Letter 3 – Detours through Non-Fiction
Like many people, I have spent much of the last week learning about Chernobyl. Specifically, I did so by reading Serhii Plokhy’s book on the 1986 nuclear accident, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy (2018). This experience has helped me further two lines of thought that emerged in previous blog posts: 1) the relation between the individual and history, and 2) the importance of aesthetics (in art, writing).
The Individual & History
Last week, I discovered that traces of human subjectivity could be found in unlikely places. This week, I’ve found another unlikely place: the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine. While reading Plokhy’s book, I was astonished to see the profound effects the impulses of a few individuals had on events which affected the world. Precisely who filled the roles of energy minister or reactor designer or construction team leader turned out to influence the course of history.
For example, the rapid and unsafe expansion of the Chernobyl nuclear plant was at least partly motivated by the ambitions of the U.S.S.R.’s then-minister of energy. He was “determined to get noticed by his bosses” by “increasing the flow of energy” from the nuclear plant as quickly as possible. The safe construction timeline of 7 years was shortened by 2 years to expedite the production of nuclear energy and the minister’s career. When the much-celebrated reactor exploded, the plant operators could not bring themselves to accept that this had happened and remained in denial for the crucial interval at the start of the crisis. Although radioactive plumes were inducing headaches and vomit, the crisis control team refused to admit that the reactor had exploded, because “the myth of the reactor’s safety was shared by everyone in the [nuclear] industry, from top to bottom.”
On the other hand, spontaneous decisions made by individuals were also often heroic. People ranging from firefighters to military employees chose to enter the dangerous radioactive zone to contain the explosion. A Ukrainian official instructed by Moscow not to evacuate people prepared the evacuation buses anyway, so that people could leave the danger zone as soon as the evacuation order came from Moscow. Such acts undoubtedly saved countless lives.
While it is difficult to isolate the effects of individuals in most cases, and it is possible to argue that their spontaneous decisions were governed by systemic social logics, the book provides ample examples of individual actions determining the fate of other lives. In my first week, I was surprised to see how profoundly systemic factors like capitalism shape the individual psyche. This week, I am even more surprised to learn how much individual actions can shape history. The relationship between the individual and history is obviously reciprocal, but how can I go beyond this to understand the contours of that reciprocity? This is a question I will ponder over the next few weeks.
While reading the book, I also became aware of my own individual filter on the text. Despite the seriousness of the theme of nuclear catastrophe, I found myself gravitating to the aesthetics of absurdity and irony that suffused the Soviet response to the crisis. There were times when I laughed reading about the world’s worst nuclear disaster. For example, when radiation was spreading, local officials in Ukraine wanted to cancel the May 1 parade due to the health hazard, but their Moscow bosses demanded the parade continue for the appearance of normalcy. I couldn’t help laughing when I read that Gorbachev himself said, “Just try not holding the parade! I’ll leave you to rot!”
Perhaps this is terrible, but the following passage convinced me that the author himself appreciates these ironies:
“The orders to evacuate the village came as a complete surprise to the parish priest, Father Leonid, who believed not only in God but also in the power of Soviet science. ‘We now have powerful science, so they’ll fix all the problems,’ he told his wife soon after the explosion. Father Leonid’s belief in the power of science came crashing down on May 2, which happened to be Good Friday.”
Does it diminish the seriousness of the topic to enjoy and disproportionately focus on such ironies? Or, on the contrary, does the aesthetic of absurdity actually serve the purpose of conveying the scope of the devastation? I am inclined toward the latter view, because the parts that surprised and amused me are the parts I remember best—the parts which most inculcated the details of the disaster in my mind. When I expressed my doubts to Professor Apollonio, she said something that strikes me as deceptively simple but very true: “The aesthetics make it readable.” And if nobody read (or watched films) about the disaster, it would be forgotten. If last week, the aesthetics of surreal art were a means of escape, this week I see that aesthetics can also be used to promote an agenda in chronological time.
And this seems to be on the serious end of the spectrum. As I was reading your post I recalled photos of the Exclusion Zone when the 30th anniversary of the disaster was in the news a few years ago. In looking thru those if discovered a) that Chernobyl is now a tourist destination, and b) that there’s apparently a subculture of people who go to hunt through the Exclusion Zone illegally called “stalkers.” Apparently one of the things some stalkers are doing is moving stuff around to make more aesthetic “disaster porn”. See examples in this blog: https://theplanetd.com/chernobyl-pictures/. (Aside: I’m not sure I like this kind of travel blog. Actually I’m sure I don’t, but it’s serving as an expedient example, so mine for what’s useful….)
In any case, there’s the absurdity of insisting that things be normal even in the midst of historic disaster—a sense that puncturing the myth of invincibility is worse than physical harm. There’s also the fetishization of the aftermath. I’m kind of susceptible to this in my own way. I love hiking around this area and coming across remnants of what used to be. Old mills and tobacco barns. The old Durham pump station is a very popular hike through the ruins of early city infrastructure, now being claimed by nature. That’s “progress,” not tragedy, but it looks similar.