This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the worst accident ever to occur at a nuclear power plant. In the second part of the Anthology summer series finale “Nuclear Nightingales,” the Crickets Bone Caravan audio troupe presents readings from Voices from Chernobyl, the oral history by Svetlana Alexievich, one of five monumental works of non-fiction for which she was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. Alexievich writes against “intentional forgetting” and the memory hole of positive spin.
This two-part anthology has paired two literary responses to Chernobyl: Alexievich’s oral history, compiled with a consummate verbal artistry to rival a poet’s; and “The Zero Meter Diving Team” by Jim Shepard, a meticulously researched work of historical fiction. The pairing is meant to unsettle notions of “unvarnished truth,” and how narrative shapes perceptions of realities. The viability of nuclear power as an energy source is not the focus; rather, the program explores personal and institutional accountability and responses to systemic failures—on which silence should not be an option.
“…not to speak your real name, bird
but those tombs over Chernobyl make visible your name
that has never ceased to signal the harmony of the world …”
The epigraph for the episode comes from “Elegy on the Migrating Nightingales Massacred by Nuclear Physics at Chernobyl” by Philip Lamantia, in his Collected Poems (University of California Press, 2013). The text is based on an excerpt from Voices from Chernobyl published by Paris Review in 2004, including the background statements at the beginning read by Sarah Torbeck and Doug Storm. All the stories were “excavated” by Alexievich from extensive interviews conducted with each individual over a period of months or years. The first segment features intertwining voices (Renee Reed, Mary Pat Lynch, Patsy Rahn) representing “the returned,” those who were forced to evacuate but defiantly went back to their homes despite the contamination, and then a chorus of soldiers (Jack Hanek, Michael Perry, Doug Storm) who were called into service to control the disaster and suffered the effects of radiation.
The centerpiece of the program is the tragic love story of young newlyweds: the husband, a fireman, was among the first responders. The wife’s heartrending monologue is performed by Berklea Going.
In the third segment, the voice cast represents individuals from various perspectives:
- Arkady Filin, one of the ordinary citizens pressed into cleanup service as “liquidators” in the immediate aftermath (voiced by Phil Kasper, the featured reader in our Indiana bicentennial special for WFIU’s “Profiles,” on Theodore Dreiser’s Bloomington visit from A Hoosier Holiday)
- Nadezhda Petrovna Vygovskaya , an evacuee from the town of Pripyat who describes witnessing the disaster as a spectacle, at first blithely unaware of the devastating consequences (Lauren Robert)
- Zoya Danilovna Bruk, an inspector from the center for environmental protection who experiences the aftermath as moral dilemma (Sarah Torbeck)
- Vikor Latun, photographer (Frank Buczolich): “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.”
- Vladimir Matveevich Ivanov, former First Secretary of the Stavgorod Regional Party Committee, on the communist political context (Tony Brewer, with Pavel Abramov in Russian)
- Natalya Arsenyevna Roslova, head of the Mogilev Women’s Committee for the Children of Chernobyl, in an afterword on Chernobyl as a focus for constructing meaning (Joan Hawkins)
The nightingale song incorporated into the soundscape and transitions was recorded in Chernobyl Town by Peter Cusak for the non-profit sonic journalism project Sounds from Dangerous Places. The thrush nightingale (Luscinia luscinia) is one of the species that have adapted and repopulated the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in the absence of human habitation. Additional sound effects from the Chernobyl area by Félix Blume: the sound of wind whipping through plastic in front of the fourth reactor at the plant; empty nuclear power plant with ongoing construction work; and electrical hum near the Chernobyl plant with birds in the background. Other sounds from Freesound.org include a Ukrainian forest in May with birds singing and dogs barking; Russian shortwave transmissions; children playing on a Russian street; and crickets at a Moscow bath.
Music for “Nuclear Nightingales, Part Two” comes from:
• “Chernobyl Heroes” from the album Music from the Inner Journey by Terrence Cashion (self-released, 2011);
• “Less” and “Szeki” by the composer and violist Lev Zhurbin, a Moscow emigré, from the album Mnemosyne (Kapustnik Records, 2008) by his ensemble Ljova and the Kontraband;
• Vladimir Mendelssohn’s piano sextet arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, performed at the Staunton Music Festival in 2015;
• “Sirius” by the Voronezh composer Yuri Vorontsov (1914–2002), from the album Anthology of Piano Music by Russian and Soviet Composers, Pt. 7 (Melodia, 2014), performed by Feodor Amirov
• the State Anthem of the Soviet Union performed on harmonica (from 馒头抽风了)
- Oltracuidansa (Mode, 2010) by the avant-garde bassist Stefano Scodanibbio.
Theme music is “Kong” by Cyro Baptista, from his album Bluefly (Tzadik, 2016).
Cynthia Wolfe is series producer, writer, and editor. Heather Perry hosts, with Russian co-host Pavel Abramov. Russian dialect coaching and script support for “Nuclear Nightingales” by Sarah Torbeck (errors in pronunciation our own!).
“Nuclear Nightingales” concludes the summer series “Anthology,” produced by Loose Lit Media for WFIU and featuring the Crickets Bone Caravan audio troupe.