book reviews, family

Reviewing In My Mother’s House by Kim Chernin…

I just took a lovely nap. It commenced after I finished reading Kim Chernin’s book, In My Mother’s House. Kim Chernin, born Elaine Kusnitz, died recently, which is probably how this book came on my radar. She was 80 years old. She was a lesbian, a feminist, a much regarded author with a doctorate, and the daughter of a famously communist mother, Rose Chernin. She was survived by her daughter, Larissa, who was her only child, born in 1963 while Kim was studying at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Married and divorced twice, Kim took her mother’s surname after the second divorce, as did her daughter. She is also survived by her wife, Renate Stendhal.

Kim Chernin died in December of COVID-19. Her only sister, Nina, had died when Kim was four years old. Kim owed her life to Nina, because when her mother got pregnant with her, she reportedly told Nina, then an adolescent, that she wasn’t sure she should have the baby. At the time of her pregnancy, Kim’s famous mother, Rose, was thirty-nine years old and very busy with her career as a left-wing activist. Nina reportedly promised their mother that if she would have the baby, Nina would take care of it. Sure enough, Kim was born in May 1940, and Nina took care of her. Of course, no one knew at the time that Nina would get very sick with Hodgkins lymphoma, which would kill her in 1944.

At the beginning of her book, In My Mother’s House, Rose is visiting Kim and Larissa, who was a young girl at the time. She’s asked her daughter to write a book about her life as a labor organizer and Communist Party. Kim Chernin, who was nationally known as an expert on body dysmorphia and eating disorders, agreed. It took her seven years to finish the book, which was originally published in 1983. The result is a multi-faceted book about one woman’s unusual and riveting history between two super powers, Russia and the United States. Rose told Kim about her life– quite a lot of which had already been lived before Kim was born.

Rose Chernin and Paul Kusnitz, Kim’s parents, were Russian Jews. They were born at the beginning of the twentieth century. When Rose was about thirteen, her mother moved her and her sisters from Russia to Waterbury, Connecticut. Rose became politically active as a young woman, dedicated to the idea of communism. She joined the Communist Party in 1932, three years after officially becoming a United States citizen. That year, the family moved to Moscow for a couple of years before returning to the United States. Kim’s father was an engineer educated at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, so he helped develop the Moscow Metro (subway) system. The family returned to the United States in 1934, six years before Kim was born.

In the ensuing years, Rose Chernin was very active in promoting communism in the United States. Kim Chernin grew up hearing about the wonders of the Soviet Union, which her mother promoted as a more humane society. Kim read works by Marx and Lenin from a very young age.

In 1951, Rose Chernin was arrested for conspiracy to overthrow the government under the Smith Act of 1940. The Smith Act of 1940 set criminal penalties for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government by force or violence, and required all non-citizen adult residents to register with the federal government. Rose spent a year in jail, in part because her bail was set at $100,000, which she could never hope to raise. The Immigration and Naturalization Service tried to deport Rose, but were unsuccessful because of a 1957 ruling that the Smith Act was unconstitutional.

I was initially drawn into the story about four generations of women in Kim Chernin’s family because of the richness in which the story was written. Kim was a very intelligent and expressive writer, and I got the sense that she and her mother had a complicated yet loving relationship. Kim grew up attending communist rallies with her mother, who was very much a supporter of worker’s rights and tenant advocacy and an opponent of racism. Naturally, Rose’s ideas ran contrary to the ideas promoted by the U.S. government. But there was a time when Russia and the United States were allies, as both powers fought against Hitler’s regime.

Kim also went to Yiddish school, although she rebelled against the teachings there. And yet, in reading her book about her mother, I can tell that the experience in Yiddish school left its mark on her as she weaves her mother’s voice in to story. Kim had a complicated relationship with her mother, and they are said to have fought “bitterly”. However, Kim also clearly adored her, and that loving quality is liberally injected In My Mother’s House. Rose Chernin lived a very long and productive life. She died in 1995 of Alzheimer’s Disease. She had just turned 94.

