but it's like, it's called Dogs of Chernobyl, and they go every year-
Evan: There’d be a whole wildlife, you know, population that to a degree these things reproduce at a really quick rate. And so if you just leave them alone and everybody's left the town
Taylor: And most of these dogs that they have now I mean, this happened in ‘86. Most these dogs are under four years old or whatever. They're still being there, but it's like they need help because they have no, you know, the dogs did go out to the forest and then they came back into the populated- I mean, they're not populated anymore, but these areas, because the wolves and because these other animals are coming back. But there's groups that go in and spay and neuter them and give them whatever they need.
Evan: That should have been Isle of Dogs, I’m just kidding. Really depressing children's animation film. These radiated dogs.
Taylor: Yeah, but that's what sucks, too, is because I was thinking like, Oh, well, why don't they do something? It's like they can't bring them back because they're still-
Evan: Do you just round them up and murder them like, is that the answer? No-
Taylor: So, that's what they did in the moment is there were certain people that they purposely got hunters or people that would just run in and kill all these animals. There's a scene that happens in the story in the HBO series that has to do with puppies and dogs that got a lot of you know-
Evan: Oh no! Attention. It pulled on the heartstrings, got people going. Now dogs, animals, animals coming under harm in media gets people going. I witnessed that when the 1st 2014 Godzilla came out. There's mass destruction going on. It's insane. It's just the biggest of big, you know, plots going on. Nobody's fazed by it. No crowd reaction. Everybody is just watching the movie. So then, later on, cut to a dog on the beach, tied up. We know Godzilla's coming, but nothing's happened yet. The whole audience goes. “Oh my God,” Everybody is on this dog's side immediately. They've watched so many people die, and no reaction at all. They see one dog tied up on the beach helpless, and everybody is on its side immediately. So-
Taylor: Yeah, they did it with Independence Day. They did it with I Am Legend.
Evan: It's an interesting thing. I take note, and when I watched stuff of just peoples- When an artist is deciding to use that dynamic and people's reaction to it because it's never a mild reaction, it's always strong, even if it's done really well. Yeah, that's why they did it, you know.
Taylor: And our plug. We talked about it in Old Yeller and old episode that we did.
Evan: Right, right. Oh, yeah, that's right.
Taylor: So if you want the OG dog dying. Just a little bit more on these soldiers stories because we talked about, kind of the Soviet mentality of like, this is heroics. And so this one guy was saying, manly men were doing these things When he got home, he gave his son his cap that he wore from being out there. And then two years later, his son got a brain tumor. And he's like, “You can write the rest of this yourself. I don't want to talk anymore. You just got over it.” There was this one guy was saying, Yeah, they just had us, like get rid of the topsoil and just shovel it out, bring it on dumptrucks- there’s no explanation for what they're doing. People don't understand, even the- I mean the generals. People don't understand radiation, isotopes, the meters. How any of this stuff is- what they're even doing. But they were also paid, this one guy was saying, three times their salary. So, like, of course you would go, and they were heavily incentivized. This one guy said, “We'll never have proper asphalt and manicured lawns, but they'll always be plenty of heroes.” That mindset, we're in this together-
Evan: I mean how? I keep growing more displeased with all this herosism from the people being wielded and manipulated by the powers that be. You have these people bought into this system and this culture and level it. It's really amazing. It's really inspiring.
Taylor: Yeah, that you could mobilize 300,000 people to fix this thing.
Evan: All these people, all these people jumping in because that is the mentality of like, it's all part of one. We are all one. This I must do my part. This is- I must offer up what I can and they did. It's just, I’m growing, seeing that divide grow between just the disillusion of these people, using their goodwill and heroism against themselves, like it's, and I can't say more. It's just despair.
