Another Ukraine Khurbn

Dear Bella

I just finished my second Svetlana Alexievich book, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.  You are one of the very few people with whom I could share this text about another Ukraine khurbn.* (Some of your people, like mine, as well as Feldenkrais, came from this region long ago. {And yes, I should also share this with Rob Renaud}).  The book is much shorter than Secondhand Time, but riveting still. As can be felt in the following excerpts from some of the  people she listened to.


I didn’t talk about it for ten years.

“You felt sorry for everyone there. Even the flies, even the pigeons. Everyone should be able to live. The flies should be able to fly, and the wasps, and the cockroaches should be able to crawl. You don’t even want to hurt a cockroach.”

“It’s impossible for us to give you the bodies of your husbands, your sons, they are very radioactive and will be buried in a Moscow cemetery in a special way.”

You’re walking down the street and there’s—nothing. Silence. I mean, all right, the houses are empty, the people have all left, but all around everything’s just shut down, there’s not a single bird.

A child: The May bugs also disappeared, and they haven’t come back. Maybe they’ll come back in a hundred years or a thousand. That’s what our teacher says. I won’t see them.

We see a woman on a bench near her house, breastfeeding her child—her milk has cesium in it—she’s the Chernobyl Madonna.

It’s not just the land that’s contaminated, but our minds. And for many years, too.

A chemical engineer: You just can’t pick up the whole earth, take off everything living. If we weren’t drinking like crazy every night, I doubt we’d have been able to take it. Our psyches would have broken down.

My daughter was six years old. I’m putting her to bed, and she whispers in my ear: “Daddy, I want to live, I’m still little.” And I had thought she didn’t understand anything…. I want to bear witness: my daughter died from Chernobyl. And  they want us to forget about it.

I was in a taxi one time, the driver couldn’t understand why the birds were all crashing int his window, like they were blind. They’d gone crazy, or like they were committing suicide.

A photographer: You can’t understand anything without the shadow of death. And only on the basis of Russian culture could you begin to make sense of the catastrophe. Only Russian culture was prepared for it…. We’re metaphysicians. We don’t live on this earth, but in our dreams, in our conversations. Because you need to add something to this ordinary life, in order to understand it. Even when you’re near death.

A soldier: Our mind would turn over. The order of things was shaken. A woman would milk her cow, and next to her there’d be a soldier to make sure that when she was done milking, she poured the milk on the ground…. The worst part was, the least comprehensible part, everything was so—beautiful! That was the worst. All around, it was just beautiful. I would never see such people again. Everyone’s faces just looked crazy. Their faces did, and so did ours.


At the very end of the book, Svetlana admits: “Why repeat the facts—they cover up our feelings. The development of these feelings, the spilling of these feelings past the facts, is what fascinates me. I try to find them, collect them, protect them. These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future.”

Bella, I know as you are reading this, you’ll pause, take three deep breaths, then continue. And then do the same thing the next day, and the succeeding twenty-eight days. Just like  I sometimes spend every day in a month with one of the poems or documents you send me.


–from novel-in-process, Our Heroic and Ceaseless 24/7 Struggle against Tsuris

* Khurbn, Yiddish for catastrophe


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