Book Reviews

Ablaze: The Story of the Heroes and Victims of Chernobyl by Piers Paul Read

Ablaze is a meticulously researched account of events leading to the Chernobyl nuclear explosion; the confusion, the secrecy and the lies that reigned in its aftermath; and the eventual fall of the Soviet Union.

Published: 1993 | Hardcover: 362 pages | Genre: History

Ablaze is a deeply-researched account of the precursor and the aftermath of the world’s worst nuclear disaster that occurred in Chernobyl on April 26, 1986. In 1991, Piers Paul Read, a British historian, spent time in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus interviewing dozens of officials, scientists, and survivors, in an attempt to construct the narrative on what contributed to the nuclear reactor’s meltdown and the chaos that reigned after.

According to official Soviet statistics, thirty-one people lost their lives due to the Chernobyl explosion. However, what remains speculative to this day, is the exact number of people who really suffered in the aftermath of the radiation – people losing their lives in the long-term because of radiation sickness or cancer or children born with congenital diseases. What we do know is that the radioactive fallout from the explosion made large areas of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia uninhabitable, and one can only guess at how many future generations will continue to suffer from the radiation effects.

Read draws on sources that were previously unavailable under the Soviet Union. It was only after the nation’s collapse in 1991, that these sources came to light and Read was able to take advantage of the declassification of nuclear information and confidential reports as well as gather testimony from the participants and survivors who were finally willing to talk about what really happened at Chernobyl.

Read begins by setting the context on how the atomic industry developed in the Soviet Union. It started in 1942, mostly as an attempt to keep the Americans at bay during the Cold War years. Eventually, the technology was used for peaceful energy purposes and as part of a nation built on scientific principles, Chernobyl, like other nuclear power plants became the pride of the Soviet Union. Read tells us in great detail about the construction of the V. I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station at Chernobyl and about the people involved in its building and management. From the very beginning, there were safety oversights and a nonchalant attitude adopted by the officials who made risky decisions that eventually set the stage for the explosion on the fateful April morning.

How exactly did the nuclear reactor no. 4 at Chernobyl explode? This was a question that created more chaos and confusion than anything else. At the start, no one wanted to take responsibility for the lapse – was it the technicians manning the controls during the safety test that blew up the reactor or was it the flawed design of the nuclear reactor? Even after the reactor had exploded, nobody thought the situation was out of control. Nobody felt there was a need to take any immediate action like the evacuation of the people living in the town of Pripyat. What emerges from Read’s narrative is the shocking manner in which the ordinary citizens were treated after the explosion. These people were given little information on what was happening and how unsafe they really were. People in power continued to hide their culpability and blamed Western media for all the negative propaganda.

Largely influenced by the Soviet philosophy of idealism, questions raised by concerned scientists were nipped in the bud and contrarian opinions swept under the rug. All this continued to happen while the effects of the cloud of radioactive material that was building in the air from the damaged reactor was being monitored throughout Europe. What is particularly horrifying is the part about how radiation affected the living – the people, the animals, and the vegetation. The stories of firemen who were the first responders on the scene, the doctors who tried doing everything in their power to save lives and the operators who tried to figure out what had gone wrong with the reactor, are all equally powerful and chilling. They show how those who were on the scene emerged as heroes with little leadership and instruction while scapegoats were being created by those in authority to be brought to trial.

According to Read, the Cheronybl incident had a major role to play in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not only is Ablaze the story of a nuclear catastrophe but also an insight into how one of the world’s most totalitarian regimes collapsed owing to its Iron Curtain and its inability to manage the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. 

For another extremely insightful first-person monologues-based account of Chernobyl, with stories collected ten years after the incident, read Voices of Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian Nobel Laureate.

By Sanskriti Nagar

I'm a storyteller on a journey - to connect people with places, the past with the present, the contemporary with the traditional. I'm just stepping into the shoes of an explorer, aspiring to be a globetrotter, and someday, a novelist. Follow me through my journeys, and if something does resonate with you, or you'd like me to cover a story for you, I'd love to catch up. (PS: I love coffee!)

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