Living with Chernobyl

Personal stories from the world’s worst nuclear disaster

By Linda Pentz Gunter

Join an online event with Maxine Peake, Kate Brown, Darragh McKeon and Linda Walker on Sunday, April 25 to learn more, engage with the panelists and ask questions. Register here.

What was it like to live through the April 26, 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in Ukraine?  And now, 35 years later, what are the health, environmental and social repercussions of that disaster?

And if you had lived through the event — or chose to research it later — how would you tell the story? 

On Sunday April 25, from 12 noon to 1:15pm Eastern US time, learn how those involved with the disaster, or who suffered from it later, responded.

For some, it was a grueling experience. Journalist, Svetlana Alexievich decided it was important to record those testimonials. Her resulting book — called Voices from Chernobyl or Chernobyl Prayer, depending on where it was published — lets those who were there tell you what it was like, in often harrowing and heart-rending detail. Man Booker Prize-winning novelist, Arundhati Roy, said of the experience of reading Alexievich’s book: “it’s been years since I had to look away from a page because it was just too heart-breaking to go on”. 

Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for the book, worked for years to chronicle the eye-witness, lived accounts of 500 people including liquidators, nearby residents, firefighters, evacuees and families, these latter often split apart. 

On April 25, renowned British actor, Maxine Peake, will read from Chernobyl Prayer as part of a global public reading of the book by women around the world.

Maxine Peake as a “delicately ferocious” Hamlet in a 2014 production. Photo: ANNIEEEEEE/Creative Commons)

Darragh McKeon was working as a theatre director when he decided it was time to write his first novel. After beginning the work in Dublin, borrowing quiet space or retreating to the Trinity College library, he realized he needed to find a place where he could shut the door and just get on with it. 

He went to London, and two years later, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air was published. The lyrical and evocative novel follows a series of principal characters — among them a doctor, a boy from the countryside close to the reactor, a piano prodigy, a former journalist and ex-wife of the doctor — and how they respond to the disaster and process the resulting changes in their lives.  As we turn the pages we are there with them, experiencing the sorrow, loss, confusion and sometimes oppression the disaster sets in motion, made all the more extraordinary since McKeon had not been to the Soviet Union when he wrote the book.


In contrast, historian Kate Brown, not only went to — and spent extended periods in — the former Soviet countries, but she speaks the languages fluently. As such, she was able to delve into archives and uncover material that no English-speakers had seen before.

Her non-fictional account,Manual for Survival, A Chernobyl Guide to the Future, researched over the course of a decade, is a deep and detailed look at just what happened, and what the true health effects were for those not only close to the accident, but even others working in trades and industries far away and seemingly unconnected.

Kate Brown’s exhaustive investigation of the true aftermath of Chernobyl uncovered a whitewash. (Photo courtesy of MIT)

What she uncovers, in a page-turning account, is a shocking whitewash of the true health effects, leading to the misleading narrative still in play that the impacts of Chernobyl were relatively minor. Her book exposes this great lie.

What was obvious was that the Chernobyl accident affected children, not only those in-vitro or already born when the accident occurred, but even generations to come. And these children needed help. 

At first, aid groups — most famously Adi Roche’s Ireland-based Chernobyl Children International— sought to bring children out of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine for respites, known as “radiation vacations.”

But it soon became obvious that much needed to be done in-country, in particular in Belarus, the hardest hit of all by the radioactive fallout. British activist, Linda Walker, realized that not only did we need to bring the children out, we needed to bring humanitarian aid in.

Children from Belarus are able to enjoy recuperative holidays outside the country, thanks to Linda Walker’s Chernobyl Children’s Project (UK). (Photo courtesy of CCP (UK))

Walker set up Chernobyl Children’s Project (UK) in 1995 and, even before the first group of children arrived for a holiday in the UK, a reconditioned ambulance loaded with humanitarian aid supplies had been shipped to Belarus. Since then, the organization has supported children’s hospices, trained orphanage staff, and continued to deliver ambulances and humanitarian aid to Belarus. 

CCP (UK) also runs a foster care training program which has helped to get children out of the orphanages and into local families. Walker won the Nuclear Free Future Award for “Solutions” in 2018.

Each of these responses to the Chernobyl disaster brings the human experience alive. Each allows us to identify with the protagonists featured, whether real or fictionalized, and to feel what it was like to live through such a profoundly life-changing event.

The April 25 event, hosted by Beyond Nuclear, Chernobyl Children’s Project UK, Greater Manchester & District CND, and Nuclear Free Local Authorities, will explore these stories in a round table interview-style discussion with McKeon, Brown and Walker following Peake’s reading. The panel discussion will be followed by an audience Q&A.

Please register here for the free event. All of the books are available to order online.

Headline photo of the destroyed Chernobyl Unit 4 control room by BBC World Service/Creative Commons.

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