Taylor: Well, there was a certain point, also, somebody was saying in one of these things that they couldn't- You can only hold on to that despair so long before it just becomes normal. So it was like, Oh, yeah, we're only gonna be out for three days and then it's three months and they’re still shoveling topsoil. It was like, Well, this is just what our life is now. It's not. It becomes the normal thing. And throughout everybody's talking about how they drank so much or they would be giving them so much vodka and so much whatever. And just every night they were just so intoxicated because that was-
Evan: I get it. I get it.
Taylor: That was the way to go about it. Or they were like, Oh, this will help stop the whatever, this is, you know-
Evan: When it's something this large of a human calamity, if you're in the middle of it, you know, maybe have a drink. Like, I get it.
Taylor: There was a monologue about repentance. Who was an outsider who moved back into the exclusion zone, and he said he was a very philosophical man. He's forgotten his past life. He did something really wrong, and he wanted to atone for it. And that's why he came back there. And he said he chased wolves out of a school building. He's just this wandering, aimless character in there and he said, There's so many books, like that's what people left was all these books.And that's what he's been reading. And he said, “There's only two types of people here, either looters or martyrs” and write that I'm a free man now, like that's who, that’s what his identity is. Just so many angles on the situation and who would be there and why and what they think about it. For this guy, it's freedom. It's absolution. He's using it as a vessel for, Oh, I did wrong in my life. Now here's my way to repent is by being in this place. That was bizarre to me, but also fascinating, that that’s the level of it. So now we're in the section- there's another chorus of those who returned back to the place. And-
Evan: How long? What do you mean return? How long after?
Taylor: It depends. I mean, a variety. And because there were, it was, they initially had a 10 kilometer radius and there was a 30 kilometer radius and it was now everything. They’re patch working the whole situation. So some people came back. Some people stayed and refused. Even though the government said, You have to leave, they didn't leave. Some people were just never told. Some people left for three months and then came back, all different kinds of stuff. But here's just some snippets of what people were thinking. This person said, I thought the war's begun with the Chinese or the Americans, because you see armored tanks and trucks and rolling back through the town and you were used to-
Evan: People not knowing what's actually happened and thinking maybe that there's some war happening, unfolding.
Taylor: And this person said, Even if it's poisoned with radiation, it's still my home. There's no other place they need us, like we talked about. This person was saying the whole garden was covered with white, which maybe that's in the show, too. It's hard to picture because a lot of the physical effects do not come about until much later, or they're much slower or it's like when a cow gives birth and the baby's mutated. It's not like an apocalyptic scenario. Like people compare it to the atomic bombs of Hiroshima. That was an immediate destructive force. This is a slow, irradiated land and these farmers.
Evan: It's atomic bomb that's going off in slow motion inside your body and everyone who was around it.
Taylor: And the apples are fine, and the potatoes are fine, and the cows are fine, and they're telling you to destroy your house and leave. It's hard to understand
Evan: That's really hard to understand.
Taylor: And so these people said, you know, they tried to tell their grandma that the cow's milk is poisoned. She doesn't understand that. There was a little bit of humor here. Somebody was saying they made a joke out of the Chernobyl apples and they would sell them for people that say, you need them for, “Some people need them for their mother in law and some for their boss.”
Evan: Oh my gosh.
Taylor: Like they even knew and were being ironic and self referential of where they were living. But it's home. What are you going to do? This last person said, “There used to be communism instead of God, but now there's just God. So we pray.” And the original title of (In Russian) for the book Voices from Chernobyl, is Chernobyl Prayer, which is also why the artsy movie is called The Prayer. So this is from the perspective of a history teacher who was grabbed by the government and said, You have to go help here. And he was just shovel- he was one of the people just shoveling stuff. Trash heaps, gardens. He was saying before this, his wife, cheated on him and left him for somebody else. And so he tried to kill himself, had a history of trying to commit suicide. So he was like, This is no big deal to go do this. It gets me rid of my life and my pain and my problems. Thank God they grabbed me to go, to go off into the wilderness and just do this random job and just shovel crap. And, ah, he said, we-
Evan: Ah, you hate your life. You want to die here. Here's a job that will definitely kill you.