I’m glad I read this book. I promise, it’s not the book that sent me into afternoon slumber. Rather, I think it was because Arran woke me up at 4:30am and I couldn’t get back to sleep. I have always found the Soviet Union and Russian history very interesting. I also find Kim Chernin interesting because of her work as a feminist and expertise in the subject of eating disorders. Her trilogy about eating disorders, Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of SlendernessThe Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity, and Reinventing Eve: Modern Woman in Search of Herself, put her on the map as a writer. However, In My Mother’s House, is a loving and fascinating tribute to her mother, who was quite an amazing woman. It also offers a glimpse at Kim’s grandmother, a woman who never could adapt to life in the United States and was later sent to an institution, where she wrote beautiful letters.

Kim Chernin managed to impart her mother’s wisdom as she wrote in Rose Chernin’s voice, “You want to fly? Grow wings. You don’t like the way things are? Tell a story.” Words to live by… although I’m not sure I’m as good at following Rose’s advice as Kim was. May she rest in peace.

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book reviews

Repost: Ken Alibek’s Biohazard… a book that scared the hell out of me.

Here’s another reposted book review. This one was originally posted on Epinions.com April 30, 2010, then reposted on June 16, 2014. I’m sharing it again as/is, because I think it’s an important and fascinating read. But it’s also very scary, especially during the COVID-19 crisis!

Comments from 2014 (I was very sick with a nasty virus when I wrote it):

Since Bill and I are now sick, I was reminded of a book I read a few years ago.  Biohazard was written by a former Soviet military officer and physician named Ken Alibek.  Having grown up during the height of the Cold War, I remember very well how scared many people were that the Soviet Union would one day invade the United States or launch a nuke that would wipe us out.  I’m sure most of us were blissfully unaware that besides nukes, the Soviets were working on a very sinister warfare program that was designed to make people sick.  While I don’t think this illness we have was intended as a bioweapon, I do take note that I got it at an Army party.  Anyway, I found Ken Alibek’s book fascinating, so I’m sharing my reposted review here for your reading pleasure…

Review from 2010

I vividly remember back in the fall of 2001, when post offices in the Washington, DC area were getting letters and packages laced with anthrax. For several weeks, Americans were terrified of the mail, worried that any white, powdery substance might be anthrax spores that would cause unpleasant and untimely deaths. If you’re like me, you might have wondered where bioterrorists got the idea to send anthrax in the mail. Now that I’ve read Ken Alibek’s 1999 book, Biohazard, I have a better concept of how biological weapons are produced and how, back in the 1970s and 80s, the former Soviet Union was leading the way in turning viruses and bacteria into deadly weapons of mass destruction against mankind.

Who is Ken Alibek?

Ken Alibek (Kanatjan Alibekov), who originally hails from Kazakhstan, was once one of the Soviet Union’s highest ranking military officers and scientists. A physician by training, Alibek ran a program called Biopreparat, where germs that cause incurable and horrifying diseases were being developed into powerful biological weapons. Alibek worked with the organisms that cause smallpox, anthrax, tularemia, Ebola, and Marburg on a regular basis. With ghostwriter Stephen Handelman’s help, Alibek explains how in the interest of the Soviet Motherland, he and his colleagues used animals to test these weapons and make them available should any country dare to attack the former Soviet Union.

Why I was interested in this book

I first became aware of Biohazard when I read the excellent Epinions reviews by texas-swede and bonnieleigh. I was interested in this book for several reasons. First of all, I used to live in the former Soviet Union. I moved there in 1995, not long after it fell apart, so I have somewhat of a concept of what life was like there. I was particularly interested in reading Alibek’s account of what happened after the Soviet Union dissolved. Secondly, I have a background in public health, so I’m interested in epidemiology and how diseases spread. Biohazard satisfied that aspect of my curiosity. And finally, I’m now the wife of an Army officer who was living in the DC area and working in the Pentagon when the anthrax attacks and 9/11 occurred.

