Thirty years on, the legacy of the disaster, and of the Soviet Union, continue to blight the region
Indeed, many of the consequences of Chernobyl are yet to be explored. Three decades on, how does one even begin to describe what it is like to live with an invisible radioactive enemy? How does one convey what it was like to experience an event of that magnitude, when the skies darkened and the apocalypse seemed to be unfolding?
I travelled to the Chernobyl region in the 1990s, to try to fathom that legacy. And one thing that’s impossible to dismiss is the enduring political trauma that came out of the Chernobyl accident and everything that led to it.
Just like the radioactive caesium that seeped into the earth and continues to toxify the whole region, the Soviet legacy is hard to get rid of and may never disappear. And just as the Soviet authorities rushed to conceal the scale of the accident, we tend to underestimate the task the people of Ukraine and Belarus confront when trying to dismantle the structures of Sovietism.
The leading Belarusian opposition figure Andrei Sannikov, now in exile, has just published a gripping memoir of his life and his imprisonment under the dictatorship of Lukashenko, president since 1994. “Few people know that 70% of the radioactive fallout of the 1986 explosion landed on the territory of Belarus,” Sannikov points out. We forget how on that April morning, and in the following days, the wind never stopped blowing north from Chernobyl.
Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel literature prize winner whose work is all but banned in her native Belarus, has eloquently written about the psychological devastation left by Chernobyl. She quotes a survivor who says: “Back then everyone was saying, ‘We’re going to die, we’re going to die. By the year 2000, there won’t be any Belarusians left.’” In Alexievich’s words, Chernobyl, while an “accident in the sense that no one intentionally set it off, was also the deliberate product of a culture of cronyism, laziness and deep-seated indifference toward the general population”.
Read more at The political fallout of Chernobyl is still toxic