Taylor: Yeah, he's like, perfect. What a bizarre circumstance to be in and such an interesting portrait of somebody in this scenario that they're seeing it, again, the balance of like, Well, this is this guy's experience. But he was saying it was bizarre because they buried the forest. There were these trees. This is one of the physical effects. These forests. Some of the trees just did turn orange. They were green evergreen trees, and they just turned orange from the radiation.
Evan: That’s in the show as well, yeah.
Taylor: They would cut up them into meter and a half sections and then pack them up in cellophane, dig holes, throw the trees into the dirt and cover them up.
Evan: Oh, wow.
Taylor: It was, like, so weird. And this is what I was talking about, how people just- you got used to it, he said, “It was still a world of people. We’re still the same one. It's impossible to live constantly in fear. So a little time goes by and a normal human life resumes. And that was just the way of the world there,” He said the horror was so horrible because it was so pretty. Still looked normal. How can you tell people there's this invisible thing? People wanted to see a tangible something on people.
Evan: Where the crisis? Where's the disaster?
Taylor: What's happened?
Evan: Where’s the despair? It’s, it’s in the soil.
Taylor: So going off of that he- Then he goes into this parable that he heard about. There was a man- in the story of Jesus on the cross bringing the cross up and bearing the burden. And this guy is in Jerusalem or whatever, and he sees that Christ is out on the road and there's the people going to put him up on the cross. But this guy's tooth was hurting, and so he was dealing with that. So he didn't go outside to see what was going on with Jesus on the cross, and he missed the whole experience. And then he goes into, “Let me explain why I said that.” My father defended Moscow in 1942 in World War 2. He only learned that he was a part of this great event later, from books and films. From his, from his own memory, he was just like I was in a trench. I shot my rifle. He didn't understand the context of it, and this guy is saying, and just like that back then, it was just my wife left me. And I didn’t understand what I was doing. Which was amazing and terrifying.
Evan: Well, it shows the difference in between. We were kind of talking about this off mic earlier. Just about how the Information age has come about so abruptly. The way that information is organized, moved, is just exploded exponentially in the last 20 years, that even just in 1990 it was really difficult, and you had to put a lot of work into- go and expand your mind and attain knowledge and where to find it and who knows it and who is the expert. It was really difficult. It was even- It highlights just how us today, when there's an event happening, we can start getting a read on it really quickly. CNN's covering it, MSNBC's got eyes on, you know, like every- and when we start just pulling it apart, trying to figure it out. It was a lot different. Not that long ago, we were cut off from each other, just as- just from person to person next door. You know, you have to go and talk to them. It's not- It's harder. Yes, we have the phone and mail and those things, but they're still, it's pretty tactile, it’s slow moving. And so it intensifies even the human element of what the event means to the people who were there and around it. It is down to, what are they experiencing in the moment in the- Just what is falling in front of them? It’s all they can know.
Taylor: Oh it was just his wife. Oh, my wife just left me. Oh, I did something bad. And now I need to repent.
Evan: The information has not been found. There isn't, you know, like you only know this and now soldiers are coming to tell you you have to do this.
Taylor: So the next one is this cameraman who's sent there to film propaganda stuff and just be in general recording what's going on. And he was like, What do I film? Nothing's blowing up. I can't smell, the only thing he was like, I can't smell anything in the fields. We couldn't smell the flowers. There were no birds.
Evan: Interesting. But you can't film that.