Chilling aspects of this book

I found Biohazard to be a real page turner. For one thing, Alibek, who according to this book now lives in the United States and works for the U.S. government, really knows a lot about the old Soviet biological weapons program. And he’s unflinching when he relates the horrifying tale of a colleague who was working with the Marburg virus. The well-liked scientist was working under extreme pressure and failed to follow protocol. He accidentally stabbed himself with a needle that had been exposed to the deadly virus. It took him three weeks to die, with his fellow Biopreparat colleagues watching helplessly. Ever the stoic, the scientist meticulously kept track of his symptoms and experiences so that his death could be useful to the biological weapons cause.

Alibek’s involvement with Biopreparat came at a significant personal cost. For instance, he has lost all sense of smell and there’s a long list of foods he can no longer eat. He’s allergic to a broad range of things and, every day, must apply ointment to his face, neck, and hands because his body no longer manufactures its own natural lubricants. Because of his job at Biopreparat and the furious pace demanded by his superiors, Alibek missed out on a lot of family time. His children grew up not knowing him as well as they might have. Alibek had to struggle with the moral dilemma of having taken a physician’s oath to preserve life, yet still working in a field designed to destroy it. And though the Soviet Union no longer exists, Alibek is still considered a traitor by some powerful people who wouldn’t mind seeing him dead.

Overall

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in biological weapons, the former Soviet Union, or people who just like a good story, particularly those that involve cloak and dagger stuff. I will warn, however, that while this book is thrilling and very well-written, it’s also a bit terrifying and potentially depressing. If you’d rather not think about how easily microbes can be used to end your life as well as those of your loved ones, you might want to pass on reading Biohazard. As fascinating as Alibek’s story is, it’s also a stark reminder that there are some truly evil people in the world. On the other hand, as Alibek points out, during the Soviet era, Soviets believed that the Americans were evil too.

Thanks again to texas-swede and bonnieleigh for reviewing Biohazard and inspiring me to read it. As scary and depressing as this book is, it’s also educational. I’ve passed it along to my dear husband, who is also finding it an incredible read. Hopefully, he’ll review it too!

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book reviews

Repost: A review of With God in Russia, by Walter Ciszek and Daniel Flaherty

I thought about this book review recently and decided it was time it was added to the new blog. I am reposting it as/is, the way I wrote it on June 23, 2018.

Sometimes Facebook can be a great place to find books, even from memes posted by long, lost co-workers from twenty years ago.  That’s how I happened to read Father Walter Ciszek’s harrowing story of being held prisoner the Soviet Union for twenty years.  My friend, Courtney, is a devout Catholic and she shared a meme featuring one of Ciszek’s quotes.  Not being Catholic myself, I had never heard of the man.  I do find books about the Soviet Union and the prison experience fascinating, though, so I decided to download Father Ciszek’s book, With God in Russia: The Inspiring Classic Account of a Catholic Priest’s Twenty-three Years in Soviet Prisons and Labor Camps

With God in Russia was originally published in 1964, but it has been republished several times.  I read the version that was released in June 2017.  The price was right at just $1.99.  The book is Father Ciszek’s story written by ghostwriter Daniel Flaherty.  It includes an afterword by James Martin. Father Ciszek, who died in 1984, has been considered for possible beatification or canonization since 1990.  His current title is Servant of God.  

Who was Walter Ciszek?

Walter Ciszek was born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania in November 1904.  His parents were Polish immigrants who had come to the United States in the 1890s.  When he was a young man, Ciszek belonged to a gang.  He later surprised his family when he decided to become a priest.  At age 24, Ciszek entered the Jesuit Novitiate in Poughkeepsie, New York.  

