Tuesday, April 26, marked the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Soviet Ukraine. At the University, students came together on Tuesday night for a “Voices from Chernobyl” performance, bringing together monologues from Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s book of the same name. The audience members consisted of students, professors, and members of the Ukrainian community in Connecticut.
The accident, which happened on April 26, 1986, is largely considered to be one of the worst nuclear power plant disasters in terms of human cost. The accident has had long-term effects on generations of people exposed to the radiation.
The performance was adapted, produced, and directed by Rachel Santee ’17. Santee first came across Alexievich’s book in an airport, and was immediately inspired as she was a history major at the time and studying Russian.
“I picked up the book in an airport and read the book in one sitting while my flight was delayed,” Santee said. “It really hit home… [Although] I’m not Russian.”
Since the chapters were titled as monologues, she wondered if it had been turned into a production before. After researching, she realized that it hadn’t but wanted to perform it anyways. She contacted several professors in the Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian departments at the University, including Professor of Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies Priscilla Meyer.
“[All the stories] were all told to the author, in their own homes, at their kitchen table…so I started imagining it, started spitballing ideas,” Santee said. “[Meyer] said it was a great idea and gave me Misha [Iakovenko ’18] and Anya [Weinstock ’19]. We then started meeting in Espwesso and discussing what would this look like, which ones should we do. There were some that were 30 pages long, and some that were a sentence. So we really knocked it down from 300 pages to 10 monologues that were five minutes long.”
The performance was introduced by Alex Kuzma, the Director for Development at the Children for Chornobyl fund, which is based in New Jersey. He gave some background on the accident and how it happened.
“Chernobyl not only affected people in Ukraine, and Belarus, which is the neighboring country, but radiation spread as far west as Austria, as far east as Russia, as far north as Finland, Norway,” Kuzma said. “Even 26 years later, there’s still prohibitions on intakes of dairy products and meats in Norway, because these products have been contaminated.”
Iakovenko said that the producers were initially afraid that people would not know much about Chernobyl, which is why Kuzma was invited to give an introduction.
Iakovenko first got involved with the project after he was invited by Santee.
“Since it’s a part of my history, and I know a lot of people who are affected by this, a lot of my friends were affected by this, so I thought that this was something that I [would] want to do and something that matters to me,” Iakovenko said.
The monologues, which have been condensed into five to seven minute monologues performed by different students, were conveyed with emotion. The students channeled their characters as they walked around the stage, pretending to drink vodka and smoke cigarettes. The monologues also told the stories of different people who were affected by Chernobyl, from the families of the first responders, to those who lived near the explosion, as well as the scientists.
Some of the students involved with performing the monologues also had personal connections to the stories being told.
“All my actors were incredible,” Santee said. “A lot of them were actually from Russia or from Ukraine and/or had Russian family. So for a lot of them, this was really personal work, which was amazing to hear.”
In addition to the performance of the monologues, an exhibition was held in the Zelnick Pavilion, compiled by members of the Ukrianian community in Connecticut. The photos on display were of those around Chernobyl as well as detailed maps and further information about the disaster.
“Because [Iakovenko] is Ukrainian, he contacted professors on campus and the Ukrainian community at large in Connecticut, and he got all of [the exhibition] together, so this would not be here without him,” Santee said.
Both Santee and Iakovenko thought that the performance went well, as the actors were able to convey very powerful stories. Santee thought that bringing the performance to the University was important in expanding the story of what Chernobyl was.
“As I was in that airport, I realized that not only was this an amazing piece of work, but that this April would be the 30th anniversary,” Santee said. “I always had this idea of what Chernobyl is, but it was always kind of like in memes of eight-legged cats or here’s what’s at Chernobyl…. You don’t see the after-effects of all this, people aren’t still reporting on what’s happening in Fukushima now or what’s happening in Chernobyl now. And so if one person dies, not that many lives were lost, but when 30 or 40 million are now affected, are getting cancer, are dying at age 40, that’s a huge deal.”
Iakovenko also emphasized that the event affected the entire world and not just those in Eastern Europe.
“It’s not just Eastern European history; this event affected the entire world,” Iakovenko said. “Because of this event, we can argue that the Soviet Union collapsed, so it’s a huge part of world history. It’s really important that everyone is aware of events like this.”