Taylor: Yeah, he said it felt like a movie set, and he was saying there was this plaque of achievement of what people had done in the town square. And he was like, the real hero of these things is the alcoholic cabdriver who went into the zone to pick up the kids that were in the kindergarten. Not anyone on this plaque from the past war, or what have you. He said, Everyone became what he really was. Which is an interesting quote. Talking about the confusion and the misinformation, he heard there was a camera man that died in Chernobyl, which was a rumor. And then he got back to town and then he found that it was him. He was like, How did that get there? And then the problem was he was the one who went. So they kept asking him to go back into the zone because other people over time dissipated, or they moved or they- it was like, You're already irradiated, dude, like, just keep going back. He showed his films and a kid asked, Why couldn't anyone help the animals? And he said, So he said this was already a person from the future. This kid, forward thinking. And so now he only wants to film the animals. And so then that's all he did. From that on was take pictures and film of that, which I guess is like what we talked about with the dog, where it's like that's somehow a throughline to people's empathy for other people.
Evan: That’s a dynamic, I've been fascinated with it all my life. My mom is a dog- was a professional dog trainer and a dog shower, so I've just been interested in that relationship my entire life. And so as I hear these dynamics come up and these reactions to these relationships come up through media and stories, it just there's something that’s happening between man and animal that is real, undefinable. It's palpable even, There's no- what is it? You can't- There's no words for this. And that’s strong. That's the feeling without words.
Taylor: There was one guy that gave kind of like trying to put a feeling to things. He was trying to make a museum of what happened, and he said they didn't allow anyone to film the tragedy, only the heroics, like they have this fake staged wedding that they brought people in to have to look like, oh, look like life goes on. People are getting married still here. And he was saying, The problem was, this guy's trying to make this museum now, but he can't bring anything back. He can't show what's happened there because everything's irradiated. Which was in another interesting take on how it's affected and somebody trying.
Evan: That's like you can’t really have artifacts from it. You know, you can't like no man's land. It really, truly is. And that, but that being that, harkening back to just the human calamity of it, and that's why I feel connected to it even though it's a totally different time, place, culture, everything. The earth is scorched. That place is forever tainted. Contaminated. Poisoned a large area. You know, a large area of earth. We've affected the Earth. We've poisoned the Earth. It definitely, definitely makes me go. Man. I want to do better. You know.
Taylor:This guy that was a writer was talking about the Soviet mentality and his monologue and he was saying his parents grew up in the camps, in the labour camps, you know. And this is- they used the language of the camps and there was this belief that man is the head of all creation, and his right to do anything with the world. And we're all one thing together. And he's so he- This is a quote. He said, “We need to find out whether we're capable of this sort of total reconsideration of our entire history that the Germans and Japanese carried out after the war. Do we have enough intellectual courage?” Which I can't speak to, cause I'm not a part of that culture. And we have our own crosses to bear, with our own problems.
Evan: But it is an interesting one. It is one that culturally looking at the- at all of us, it's one that I think people have been discussing all of my life, and this event is probably why,
Taylor: Yeah, from the perspective of a physicist, I'll just do a few more. He worked at an institute. Further off, they got signs of radiation. He was like, Oh, nothing's wrong with our station. So he called up the other stations. They were fine. He called up Chernobyl. No answer, obviously, because it happened there. There's a radioactive cloud all over the capital. He calls his wife immediately because he knows what's going on. He's like, Put the food in plastic, wear rubber gloves, wash your hair with iodine, take potassium iodine-
Evan: But see, like Okay, this is the guy who has the information of what to do in these situations, but no one knows him except for his wife, you know what I mean.
Taylor: So then here is what he does. He gets the city directory, and he's like, I literally just started calling everyone in the city just going down the phonebook. He said at the start he loved science fiction and atomic energy, and he loved physics, he says. But now I want to write. Again, like you're talking about the information. He knows it. He said,
Evan: Share it, please distribute it. Please get it in the minds and heads of everybody that's working around this material.
Taylor: And how his perspective changed. The monologue was called loving physics. He said, he learned how man does not accommodate science very much. He gets in the way of it, which is his perspective. There was just a resident-
Evan: Shout it from the rooftops!
