Chernobyl’s Literary Legacy, 30 Years Later

The best works written about the accident express profound doubts about language's ability to capture the disaster’s magnitude.

Ake Ericson / Aurora Photos / Corbis / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Thirty years ago, the sky glowed at the edge of Ukraine. An ill-conceived and bungled safety test had gone critical at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Steam explosions blew the roof off Reactor Number Four, spewing uranium and graphite into the open air, and pouring radioactive particles into the atmosphere. The fire burned for days while Soviet authorities delayed evacuating the surrounding area, needlessly exposing thousands to the worst technological disaster of the 20th century. A radioactive cloud drifted over Europe, with particles eventually appearing in every corner of the world. Strontium, cesium, plutonium—all were present in the vast fallout area, out of which was carved a forbidden 30-kilometer landscape known as the Zone.

Since then the Zone has spawned a literary genre of its own. Indeed, it seemed instantly to pass into myth, even possessing its own poetic language. The soldiers and firefighters who cleaned up the site—many of whom died from exposure—are referred to as the liquidators. Reactor Four remains encased in a concrete-and-steel shell known as the sarcophagus. In the Zone, there is a Red Forest; there was black rain. Yet unlike myth, as a professor says in Voices From Chernobyl, a 1997 oral history by Svetlana Alexievich, “We don't know how to capture any meaning from it.” Through three decades of literary response, Chernobyl has undermined the sort of authoritative depiction that might bring closure. But something closed can be forgotten. The finest works express profound doubts about the power of language to absorb a disaster of this magnitude, and so continually reopen it to new ways of being remembered.

The German literary critic and author Christa Wolf began writing Accident: A Day’s News not two months after the explosion, and completed the manuscript in September 1986. Novelists are usually better equipped to handle history than a current event: The former comes with context, a sense of retrospect and narrative arc, while the latter is still subject to unexpected disclosures. Accident, for instance, seems to have been written under the belief that the explosion resulted from a random accident, something innate to nuclear power itself, rather than a calamitous series of human errors. Nevertheless, Wolf, the author of Cassandra and The Quest for Christa T., managed to produce a focused meditation that’s lost none of its power three decades on.

Accident is authorial, not authoritative. Instead of representing Chernobyl itself, the novel comprises the thoughts of a writer over the course of a day just after news of the accident has spread—thoughts that range over visions of environmental collapse, “the entire breathlessly expanding monstrous technological creation,” and imaginative forays into an operating room where her brother is having brain tumors removed. In real time, Accident captures the first cognitive impact of Chernobyl, and it continues to represent how almost everyone grapples with the tragedy: imaginatively, from afar.

Wolf perceived a definitive historical break in Chernobyl—“Once again, so it seemed, our age had created a Before and After for itself”—a break most apparent on the level of language. “In my grandmother’s day the word ‘cloud’ conjured up condensed vapor, nothing more,” she writes. Now, however, Chernobyl’s radioactive cloud “has knocked the white cloud of poetry into the archives.” The airborne toxic event is figured as a specter of postmodernism, its shadow recasting previously stable distinctions, and challenging literary endeavor itself.

The first work of Chernobyl literature written in English is the first to fall prey to authoritative depiction. In docudrama fashion, 1987’s Chernobyl: A Novel by Frederik Pohl tracks each minute of the accident, as well as the plight of the liquidators, the evacuation of the Zone, and even some high Cold War intrigue among the Party elite. Although a minor work in the oeuvre of Pohl, a science-fiction writer with dozens of books to his credit, everything in Chernobyl is done on an epic scale, as if only a novel conceived in grand Russian style could have a chance at absorbing the subject. The cast of characters includes everyone from plant managers to diplomats, engineers to novelists, Soviet soldiers to American TV producers.

On the back cover, Isaac Asimov says, “Forty years ago, Chernobyl would have been far-out science fiction; now it is sober (and sobering) fact.” To read Chernobyl is to see science fiction become fact before becoming fiction again. The intent is clear enough: to harness imagination so as to deliver the reader sympathetically into the Zone. But for all its meticulous research and panoramic scope, Chernobyl seems narrowly governed by conventional storytelling logic. Pohl superimposes a dramatic scheme on Chernobyl, and so it makes a kind of sense, and finds a kind of closure, that rings false. Even operating with an incomplete picture of what happened, Wolf’s Accident better captures the breakdown of convention—in both the real and literary realms—that makes Chernobyl singularly difficult to absorb.

A key factor of the difficulty is that Chernobyl isn’t really an event. It can’t be grounded in time, like September 11th, or conceived as having a general shape, like World War II. The cesium in the soil will be reduced by half in 180 to 320 years; the director of the power plant predicts the Zone will be inhabitable in another 20,000. Perhaps in geologic time, this qualifies as an event, but to call it one is like calling human civilization an event. In the meantime, the land, its people, and the survivors remain within a process unleashed by Chernobyl. The Zone still burns with invisible flames.

Some 20 years after the accident, writers regrouped around Chernobyl. The long-term toll by now was apparent: Immediate casualties were followed by an incalculable number of victims, on top of whom was the traumatic displacement undergone by evacuees, not to mention the ecological shock that rendered fertile land into scientific oddity. And so the pressing questions seemed to shift: “What happened?” became, “Who allowed this to happen, and how would they have lived for the last 20 years?” Authors began to imagine those who had to cope with the guilt, as if to learn from them how to live in Chernobyl’s shadow.