In 1929, Ciszek volunteered to serve as a missionary to Russia, which had become part of the Soviet Union in 1917.  At that time in Russia, there was a real need for Ciszek’s services.  Religious rights for most citizens were curtailed and those who were religious suffered from persecution.  There weren’t many priests around to offer religious services to believers.    

In 1934, Ciszek went to Rome to study the Russian language, history, and liturgy, as well as theology.  He was ordained a priest in the Byzantine Rite and took the name Vladimir.  Just as an aside, not being Catholic myself, I don’t understand the practice of taking different names for religious reasons. I was a little confused as I was reading the book and Ciszek was referred to as Vladimir.

In 1938, Ciszek went to eastern Poland to do his missionary work.  The following year, the Soviet Union invaded Poland and forced Ciszek to close his mission.  At that point, Ciszek decided to go east, into the Soviet Union, under the assumed name Władymyr Łypynski.  He and two others journeyed 1500 miles to the logging town of Chusovoy, where he worked as a logger and provided religious services on the side.  

In 1941, Ciszek was arrested and accused of spying for the Vatican.  He was sent to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, where he spent five years, most of which were in solitary confinement.  During his time at Lubyanka Prison, Ciszek was drugged and tortured.  After enduring severe torture, he signed a confession.  Convicted of espionage, Ciszek was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in the GULAG.  He spent four more years at Lubyanka, then was sent to Siberia, where he worked in mines.  Throughout his many years imprisoned in the Soviet Union, Ciszek maintained his deep faith in God and provided religious services to other prisoners.

In 1955, Ciszek was released from prison and was finally able to write to his family, who had assumed he was dead.  He lived in the city of Norilsk with restrictions.  He wrote of how local authorities tried to get him to take a permanent Russian passport, which he refused to do.  Three years after his initial release, the KGB forced Ciszek to move to Krasnoyarsk, where he secretly established missionary parishes.  When the KGB learned of what he was doing, they required Ciszek to move again, this time to Abakan, a town about 100 miles south.  There, he worked as an auto mechanic for four more years.  

In 1963, he received his first letter from his sisters.  A few months later, the Soviet Union exchanged Ciszek for two Soviet agents who had been held by the United States.  He did not know he was going to be exchanged until he was handed over to a State Department representative, who told him that he was still an American citizen.  He left Russia in October 1963.

From 1965 onwards, Father Ciszek continued his missionary work in the United States, working and lecturing at Fordham University and providing counseling and spiritual guidance until he died in December 1984.  He published two more books, one of which was released posthumously, and has left an impressive legacy to Catholics.

My thoughts

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m not Catholic and I don’t know that much about Catholicism.  I didn’t read this book because of who Ciszek was in a religious sense.  I read it because I am interested in the Soviet Union and what life was like for people who were imprisoned there.  I spent two years in the former Soviet Union just after it fell apart.

Although Armenia isn’t Russia and it wasn’t part of the Soviet Union when I was there, the Soviet Union had only just fallen.  Some aspects of Ciszek’s descriptions of life there rang very familiar to me.  I’m sure Armenia still maintains some remnants of that time even now, although I can see from pictures and Facebook posts from Armenian friends that the country has changed since I knew it.

Ciszek’s story is very engaging.  Flaherty did a good job making it read as if it came directly from Father Ciszek himself.  He describes the monotony of daily prison life, particularly when he was in Lubyanka and basically sat in solitary confinement for years.  He writes of the struggles of staying nourished while he was at hard labor.  I was particularly fascinated by his descriptions of meal times, when prisoners would bring out a large pot of soup and dish it out to all the prisoners.  The ones who were served first got the thinnest and least satisfying helpings and would demand that the soup be stirred before it was served to them.

In Ciszek’s voice, Flaherty wrote of special duties that would score prisoners extra rations.  For instance, the prisoner that would dump the bucket used for toileting would get another bowl of soup.  The prisoners would be so hungry that some were eager to take on that duty.  Naturally, because it was a prison, a lot of the people Ciszek did time with were actual criminals.  He wrote a lot about the “thieves” who would try to trick other prisoners out of their rations in Machiavellian ways.  