Taylor: So moving on to a little bit more, like we're talking about the information and, like who knows what? She did have one person who was defending the Communists and was pissed at her and said, Put the camera away and don't talk to me. And it's not- not everybody is disillusioned by it or thinks that it was the wrong way of going about it. She does go into the Director of the Institute for Nuclear Energy. In Belarus. He knew what was going on, and he got blocked from explaining it to the general secretary of the Communist Party of the area. That guy said, It's just a fire. They've put it out. This guy went out and checked because he's the director of the Nuclear Institute and he's like, Nobody is telling people, this guy's the secretary and is coming to understand the principle of the party is never stick your neck out, being put on the chopping block. This guy, and it was- it was interesting cause he was saying, like there are certain things that we could have done even if we weren't on the world stage, especially if we weren't on the world stage, that would have mitigated things. We could have just put iodine in people's water supply, immediately just started pumping it into the system so that while they're being evacuated, they’re being helped, and he was like, I know that the main bosses, the higher ups, were taking iodine.
Evan: That is infuriating.
Taylor: So he started making these reports and he saved a copy of his documents at home and a copy of his documents in the office. And one day when he got back to the office, they were gone. But he had ‘em at his home, But he knew about this stuff was going on. He wrote to Moscow and was like, Hey, all this stuff's going on. And they relieved him of his post, and he said they threatened him with a car accident. A car accident might happen to him. He's like, it's no wonder I had a heart attack. A year later.
Evan: They still do this. I mean, there's the- What was the acid poisoning? I forget. Exactly. The material they used was in London. It was a big international affair. Just 2016 or 2017. Study journalists and Russia. That's not a very pretty picture.
Taylor: Or in a lot of places in the world-
Evan: Absolutely I mean, journalists are on the front lines everywhere where truth is suppressed. But you have an assassination. I wasn't, you know, it wasn't till recently, and I realized, you know what? That still happens. Really?
Taylor: People just get offed. Yeah, they said something.
Evan: Yeah, they do. And then governments say, Yeah, it was fine. Nothing happened. It was just, oh it was a big misunderstanding. I don't know. It’s shocking. Like I'm like, Okay, I feel like I'm sobering up to the world every day of my life. Now, you know, You know, like, I didn't realize we still assassinated people of the street, you know, like what? Oh, my God. You know, Franz, You think Franz Ferdinand, you know? Yeah. Forever ago. You know, we were, but no, we're not past it. And it's still happening.
Taylor: And I don't know. Maybe it seems kind of petty because I'm not in a position of power where all the stakes are on the line? But I guess-
Evan: But some things are kind of, but like at the end of the day, the human element is simple. What's right and what's wrong. And if you can't tell the difference, maybe you shouldn't be wielding the power.
Taylor: Certainly. The last section here- I'll just go into the final- is another wife. So she book ends it with that one wife. And then this is another wife. And she was talking about how she only thinks about her husband. But her friend, obviously her husband has died. Her friend is already getting married, but she doesn't blame her. Then she goes in to talk about how her husband was a construction worker. He was always traveling. So this was just another thing where they're like, Oh, you've got to go do this. And so she's like, oh he's going to, you know. She said he worked high up on the light poles in the evacuated villages and just always no matter, even if he was traveling and for this thing, just longed for him to come home. He got home and she noticed there was knots in his lymph nodes. She goes into a bit of their personal history, saying she was born for love, like Natasha Rastov, who's the main girl in War and Peace by Tolstoy and all she ever wanted to get married. Further on, he got his lymph nodes removed and his larynx. She had to feed him through a tube four times a day. She didn't let him know, but all of the other people that he was working with were dying one by one over the- over the next three years. And he spent, she said, he spent the next whole year dying, couldn't talk, couldn't whisper, he wrote down, Bring me the mirror with three exclamation points because he wanted to see how he looked, like his face was swelling up, is just a mess. She said, I don't understand how you can love your job. I love only him. Him alone. Can't even bury him near the rest of his family because she said quote, Because no one knows what Chernobyl is. And then she says, what saved her and beautiful, but also heartbreaking- Her son. So her kid, who now has a mental disability and is in a mental hospital, who's older but has the mind of a four year old because of this scenario. But he asked her, Where's Papa Misha, when will he come home? And her resolve is, Who else is going to ask me about that? And so we'll wait for him together. And then the author comes in and says, I used to think I could understand everything and express everything. For these years. I rode around and I asked people, all these people. She said, Why repeat the facts? They cover up our feelings. I try to find them, collect them and protect them. These people had already seen what for everyone else is unknown. And then, I felt like I was recording the future. And that’s the end of the book.
