The Chernobyl disaster has captured the public imagination in recent years. Video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl was released in 2007 to critical acclaim and spawned two other games. Earlier this year the HBO miniseries Chernobyl seemed to be what everyone was talking about (as usual, apart from myself, as I still haven’t seen it. One day I will get Sky Atlantic!), and also caused an uptick in the amount of tourists visiting the site. And last year, Serhii Plokhy’s book, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, scooped the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. In his preface, Plokhy says ‘this book is a work of history – in fact, it is the first comprehensive history of the Chernobyl disaster from the explosion of the nuclear reactor to the closing of the plant in December 2000 and the final stages in the completion of the new shelter over the damaged reactor in May 2018’ (pg. xiv).
Plokhy successfully places the disaster in historical context, not just the immediate aftermath but also looks at the history of the town of Chernobyl. Going back to the time of the French Revolution, he succinctly describes key events in the area, helping the reader to understand the historical background of the place. This is all done by describing the views that the director of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station is seeing whilst taking a car journey back to Pripyat – a very effective technique, as not only are readers given historical information but learn more about the man.
This is another thing that Plokhy does extremely well – he never loses sight of the lives affected by the disaster. He provides countless interviews from victims to widows to politicians. It gives the book an emotional heft it might otherwise not have had, as whilst the scientific passages were interesting I wasn’t quite as captivated by them. But then, perhaps others might be more interested in the science behind it. The descriptions of the families affected were truly sobering and heartfelt; they very much emphasised the human cost of the disaster.
He has also done a lot of secondary reading; there is an extensive bibliography at the back of the book. There are other books, newspaper articles and even YouTube videos mentioned that help to illustrate his points. It has clearly been well-researched, and Plokhy has given me a lot of additional reading to sit through. Near the end, Plokhy asks a question: Could a disaster like Chernobyl happen again? It is up to the readers to decide, and the reading list provided seems an excellent place to start attempting to answer that question.
Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy is a well-written, well-researched book following the events of the disaster and the subsequent aftermath. For those wishing to learn more about the fateful night on 26 April 1986, or (I imagine) fans of the recent TV series. An informative, thought-provoking read that never forgets the human cost.
Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy is published by Penguin Books and you can find more information here.