I was impressed by Ciszek’s devotion to God, even when it seemed like he couldn’t get a fair shake.  Make no mistake about it, Ciszek’s time in prison wasn’t fun.  I remember how Ciszek was given extra rations one day, not told that it was to last him for two days he’d spend riding on a train to another prison.  There he sat with his Russian handlers, who had plenty to eat and didn’t share with him.  When a piece of buttered bread fell to the floor on the train, he tried to get it with his foot without attracting the attention of one of his guards.  The guard eventually did catch him in the act, but Ciszek pleaded with him to let him eat the dirty piece of buttered bread.  The guard was indifferent, so he got the bread.  There is something about the desperation of that story that sticks with me.  Ciszek appealed to the guard’s humanity to ease his suffering just a tiny bit and it worked.

Although I am not a very religious person, I am fascinated by people who are committed to their faith, particularly when their commitment is genuine and not motivated by greed or a desire for power (although those people are also interesting for other reasons).  Father Ciszek was able to maintain faith, hope, and courage in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.  He did not become a bitter shell of a man who hated God or blamed God for the twenty plus years he spent incarcerated in Russia.  Instead, he turned that situation into an incredible life story, full of adventure and hope.  He sets an example of a man who did not give up or give in to self-pity or doubt.  A lot of religious people, particularly the leaders, could learn from Father Ciszek’s example.

In any case, I highly recommend With God in Russia, particularly to Catholics who aren’t already familiar with his story.  I found it a very interesting and inspiring book.  I suppose the very fact that I read it proves that not all Facebook memes are useless.

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book reviews

Reviewing: Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

It’s finally April, and according to T.S. Eliot, “April is the cruellest [sic] month”. April is when spring really springs. But it’s also been a time of great tragedies. Most recently, it’s been a month that has proven popular for mass killings. Both Columbine and the Virginia Tech Massacre occurred in April, as did the Oklahoma City Bombing. April is also when the world’s greatest nuclear disaster occurred back in 1986.

On April 25th and 26th, 1986, I was in the eighth grade and 13 years old. The Soviet Union was alive and well, and people worried about nuclear war. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, located on the outskirts of picturesque Pripyat, Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, had been heralded as a great Soviet achievement, as it provided clean, cheap power to scores of people. The Chernobyl plant was constructed between 1972 and 1977; it was the third nuclear power plant built in the Soviet Union and the first on Ukrainian soil. It was originally named the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station and it consisted of four nuclear reactors, which provided about 10% of Ukraine’s power at the time of the accident.

During a late night safety test on April 25, 1986, things went horribly awry. The safety test simulated a blackout, and all of its safety systems were intentionally shut down. Thanks to a “perfect storm” of conditions, to include reactor design flaws and reactor operator errors, as well as shoddy Soviet era construction, there was an uncontrolled reaction condition which resulted in a steam explosion and open-air graphite fire. The fire propelled updrafts of nuclear waste into the atmosphere that eventually drifted as far north as Scandinavia and blanketed much of western Europe. The area around the nuclear power plant was flooded with radiation and radioactive dust, which has made Pripyat and the surrounding area unsafe to live in. It will probably be hundreds of years before people can safely reclaim that territory, which at this point, has been overrun by nature. Descendants of pets left behind after the accident are still living near the power plant; they are unsafe to rescue or even pet, because their bodies are contaminated by radiation.

I learned a lot about Chernobyl when I read Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by journalist Adam Higginbotham. This book, which was just published in February 2019, is an exhaustive and comprehensive account of what happened at Chernobyl when the nuclear power station exploded, who was involved in the accident and responsible for its occurrence, and what happened to the many innocent civilians living in Pripyat. I will admit, this isn’t the cheeriest book to be reading, but as someone who remembers when this accident happened and then later lived in the Republic of Armenia, which also has a nuclear power plant (Metsamor), I found it fascinating reading.