Evan: There's something about the time passing here that is interesting, the unfolding of everything, the still unfolding of it. The slow motion-ness, the tragedy in that there is nothing to be done. But, that somebody, you know, that people are driven to collect the stories. It's not just the facts. But the facts adding up to, what did it mean to the people it affected?
Taylor: Yeah, so then the question came to me. What does it mean to this author? So she was born in the Ukraine. She studied journalism at the University of Minsk, and then she started. She knew, she said, She never did Political journalism, more cultural stuff, anything like that.
Evan: Well say her name again-
Taylor: Svetlana Alexievich. And there's only a few of her books that are translated into English. This is one of them. But her first book, War's Unwomanly Face, which came out in ‘85 was about the women that served in World War 2 and is a very similar- All her books are written in this way, where it's a- she does hundreds and hundreds of interviews, coalesces them, distills them, pieces them together into kind of a narrative structure, and a way that makes sense, and teases out all of the important elements that she wants. That was wildly successful. In 1993 she wrote a book called Enchanted With Death, which was a book about the attempted and completed suicides after the downfall of the Soviet Union. So she has another book called The Zinc Boys, which was Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War, which had to do with the war and the involvement in Afghanistan. And then, Last Witness is an oral history of the children of World War 2. And then her most recent book is called Secondhand Time, which is all of Soviet history and the break up of the USSR. Kinda huge. So if, you were really interested in that, the whole cultural thing.
Evan: That’s the one I'm like, I need to know.
Taylor: That is the one to go for. Now like I said she identifies as being from Belarus, and there is this guy, who has been in power since 1994, Alexander Lukashenka, and he didn't force her to leave. But her stuff's not allowed to be published there because she's heavily against him and his power because he's been elected “elected” five times in a row, since 1994. I listened to this and I'll put it a link to it in the notes-
Evan: In our hilarious show notes, where you can find all our auxiliary material. Jokes and links to our instagram, our funny Instagram.
Taylor: Yeah, these past couple weeks have been heavy, but the Instagram is fire. Oh, she was just saying for this person Lukashenko, freedom, it's all relative. He said at one point that they were the most democratic country and she's like, I get it because he doesn't know. He only knows his little bubble of the world and what's going on And she's like, I've been able to travel and do and see and have different cultural perspectives and, ah, her big thing, she said, She does not want this book to be a recounting of horrors. She was saying I collect the human emotions. She wanted her book to be readable so that you'd read the whole thing and not put the thing down because you can't, like, she learned from the thing. You could only confront so much.
Evan: You don't want it to be a textbook, you know.
Taylor: And she wanted to provide the reader with the space to ask questions about life, which I think it does succeed in doing. So getting to kind of what- In this interview where she was talking she explains a little bit more about her life. So she was in the capital when this happened in ‘86. Her sister, who lived elsewhere, fell ill and died a few months later, and Svetlana adopted her sister's daughter. And 15 of her friends have died of cancer in this time. And she’s ill.
