In today’s blog post I’m going to be sharing a book review for a non-fiction book I read at the very beginning of 2021. I believe I carried this over from December 2020 to finish it, so it’s been quite a while since I read it. However, it made a lasting impression on me! I thought the book was really good and it’s about a subject that I wanted to learn more about as a result of a TV series I watched.
The events around and following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster are harrowing to read, but I think the book does an excellent job of informing the reader in a way that keeps them engaged and entertained. I certainly learned a lot from it!
Midnight in Chernobyl – Adam Higginbotham
The definitive, dramatic untold story of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, based on original reporting and new archival research.
April 25, 1986, in Chernobyl, was a turning point in world history. The disaster not only changed the world’s perception of nuclear power and the science that spawned it, but also our understanding of the planet’s delicate ecology. With the images of the abandoned homes and playgrounds beyond the barbed wire of the 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone, the rusting graveyards of contaminated trucks and helicopters, the farmland lashed with black rain, the event fixed for all time the notion of radiation as an invisible killer.
Chernobyl was also a key event in the destruction of the Soviet Union, and, with it, the United States’ victory in the Cold War. For Moscow, it was a political and financial catastrophe as much as an environmental and scientific one. With a total cost of 18 billion rubles—at the time equivalent to $18 billion—Chernobyl bankrupted an already teetering economy and revealed to its population a state built upon a pillar of lies.
The full story of the events that started that night in the control room of Reactor No.4 of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant has never been told—until now. Through two decades of reporting, new archival information, and firsthand interviews with witnesses, journalist Adam Higginbotham tells the full dramatic story, including Alexander Akimov and Anatoli Dyatlov, who represented the best and worst of Soviet life; denizens of a vanished world of secret policemen, internal passports, food lines, and heroic self-sacrifice for the Motherland. Midnight in Chernobyl, award-worthy nonfiction that reads like sci-fi, shows not only the final epic struggle of a dying empire but also the story of individual heroism and desperate, ingenious technical improvisation joining forces against a new kind of enemy.
Considering that the disaster only took place in recent history, I went into this book with only vague knowledge of what had happened. I had briefly covered the subject in school in terms of its relation to the breakdown of the Soviet Union in my studies of the Cold War. In addition, I had some idea of the lasting effects of the disaster as a friend of mine’s family have previously hosted a child visiting the Island where I live. There is a charity called ‘Friends of Chernobyl’, who give children who live in areas still affected by radiation the opportunity to visit places such as where I live for an extended period for the benefit of their health. My friend’s family used to look after a girl in the summer holidays. Aside from that, the rest of what I knew about the disaster came from the TV series Chernobyl.
That’s not very good really in my opinion, and that’s why I wanted to look into this further for myself. I’m glad I picked up Midnight in Chernobyl to do this. There is a lot of interesting detail in the book, but it’s delivered in such a way that it is entertaining to read as well as informative.
I liked the way this book is written out. Each chapter is documented with a time and date and follows in chronological order, so it’s easy to follow what happens. I enjoyed how the book covers the whole history of the plant and nearby town Pripyat as opposed to just focusing on the disaster. Naturally, this takes up the majority of the book but seeing how and why it was built and the consequences of how Chernobyl came to be the place it was at the time of the disaster was interesting.
If you can also appreciate a little bit of science then I think you will also enjoy reading the explanatory narrative about how the reactors were designed to work. It was a little bit of a technical section, but not horrendously complicated and it went a long way to helping me understand what ultimately went wrong on that fateful day.
I think even if you know what happened, it’s only when you read the intimate experienced of each individual involved, and the loss of their loved ones, that it hits home.
I’m not overly surprised at the events of the disaster given the reasons it happened, but also how it was responded to. There was a ridiculous amount of secrecy around events such as these in the USSR. Chernobyl is one of the most well-known disasters, the truth is that there were a lot of smaller-scale disasters at other nuclear plants throughout the USSR in the period. But, like me, you probably didn’t know about these. Just like the scale of the Chernobyl disaster at the time, the powers that be were determined to hush it up and underplay it as much as possible. It’s despicable really when you think about the human cost.
Midnight in Chernobyl is a great read if you want a balance of information and an interesting read. I think the author does a very good job of informing readers about the event but also doing it in a way that highlights individual stories and personal consequences with dignity, with a view to outing the truth after decades of secrecy.