News about the accident. Interesting video, because it shows western news coverage and Soviet coverage of the accident, along with actual footage.

It might be because of Metsamor that I decided to read about Chernobyl. When I first arrived in Armenia in June 1995, not even ten years had passed since this enormous accident, the news of which Soviet authorities had tried so hard to suppress. I remember that all Peace Corps Volunteers were issued tiny bottles of iodine pills, which we were supposed to immediately take in case of a nuclear event. It was supposed to protect our thyroid glands. We were instructed to carry that bottle of pills with us wherever we went.

I remember Metsamor was closed when we first arrived, and had been since December 1988, when the city of Gyumri and surrounding areas suffered a devastating earthquake that had killed over 55,000 people and destroyed cities. When I was in Armenia, Gyumri still hadn’t been rebuilt, so it was still easy to see the horrific damage even several years later. Officials were afraid the earthquake had damaged the nuclear power plant, so they shut it down to avoid another Chernobyl situation. Unfortunately, Metsamor provided Armenia with a lot of electricity and, at the time, there was an energy blockade imposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan, due to hostilities with those two countries. Consequently, during my first year in Armenia, I pretty much lived without electricity. It was sharply rationed, and I was lucky to get two hours a day. I lived in the capital, though, so I probably had it better than some of my co-workers. Many Armenians were amateur electricians, and they’d hook up a “left line” to local hospitals or a metro station, which always had power.

Some of my colleagues had been assigned to villages that were too close to Metsamor, which was scheduled to reopen in 1996. They had to be hastily reassigned because we weren’t allowed to live within 30 kilometers of the nuclear power plant. And yet, on a rare cloud free, smog free day in Yerevan, I could actually see the nuclear power plant’s reactors from various high points in the city. I often cynically thought about what would happen if Metsamor exploded. I figured I’d be a goner, or at least get radiation sickness. In 1996, Metsamor did reopen after it was examined by nuclear specialists from around the world, including the United States. I remember coming home from a vacation in Turkey and Bulgaria to hear a strange humming. It was the refrigerator, which hadn’t run in six weeks. During my second year in Armenia, I had power 24/7. It was life changing. At the same time, it was unnerving to realize how close we lived to a nuclear power plant that was built during the Soviet era, especially given that Chernobyl had occurred less than ten years prior.

A Nightline episode about Chernobyl, circa April 1986. Interesting how they refer to all USSR inhabitants as “Russians”. Also interesting to see how the world has changed since 1986. It doesn’t seem that long ago.

Anyway… getting back to Chernobyl and Higginbotham’s book… I have to admit, it took me a long time to finish it. The subject matter is fascinating, but it covers a long story that encompasses more than just the accident itself. To really understand this, you have to remember that the Soviet Union was a corrupt regime with a very fragile facade. In the 80s, everyone thought of the Soviet Union as a “superpower”, in competition with the United States. However, although people there were encouraged to serve the state, there was little incentive to do so. Yes, there might be awards and/or accolades given to those who were high achievers. Maybe they’d get a better job or more desirable living quarters. But it’s not like most of them were paid a lot more, given more autonomy, or offered any real impetus to do their best. When they screwed up, they were harshly punished. When they achieved, they might get a new radio or a bottle of vodka or something.

What’s more, many Soviet products and infrastructures were notoriously inferior. Higginbotham explains that Chernobyl’s construction was slipshod, which paved the way for the future disaster that would doom so many people– particularly those who were unfortunate enough to be living near there at the time. Higginbotham does a good job describing the eerie quality of Pripyat after the accident, especially as some people were allowed to come back and reclaim some of their belongings. They were given a very brief amount of time to go through their valuables, all of which had to be tested for radiation. Consequently, for decades, Pripyat has been like a ghost town, with remnants of the Soviet era crumbling, rusting, and still there thirty-three years later. However, looters have come by and stripped the area of metal.

