Historian Kate Brown intends precisely, at the beginning of her book, to avoid all these stories and not to use the most moving testimonies
What comes out in the HBO series ‘Chernobyl’ is nothing more than the appetizer of what really happened. Nor does Svetlana Alexievich’s masterpiece ‘Voces de Chernobyl’, composed with the testimonies of all kinds of victims and perpetrators, give a more than approximate idea about the magnitude of the disaster. The real story transcends all this and is now explained for the first time in the book ‘Survival Manual’ by Kate Brown, just published by Captain Swing. The epic of the days after April 26, 1986, around the reactor is precisely the story that the USSR used to hide the truth with Western collaboration.
Yes. The heroic firefighters who water a reactor with hoses and decompose in life at the hospital number 6 in Moscow; Liquidators with improvised lead aprons that use shovels to return radioactive graphite rubble to the open heart of the plant; engineers trying to convince the Soviet bureaucracy of the magnitude of the consequences and engineer urgent control measures; soldiers killing dogs … They are images worthy of a contemporary version of El Bosco’s hell, but they convey only a small part of the real consequences of the accident.
Historian Kate Brown intends precisely, at the beginning of her book, to avoid all these stories and not to use the most moving testimonies. She is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), speaks Russian and Ukrainian and has been investigating this accident for a long time and also many others, unknown to the public: ‘Plutopia: nuclear families in atomic cities and the great disasters of the Soviet and North American plutonium’.
For Professor Brown, the truth is in the data. That is why she has read thousands of reports, she has travelled Ukraine and Belarus far beyond the tiny Exclusion Zone with a Geiger counter in her hand, she has entered with biologists in silent forests like graves in which dead leaves did not decompose because There are no more microorganisms available, and she has interviewed hundreds of people involved in places far away from the reactor but infinitely more contaminated than the majestic ghost town of Prípiat.
Her story is detailed (more than four hundred pages) and is written with the ambition of irrefutability: there is not a single observation, there is not a single fact that is not justified with footnotes. In summary, it dismantles the myth that the main consequence of Chernobyl was that an area thirty kilometres around the reactor would be uninhabitable. The true zero zones of the catastrophe reached the milk and sausages with which millions of Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians fed.
The authentic spot of Gorbachev
Brown is a profound connoisseur of Soviet politics, something fundamental to get into the tangle woven around the reactor. We start from the basis that Ukraine was a republic under the political control of Moscow and also the “barn of Russia.” After the explosion of the plant, an immense radioactive cloud composed of caesium, strontium, iodine and plutonium travelled first to the south, to Ukraine, and then to the north, permeating with the worst of toxic waste all the south of Belarus, which was another agrarian republic.
The first dilemma of the Soviet authorities was how to hide the disaster from Western public opinion; the second, what to do with the millions of tons of meat, milk and other raw materials that could have been irradiated in the hours after the catastrophe. The first dilemma was resolved on its own when the Nordic countries detected the plutonium that spread through its atmosphere and spread the news. Then, the Soviets established a double strategy that was going to solve their public relations problem and their food shortage.
On the one hand, they decided to fight world public opinion by giving limited access to Western scientists and journalists favourable to nuclear energy, who were as interested as the Russians in which the true consequences of the accident were minimized. They did so by focusing worldwide attention on the heroic work of extinguishing the fire. On the other hand, they ordered the farmers and ranchers to continue working and forbade Ukrainian and Belarusian rural doctors to investigate radiation levels beyond the circle of 30 kilometres of radius established around the plant. They employed the KGB in monitoring all internal reports that could alert on radiological contamination.
By focusing the attention of the world press on the struggle of man against the reactor and in the ghost town of Prípiat, they created a narrative that allowed them to ensure that everything was over when the reactor was under control. However, Brown travels through the ultra-contaminated lands, far beyond the Exclusion Zone, and records in all the available files: she finds in these reports ignored by the politburo hundreds of dead and tens of thousands of seriously ill are that they do not appear in no statistics: not even in the United Nations.
The great Chernobyl catastrophe does not happen, then, in the thrilling action of the miners who dig under a burning reactor, but it has a much more must-have narrative: that of peasants to whom their authorities hide that they are working between radioactive grounds, that of thousands of children who drink radioactive milk until they become gamma-ray sources that become ill with leukaemia, that of thousands of kilometres converted into part of a nuclear reactor, where they continued to go to work every day as if nothing was happening.
And all this, while the “Sovoks”, as the “Soviet citizens of blind loyalty, known by their own ideology, without the capacity for independent thought and action” were known, spread the propaganda to a court of Western journalists and physicists, who they were so worried that production would not be interrupted like the leaders of the politburo. And those who the fate of millions of people cared just as little.