We don’t wake up at 5:14am and check the news to see if we’re at nuclear war. We don’t go back to sleep. We don’t read Putin-expert Fiona Hill’s article ‘Yes, He Would’. We don’t blame friends for dropping out of WhatsApp groups (we can’t, they’ve left). We don’t spend an hour leaving Google reviews for Moscow restaurants asking normal Muscovites to know, just to know, and we don’t link to independent media showing children from oncology wards sheltering in hospital basements. We don’t see an old friend reporting from Kyiv for Sky News and wonder why she is brave enough to be a war reporter when we aren’t and why we’re not in the midst of it even though we’re afraid of being in the midst of it. We don’t agree with Yuval Noah Harari that Putin has somehow already lost.
We don’t check J’s Twitter feed again (still no update). We don’t remember that the last time we spoke to him (finishing up a PhD in Kyiv, on the stray dogs of Chornobyl—we don’t need to say that’s the Ukrainian spelling) was to ask him to help translate some Ukrainian into English for a friend’s novel. We don’t read the early proofs of that novel and then Google the Egg of Life, a sculpture that sits in a field in Ivankiv, Kyiv Oblast, which the novelist writes about, having done her fieldwork. We don’t doubt that it is also called Ovum II and doubles as a time capsule that was donated by a German artist to symbolise the rebirth of life from the soil after the Chornobyl disaster at 1:23:58am local time. We don’t like to recall that the amount of nuclear radiation that escaped from Reactor Number 4 on April 26th 1986 was less than four percent—four percent—of what could have been released in that cloud that crossed Europe. We don’t dwell upon the knowledge that if the wind had been blowing towards Kyiv, in the direction that Putin’s 50-mile long military convoy now snakes, that perhaps a million more people would have died (estimates put deaths at around a quarter of a million, although the official Chornobyl death toll remains only 31). We don’t look again at the spikes in radiation from the Exclusion Zone since the Russians captured the abandoned power station (reassured by experts it was only stirrings from heavy vehicles over contaminated ground). We don’t celebrate the fact that it was ordinary citizens who in 1986 bought radiation detectors as part of their campaign to stop a nuclear power station being built at Druridge Bay who first picked up the cloud moving across Britain and forced the government to admit there was a danger. We don’t remember the fields being sprayed blue to stop the sheep grazing on Caesium.
We don’t hear the words The accident wasn’t in the plan! even though they were spoken without irony by a Soviet commander by way of excuse for what happened at Chornobyl. (He actually said that: The accident wasn’t in the plan!) We don’t waste any more time trolling Liz Truss online asking her to waive visas, not flags (she doesn’t wave a flag either, only pose in front of one). We don’t cry at Germany’s $100bn investment in a new militarism, or Roman Abramovich selling off Chelsea FC. We don’t pick Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer from the bookshelf and reread the first chapter which details the first person account of the wife of a fireman (liquidator, biorobot, hero) as she watches his body flake, then melt, then crumble, even though she’s not allowed to be there but the doctors allow it, even though they do not know her story will become the chapter that all humanity should read (the book that all humanity should read) if we really want to know hubris, know tragedy.
But we don’t want to know hubris or tragedy. With war, with the climate crisis, there is no ‘unit of we’ in which we know how to respond effectively. So we offer statements, sanctions, Swift bans. That’s enough? That’s solidarity!
I, then. I.
I don’t forget it was Alexievich’s book that, a few months before the 30th anniversary of the disaster, led me to write my novel on Chornobyl, compelled to develop a plot linking that disaster to the stupidity of nuclear weapons and disaster still to come. Yes, those weapons we still have in Faslane, Scotland, yes, hiding on their submarines, yes, the ones he’s thinking of using (‘Yes, He Would’; I don’t read Fiona Hill again).
I don’t second-guess now why, in fiction at least, I took in my Ukrainian child refugee (you see, Priti! We can do it! No visas!) and brought him up in England and naturalised him and turned him into a nuclear physicist because the plot, the plot, Priti, was about trauma, trauma, Priti, of the refugees fleeing their homes in Ukraine, then as now due to human stupidity and denial; then the nuclear power station blowing apart, now Europe and the world order. I don’t shout about the revolving door between civilian and military nuclear, or about nuclear energy’s lobbying job done on Tony Blair, persuading him that we’d lose our deterrence capability (not much of a deterrence is it, Tony?) if we lost our nuclear power stations, Windscale and Wylfa and Hinkley and Oldbury, setting investment in renewables back a generation. I don’t think of the Soviet General Pitrov telling his soldiers, overheard by locals: Do your accounts boys. Better bury one thousand than one million. I don’t seek refuge in Anna Tsing’s Feral Atlas because even there I know that the story continues. I don’t eat the radioactive blueberries from the region that are now mixed in with blueberries from other orchards so they meet regulations for safe radiation levels and can be sold across the European Union and USA. I don’t complain that if only my young fictional Ukrainian refugee could be a seasonal fruit picker, dear Home Office minister, but the fruit then as now was all contaminated.
Don’t pick the mushrooms!
Don’t pick the blueberries!
Poklasty yikh vnyz!
Put them down!
So as he grew I turned him into a nuclear physicist, because he has to process the trauma of being a refugee fleeing from someone else’s stupidity, somehow, doesn’t he? So I wrote a book because I was not brave enough to be a war reporter. So I blast the mighty and powerful with my words, oh powerful words!, what a relief, so I can hide the fear that I have no lichnost’ —a Russian word that has no direct translation but means something like integrity, honesty, a commitment to one’s labour—so I could at least show commitment as a writer, to give birth, somehow, to something, not much, a book, my egg.
So I do not think of the myth in the tradition of the Ukrainian people—and they are a community, a land, a place, a people, separate from Russia, a thousand years of independent history—that you see at Easter, mostly. I don’t visualise the pysanky, Ukrainian Easter eggs, that are famous for their colours and which serve a purpose beyond decoration. (Pysanky, from pysaty (писати), which means ‘to write’.) I don’t imagine, drawing lines on my skin with my fingernail, their intricate designs that are mazes and traps for, as the myth has it, a great snake chained to a cliff. I don’t tell people that as long as the egg writing continues, the world will exist. Legend has it that if the writing is abandoned then evil, the serpent, will escape and overrun and devour not only Ukraine, but also the world. So the serpent sends out his minions to see how many pysanky have been written. (Snake Island soldiers to Russia: ‘go fuck yourselves’.) If the number of pysanky has increased, the chains are tightened and good triumphs over evil. So people keep vigil and write on those eggs, fresh every year. I do not want to say that I put the words into the mouth of my Ukrainian refugee narrator: no one painted enough eggs the year of Chornobyl.
I don’t ask: today? Who is painting the eggs today?
Alex Lockwood teaches on the creative writing programme at the University of Sunderland. His novel The Chernobyl Privileges was published in 2019.
CALL TO ACTION:
Alex asks you support the Ukrainian Charity CCF/Dogs of Chernobyl looking after the stray dogs who made the disaster area their home. He would also ask you to support the author Philippa Holloway’s debut novel The Half Life of Snails (out 12th May, Parthian Books) that explores nuclear’s impact, which is set both on the edge of Wylfa nuclear power station in Anglesey, and at Chornobyl during the Ukrainian Maidan Revolution (the ‘Revolution of Dignity’) of 2014.