Even the most outlandish entry in the genre finally leads back to the matter of guilt. Wolves Eat Dogs (2004), a thriller by Martin Cruz Smith, takes full advantage of the Chernobyl myth, which had only grown more elaborate by the early 21st century—with tall tales of mutant vegetables and radioactive wildlife—even as the Zone was exposed to the demystifying gaze of tourists in 2002. Smith’s recurring detective, Arkady Renko, pursues a high-profile homicide case into the Zone, where famous locations (the plant's cooling pond, the derelict Ferris wheel) serve as cinematic backdrops for an otherwise formulaic investigation. Renko is led to a murderer bent on punishing those responsible for Chernobyl, men who have gone on to thrive in post-Soviet Russia: “All I ever asked ... was for them to come to the Zone and declare their share of responsibility personally, face-to-face,” he says.

To whose face is he referring? In Wolves Eat Dogs, the guilty are oligarchs, distanced from the reader by villainy, who pay a fitting price for ruthless ambition. “The Zero Meter Diving Team,” a short story by Jim Shepard collected in 2007’s  Like You’d Understand, Anyway, presents a more intimate face, and a more ambiguous justice. Boris Yakovlevich Prushinsky is the chief engineer of the Department of Nuclear Energy, whose two brothers were caught up in the accident. In the light of retrospect, Prushinsky dissects the negligence, incompetence, and heartlessness leading up to Chernobyl, and asks, “How much difference could an individual bureaucrat really make?” The story locates no answer; it even suggests that Prushinsky’s “late-night sentimentalities always operate more as consolation than insight,” as though guilt were a closure undeserved by the guilty. In Prushinsky’s moral agony, Shepard makes sensible Chernobyl’s eternal duration.

No literary response to Chernobyl deserves a wider readership than Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. Alexievich, the Belarusian journalist who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, represents the broadest range of a society whose alienation makes them “a separate people. A new nation.” In these pages, harrowing stories of lost loved ones sit alongside litanies against technological hubris; the history of ideas—“the era of physics ended at Chernobyl”—contrasts with spots of black humor; science collides with superstition. The cumulative effect is not the absorption of Chernobyl, but rather an unlimited expansion. More than any other work, Alexievich’s provides a direct, vertiginous glimpse of Chernobyl's abyss.

As sensed by Christa Wolf, the abyss threatens to void the written word of meaning: “There’s nothing heroic here,” says a liquidator, “nothing for the writer’s pen.” Perhaps, a historian muses, only Dostoyevsky could have made any use of Chernobyl. Many of the voices are rightly skeptical of those drawn to the story: “[Chernobyl] has its own writers,” a journalist says. “But I don’t want to become one of the people who exploits this subject.” It’s a testament to Alexievich’s gifts that she manages to include critiques of her chosen medium, and yet produce a work that speaks to the enduring power of language. “I’ve read a lot of books, I live among books,” says the wife of a liquidator, “but nothing can explain this.” Nothing can. But Voices From Chernobyl forges a bond between reader and survivor; understanding exists without explanation.

The sheer richness of Voices From Chernobyl suggests why the disaster has been so tantalizing for literary depiction, and writers are bold for taking on such a painful and complex subject. At the same time, however, Chernobyl comes freighted with an automatic gravitas. A common phenomenon in the Zone is what’s known as radiophobia, psychosomatic sensations—sore throats, blurry vision—prompted simply by an awareness of being in the Zone; it’s a false response to something real. In novels, and even in an essay such as this, the very word Chernobyl strikes a note of tragic awe, and so it’s unusually susceptible to being invoked for prescribed effects.

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (2014), a historical novel by Darragh McKeon, is the most recent entry into Chernobyl literature. It tells the intertwining stories of a surgeon called into the fallout area, his ex-wife, and her nephew, a piano prodigy in Moscow. Taken together, they’re intended to chart the final decline of the Soviet Union, to which Chernobyl contributed. What they actually present is a kind of literary radiophobia, the false effects of invoking Chernobyl.

McKeon acknowledges his debt to other books on the subject, including Voices From Chernobyl, and his novel includes passages drawn directly from the oral history. But while McKeon admirably read everything written about the disaster, he missed the skepticism toward literary convention essential to the best examples. Many solid things, it turns out, haven’t melted into air, among them uncomplicated heroism, clear moral distinctions, and a teleological view of history. Chernobyl is harnessed to signify Tragedy, and a sonorous literary cadence seems to invade, rather than emerge from, the Zone—an odd effect for a book in which people say things like, “The past demands fidelity ... it’s the only thing that truly belongs to us.”

This 30th anniversary marks another milestone in the Zone. Later this year, a 30,000-ton steel construct known as the New Safe Confinement (NSC) will slide over the sarcophagus. The NSC is designed to contain the radiation for another 100 years, in the hopes that humans will finally develop the technology to clean up the site. “A 20th-century pyramid,” as one soldier calls it in Voices From Chernobyl, the sarcophagus, with a tall chimney crowning its asymmetries, has served as an accidental monument to the disaster. When the NSC is in place, all that will be visible is an elegant curve of steel. For 30 years, authors have heaved their imaginations into the Zone, trying to crack the riddle of the sarcophagus—how to make sense of Chernobyl? Their imperfect answers keep the question alive.