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  • A Blast from the Past
  • Courtney Doucette
Kate Brown, Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. 420 pp. New York: W. W. Norton, 2019. ISBN-13 978-039365251011. $27.95.
Chernobyl. Directed by Johan Renck. Written and produced by Craig Mazin. HBO/Sky, 605– 306 2019. 5h30min.
Serhii Plokhy, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe. 432 pp. New York: Basic Books, 2018. ISBN-13 978-1541617094. $32.00.

On Friday, 25 April 1986, workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant began to power down Reactor no. 4 in preparation for a safety test. In the early morning hours of Saturday, 26 April 1986, after the test finally began, the reactor spun out of control, there was an explosion, and a fire broke out. Firefighters from nearby Pripiat´, a town built for power plant workers, rushed to the scene to extinguish the flames, responding as they would to any fire. Within hours, first responders were taken to the hospital. They showed signs of acute radiation poisoning but were told they had only been exposed to chemicals. Meanwhile, plant personnel contested what exactly had happened at the plant. What was the explosion? Anatolii Diatlov, the chief nuclear engineer who oversaw the test from the control room, insisted it was a hydrogen tank. Valerii Perevozhenko, a reactor foreman who witnessed the explosion from a platform above the reactor, asserted it was the core of the reactor itself. The debate continued even as radiation levels maxed out dosimeters. Meanwhile, the highest-ranking plant employees and party members minimized the accident, both to maintain calm in the areas surrounding Chernobyl and to save face on the global stage. The cover on secrecy was blown by nuclear power plant workers in Sweden, whose dosimeters [End Page 841]registered accident levels of radiation, and where further tests showed the radioactive isotopes could have come only from the USSR. As it became indisputable that the core of Reactor no. 4 had exploded, the Party issued evacuation orders in Pripiat´. Thousands of local residents were forced out of the region, while hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were brought in to contain the disaster and prevent even worse from occurring, such as the meltdown of a neighboring reactor.

The worst nuclear accident in history, Chernobyl remains a household word today. It has come to symbolize (and obscure) the chaotic end of the Soviet period, becoming almost synonymous with the collapse. The name also surfaces at moments of new nuclear disasters, such as Fukushima in 2011, which to date is the only accident that rivals Chernobyl in magnitude. Yet while Chernobyl remains a known event across the globe, there is little popular knowledge of what unfolded in northeastern Ukraine in the days, months, and years following the disaster, and even less of a sense of what this event means for us today. New popular media and two exceptional works of history begin to address that gap. Craig Mazin's five-part miniseries Chernobylhas drawn enormous attention to the event. The series comes on the heels of Serhii Plokhy's Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastropheand Kate Brown's Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future, which bring the study of Chernobyl into the scope of the field of history, building on Svetlana Alexievich's oral history Voices from Chernobyland the anthropologist Adriana Petryna's Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. 1Mazin, Plokhy, and Brown make an outstanding contribution to the existing discussion of Chernobyl in no small part because they are exemplary writers, none of them missing an opportunity to tell a riveting story about this dramatic event. Equally important is that each invests Chernobyl with new meaning, sending clear messages about the significance of the event for the present. Yet [End Page 842]each reading differs greatly. Examining them side by side gives us the opportunity to consider: what makes Chernobyl so important for us today? 2


In five weeks, Craig Mazin's miniseries probably drew more popular attention to the Soviet 1980s than any single publication in the last two decades. The chronological bookends of the series are 26 April 1986, when the reactor exploded...