In the wake of the accident, military servicemembers were tasked with cleaning up the mess. Some of them got out of the duty by paying off the powers that be, something I was also aware of in Armenia, where in the 90s, young men were expected to serve in the military. Those who didn’t pay up, were sent to the front lines in Azerbaijan. I often saw the horrifying results of that service, in the form of men who had lost limbs or were otherwise killed or maimed. The corruption was unfair, of course, for those who lacked the ability to bribe officials. Even in the Soviet Union, some people were better off than others were. The ones who were not as well off, paid with their health or even their lives. In one part of the book, Higginbotham writes of the brave people who ran into “ground zero”, worked for about a minute, then ran out of the area for their lives. Within a minute, they had reached their lifetime safe quota of radiation exposure.

Bill was in Germany from December 1987 until May 1991. One of his first German landladies got very sick with leukemia. She died within six weeks of diagnosis. It was thought she got sick due to exposure to the radioactive fallout that had drifted across Europe from Ukraine. Even today, there are still wild boars in the Czech Republic that are loaded with radiation– so much so that they can’t be consumed. Although Chernobyl has now become something of a tourist destination, it’s still not safe to live there or visit for longer than a short time.

I think about the age I was when Chernobyl happened… right smack dab in the middle of adolescence. I wonder what it must be like for my contemporaries who happened to be living in Pripyat in April 1986. Families had to be evacuated from the area, but this didn’t happen immediately. Authorities tried so hard to keep the accident a secret, but it was impossible because there was no way to prevent the fallout from escaping Ukraine. It drifted north to Belarus, to other eastern bloc countries, and all the way to Scandinavia. Higginbotham does a masterful job explaining the story of specific people involved– the female mayor trying to save her town– the people who ran Chernobyl and were involved with the cleanup– people who died– people who went to prison.

Higginbotham writes that Mikhail Gorbachev, then the Soviet Union’s leader, wrote that more than his policies of Glasnost and Perestroika, the Soviet Union collapsed mainly due to Chernobyl and the Soviet Union’s inability to repair the damage due to the staggering costs and simple lack of availability of the materials needed. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, so did research efforts and cleanup efforts. It was the same thing that happened in Gyumri, where the skeletons of buildings remained years after the earthquake had ravaged them. There was no money to clean up the mess and no leadership prepared to take on the task. And the economy was in the toilet, which is why so many former Soviet countries had Peace Corps Volunteers in the first place.

At the end of his very well-written book, Higginbotham offers an epilogue, detailing what happened to the people who were most involved with the Chernobyl accident. Some of them have, of course, died by now. Some are still living. Quite a few people went to prison during the waning years of the Soviet Union. One of the men emerged from prison, having not fought for his rights or tried to clear his name, since during the Soviet era, there was really no point. Then the Soviet Union fell apart anyway, so the people responsible for scapegoating him were no longer in power. It was kind of depressing to read that part– this man who had tried to be a loyal party member and went to prison, then came out emaciated, not knowing his granddaughter or having seen where his wife relocated after the accident. The country he knew was gone… and so was his hometown. It must have been very surreal on many levels. Pictures are also included, which I found especially intriguing.

I suppose if I had to offer a criticism of this book, it’s that it’s written from a western perspective by a British journalist. Because of that, there’s a bit of pro-western bias that comes through. On the other hand, having lived in the former Soviet Union myself, I’ve experienced first hand Soviet era building quality. I saw what happened to buildings in Gyumri, built shoddily and with cheap materials, as they collapsed after a massive earthquake. Most of those people didn’t have a chance. I’m afraid the same was true for Chernobyl and the people living near it.

HBO is about to release a new series about Chernobyl. I may or may not watch it, depending on if I can access it over here… and if I can stomach such depressing subject matter. I may have my hands full with The Handmaid’s Tale.

HBO’s take on Chernobyl.
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