Evan: And again, harkening back to the Columbine thing. The Columbine doc is made by a survivor of the tragedy. And that's why they were able to get that done is because most of these people are pretty sensitive and guarded about their stories. So they were only offering them up to another survivor of it. You want people to tell stories who-
Taylor: Are personal-
Taylor: And that was wild to me because, she said in this interview, she wants to give words to people who are never heard. And she's not in this at all, which is amazing because she could’ve put her. I mean, she has just as much invested in this specific thing, as well as all of her books. So then going back to what I mentioned about the very, very beginning of the first monologue of this, she was saying that she's done what she needs to do. I mean, she won the Nobel a prize, and she feels like she's gotten the Soviet history. And now, with all of these different books-
Evan: Moving on-
Taylor: Overarching at all. So she says, What is she going to do next? She has two new works that she's working on, that she's been working on for years and years, and one of them is compilations of people talking about love, their love stories.
Evan: Ooh, I bet that will be good.
Taylor: And then another one is about growing old. About death. She was like, These are the two things, love and death that I haven't addressed. That is all of human- I did the Soviet history. I did all of our stuff and now I want to talk about love and death, which is what the lady, at the very beginning of this story up said. What should I talk about? Do I talk about love or do I talk about death? And that's what encompasses all of these works. And I just thought that was beautiful. And I'm fascinated. I hope- she's like 70 something. I hope she gets these things done-
Evan: Yeah, and knock ‘em out. You know,
Taylor: Yeah. I want to go for it and see the whole-
Evan: Those two sound like they'll be incredible. Just the way that she works and compiles and distills. Just hearing about, just love-
Taylor: In all its forms.
Evan: Just growing old and saying goodbye, you know, all that kind of stuff that would be- I bet that would be really, really transfixing. That would be great.
Taylor: Yeah. So we'll be on the lookout for that.
Evan: Maybe some future episodes out there.
Taylor: When they translate it, because I don't know how to speak Russian.
Evan: Signing up for classes right now.
Taylor: Yeah. Yeah, That was Voices from Chernobyl.
Evan: Voices from Chernobyl. That was heavy. That was super heavy. But we need to tell. We need to tell these stories. I'm glad that this- I'm glad that this HBO series has come out and putting a spotlight on this. I think it's really- it really puts the spotlight on how people can be disillusioned and manipulated, how truth matters. Information matters, and we- and we should, you know, harness what they are trying to give us-
Taylor: Yeah, So harness the information you learned in this and either look up more if you were interested in any of the stuff we talked about. Or tell somebody else about it.
Evan: You know, this is an endless topic. This is just a little windows like again. Like you know, I want to go and learn about the Soviet history, Russian history and all of those complexities because I don't understand as much of how that informs this situation. I'm getting a picture of it, which now, I’m like maybe I would want to visit Russia, just to help, just to talk to people there and just to see what would- what it is like to be there. What, what? How different is that culture? Because we tend to just kind of generalize and think it's not all that much different. But when it comes, push down to shove, I think what happened at Chernobyl is a huge example of exactly how things would play out differently on the ground based on just the cultural aspect. If that would happen in American city that-
Taylor: Well, like we said with the Twin Towers-
Evan: Very different things would have happened, it might not have been good. Still just as horrible. But it would have just definitely unfolded differently. I'm glad that this series is bringing this back up and telling the story because it's not all that long ago. I think we're just now starting to get some real perspective on it. And thank God people like her are doing this kind of work, because it is taking hold, people are loving the show. And what is in it. What is in this- in this literature here is really, really important.
Taylor: And next week we're doing something light and breezy. Evan moved. We're doing a book about moving, and loving where you live.
Evan: It’s going to be much different. I know we've had a few without the, you know, the Ted Bundy. We had even the Handmaids Tale which is all, which is all fictional. But in this one as well, it’s probably the heaviest-
Taylor: But some light summer reading coming-
Evan: So we got some light, some light stuff coming up. Tell somebody about us. Recommend the podcast. If you want to throw up a rating or something on iTunes or wherever you are following us. That'd be greatly appreciated. We love all you guys. Thanks so much. We will talk at you next week.