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is remembering too much to ask


I suddenly started to wonder what’s better — to remember or to forget? I asked my friends. Some have forgotten, others don’t want to remember, because we can’t change anything anyway, we can’t even leave here.

Here’s what I remember. In the first days after the accident, all the books at the library about radiation, about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even about X-rays, disappeared. Some people said it was an order from above, so that people wouldn’t panic. There was even a joke that if Chernobyl had blown up near the Papuans, the whole world would be frightened, but not the Papuans. There were no medical bulletins, no information. Those who could, got potassium iodide (you couldn’t get it at the pharmacy in our town, you had to really know someone). Some people took a whole bunch of these tablets and washed them down with liquor. Then they had to get their stomachs pumped at the hospital. Then we discovered a sign, which all of us followed: as long as there were sparrows and pigeons in town, humans could live there, too. I was in a taxi one time, the driver couldn’t understand why the birds were all crashing into his window, like they were blind. They’d gone crazy, or like they were committing suicide.

I remember coming back one time from a business trip. There was a moonlit landscape. On both sides of the road, to the very horizon, stretched these fields covered in white dolomite. The poisoned topsoil had been removed and buried, and in its place they brought white dolomite sand. It was like not-earth. This vision tortured me for a long time and I tried to write a story. I imagined what would be here in a hundred years: a person, or something else, would be galloping along on all fours, throwing out its long back legs, knees bent. At night it could see with a third eye, and its only ear, on the crown of its head, could even hear how ants run. Ants would be the only thing left, everything else in heaven and earth would have died.

I sent the story to a journal. They wrote back saying that this wasn’t a work of literature, but the description of a nightmare. Of course I lacked the talent. But there was another reason they didn’t take it, I think.

I’ve wondered why everyone was silent about Chernobyl, why our writers weren’t writing much about it — they write about the war, or the camps, but here they’re silent. Why? Do you think it’s an accident? If we’d beaten Chernobyl, people would talk about it and write about it more. Or if we’d understood Chernobyl. But we don’t know how to capture any meaning from it. We’re not capable of it. We can’t place it in our human experience or our human time-frame.

So what’s better, to remember or to forget?

-Yevgeniy Brovkin,
instructor at Gomel State University

From 2015 Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich’s essential collection of oral histories, Voices from Chernobyl.

Of course, by now we all know that forgetting is easier, and a hell of a lot more profitable, than remembering. The forgetting described above is the familiar scripted amnesia we see applied wherever radiation, and other fruits of industrial civilization, have irrevocably demented the landscape. In Fukushima, the Marshall Islands, Nigeria, the Yangtze, Bhopal, Fallujah. Colombia, Appalachia. The Mediterranean, the Caspian, the Black and the Red Seas. The Gulf of Mexico and the Albertan oil sands. Hanford, WA and the Ohio River Valley. the whole American Southwest. The entire Pacific Ocean. Pretty much everywhere on Earth has its tale of irreversible anthropogenic ruin. And there’ll be more coming, every year. Every single time we’ll be taught to act surprised, as if it were the first and last time. And then, to preserve our sanity, we’ll forget, all over again.

American Ground Zero is another excellent book — I found it by accident in 2007, browsing the discarded-book stacks at the San Francisco Public Library. Unlike Alexievich, its author never won a Nobel (insert jaded aside about lingering Cold War double-standards here), but this work is equally affecting, giving voices to other ignored and marginalized populations who have been heavily irradiated and sickened, intentionally (or at best flippantly), by the US government’s decades of misadventure in above-ground nuclear testing, uranium mining, and waste storage. The book is too good and too important to be forgotten, out of print and going for four bucks on amaz0n*; if you’ve read this far, your life will be, ah, enriched by reading it. (You can also get it for seven times the price at if you prefer. Or maybe your public library hasn’t tossed it yet!)

As folks used to say in Hawai’i, back while the US Marine Corps was killing all the oysters in Kaneohe Bay with toxic runoff: i never forget to remember; i just remember to forget.


See also:

*[1/14/16] It’s worth noting that the copy i recently ordered online was also discarded from a library, in Carmel, Indiana. It’s in excellent condition. Hmm.

7 Comments on “is remembering too much to ask”

    • Nice.

      You know, all facts considered (including the facts surrounding how the meltdown actually occurred), i would be 0% surprised to learn the CIA intentionally sabotaged Chernobyl. (And the USSR did fail only a couple years afterward.)

      Radiation really is a totem of perfect capitalism — it creates a generalized panic of self-preservation in people that breaks apart communities; it’s only immediately detectable with new, expensive & rare technology; it creates a climate of total, permanent fear and paranoia; it destroys people’s lives and freedoms in insidious ways that are really hard to diagnose or class-action sue.

  1. here in Ottawa (unceded alonquin territory), Ontario, Canada, Voices from Chernobyl has quite the waiting list at our public library. American Ground Zero isn’t in the collection, but a search of the author comes up with a book, by a similarly named, but different, author, called Christopher Columbus and the Discovery of the New World. pertinent, i suppose.

    on the issue of forgetting, i think it’s important to acknowledge that, on a personal level, forgetting can be the only reasonable way of moving on. socially, of course, forgetting is the only reasonable (tolerable?) way of continuing, without change, or guilt, or…

    American Ground Zero is also available at (another Amazon owned online bookselling-facilitator) from different sellers.

    • it’s a super-fascinating book and well worth the wait (or $). and yeah, i definitely see that forgetting playing out every day in each of our lives. it’s tough — compartmentalizing & cogdis are essential to dispel depression in an ever-worsening environment; but at the same time, those are the same mental gymnastics that kill our empathy and turn us into the kind of apathetic monsters that enable our world’s awfulness in the first place. i suppose ultimately we’re just swept along in the grip of larger social trends. swept along or swept under — we’re free to choose!

      • yeah. i mean don’t get me wrong, being able to forget is often only really available to those with privilege and that act is often a part of tolerating/supporting the status quo. but in a world as fucked up as ours, not forgetting or trying to sympathize with everything will destroy you; you have to pick your fights or risk losing all of them. and again, the degree to which we have that choice in whether or not we can choose our battles is also in a lot of ways tied to our privilege.

        • i know what you mean, & i agree that sympathizing will destroy us, & i agree that not-forgetting is a privilege — but most of us reading this do have that privilege, in excess.

          it’s agonizingly popular to debate what’s the smartest battle to pick, but in the end i don’t think anyone’s come up with anything much more effective than just blind outrage. (any given marxist-leninist would of course angrily disagree, but their praxis is demonstrably hypocritical and robotic.)

          not that we should all fling ourselves into the nearest volcano; but it’s very common for people free to choose their battles to not choose any battle at all — or to pick one that’s much more surrender than battle [example]. i have a lot of respect for people who just can’t take it anymore & flip their shit. it might not be healthy, but health itself is a privilege that isn’t always worth prioritizing; people in comfortable situations don’t generally like to admit there’s a time and a place for, say, autoimmolation [example].

          and in the end, i suspect that our real battles pick us, by being whatever it is that pushes us over the tipping point into real, rather than emptily rhetorical, self-sacrifice.

          my personal philosophy about it is just this: in an already-doomed world, where power works (actively, intentionally, ceaselessly & very effectively) to erode our empathy, the best we can do is cling to it for as long as possible, until we break under the strain. it’s a very unpopular philosophy.

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