Lessons for future generations from one of history’s worst disasters.
I was initially reluctant to review Kate Brown’s ‘Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future’ (Allen Lane, £20, ISBN 9780241352069), thinking it was just another in the succession of similarly skin-deep books by Western journalists and academics, most of whom have not even bothered to visit the site of the Chernobyl disaster yet bend over backwards in their efforts to minimise its consequences and effects. Let’s face it: the minimisation and even trimming-up of history’s worst nuclear catastrophe has become a popular sport with some Western intellectuals, among whom I can count some deluded colleagues and friends. They keep repeating like a mantra the ‘magic’ number 62, the official death toll immediately after the 1986 explosion. By doing so, not only do they ignore the plight of tens of thousands of victims of the disaster, many of them children, who have since died of different forms of radiation sickness and cancer, they overlook the treacherous nature of the nuclear contamination and residual radiation capable of manifesting themselves years and even centuries after the tragic event. As Brown, a distinguished American scholar, herself remarks in the final part of her book: “Ignorance about low-dose exposure is, I have argued, partly deliberate.” Why were – and are – they doing it? The publishers of ‘Manual for Survival’ rightly suggest in the jacket blurb that the motivation for “(Western) scientists and diplomats from international organisations ... to bury and discredit the evidence” is that they were “worried that this evidence would blow the lid on the effects of massive radiation, released from weapons testing during the Cold War.” In Australia, I came across a university professor who had spent most of his career trying to deny the Holodomor – a massive famine in the 1930s Ukraine, engineered by Stalin. I do believe that such openly opportunistic and misleading attitudes to the world’s greatest tragedies – and the Chernobyl disaster was one of them – should be regarded as crimes against humanity. Like Kate Brown herself, I visited the site of the explosion several years after the catastrophe and can still remember very clearly the signs of a recent nuclear disaster: the deserted streets of Pripyat, overgrown with wild vegetation; the brown and leafless ‘Red Forest’; clouds of some large, possibly mutant mosquitoes in the air; strawberries the size of apples on sale in the nearby market towns. Overwhelmed by the underlying tragedy of it all and by personal memories, I was stupid enough to drink a glass of cold water from a well in a village near Chernobyl before realising how potentially dangerous it was. I wouldn’t have done that had I been familiar with this book, in which Brown tirelessly records not just the little-known chronology of the disaster, but its true statistics and human dimensions. Information is drawn from thoroughly concealed archives as well as from her own encounters and conversations with not just the victims of the catastrophe but also its unsung heroes: officials, doctors, engineers and the so-called ‘liquidators’ who received significant doses of radioactivity while employed to clean up the Chernobyl accident. ‘Manual for Survival’, whose title echoes that of a pamphlet issued in 1986 by the Ukrainian Ministry of Health for communities affected by the explosion, is a magnificent monograph that stands out among the multiple books on Chernobyl simply because it tells us the truth – the whole unadulterated truth – about one of the worst disasters in history. As such, it may itself be regarded as a survival manual of sorts. 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