Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Nuclear Apocalypse: Fiction or Reality? A Discussion of Chernobyl and American Pop-Culture Obsession with Apocalypse

In 21st century American culture we have a strong fascination with the mythologization of Apocalypse survival. How often, especially this time a year in the lead up to Halloween, does "Zombie Apocalypse" become part of our daily cultural discourse? Several recent book series focusing on post-apocalyptic dystopian societies have been turned into multi-billion dollar movie and merchandise franchises; notable examples are the Hunger Games, the Divergent Series, and the Giver.

All of this fantasy and mythologization often diminishes our ability to comprehend the very real tragedy and horror that befell Belorussian and Ukrainian people in the aftermath of the most severe nuclear disaster of all time: the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident on April 26th, 1986. I've encountered and worked with historical information on Chernobyl a couple times. Last semester in history professor Dr. Reiter's Environmental History JSEM on Environmental and Social Collapse, I wrote my term paper on the political aftermath of Chernobyl and its effects on shaping the final years of the Gorbachev administration and the Soviet Union. This week in Dr. Fowler's Empire, Power, Culture class we read Voices From Chernobyl, a 1996 oral history project compiled by Svetlana Alexievich which chronicles the stories of survivors of the Chernobyl disaster.

Many of the survivors who's stories are brought to light chose to return to their homes and face the dangers of radiation. Their entire small communities were destroyed. Most of their neighbors evacuated never to return. Many of those whose villages saw direct effects of nuclear fallout suffered severe loss in watching their families and friends die from radiation poisoning. Now they live in abandoned communities and face the problem of obtaining food and basic healthcare when all stores and hospitals are long abandoned. For all intents and purposes, the survivors of Chernobyl live in post-Apocalyptic space and there's really very little romanticization and mythologization about their daily lives from their perspectives.

One could spend a lot of time speculating on why many survivors chose to resist the government and return or to never leave their dangerous, radiation poisoned homes. I see it as the people reclaiming a sense of agency in their lives when faces with a situation completely out of their control that forever changed everything in their lives as they knew it. They couldn't control Chernobyl; they couldn't control who lived or died; but they could control where they lived and died. Staying was their way of reclaiming control when the entire situation happened out of their control and without their consent.

21st century American culture could benefit from listening to more of the reality of post-Chernobyl survivors' stories. Our entertainment and fantasy was the most devastating, dangerous, and life-changing event ever to happen in their lives.

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