BY SERHII PLOKHY
On the morning of 26 April 1986 Europe witnessed the worst nuclear disaster in history: the explosion of a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet Ukraine. The outburst put the world on the brink of nuclear annihilation. In the end, less than five percent of the reactor's fuel escaped, but that was enough to contaminate over half of Europe with radioactive fallout.
In Chernobyl, Serhii Plokhy recreates these events in all of their drama, telling the stories of the firefighters, scientists, engineers, workers, soldiers, and policemen who found themselves caught in a nuclear Armageddon and succeeded in doing the seemingly impossible: extinguishing the nuclear inferno and putting the reactor to sleep.
While it is clear that the immediate cause of the accident was a turbine test gone wrong, Plokhy shows how the deeper roots of Chernobyl lay in the nature of the Soviet political system and the flaws of its nuclear industry. A little more than five years later, the Soviet Union would fall apart, destroyed from within by its unsustainable communist ideology and the dysfunctional managerial and economic systems laid bare in the wake of the disaster.
A poignant, fast paced account of the drama of heroes, perpetrators, and victims, Chernobyl is the definitive history of the world's worst nuclear disaster.
Serhii Plohky, professor of Ukrainan history at Harvard University, has won the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize for a second time, with Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy. His work, published by Allen Lane, was selected by a panel of five distinguished judges from a shortlist of six strong and varied contenders covering history, culture and memoir.
The award, the seventh annual edition of the prize, is the first time that the same author has won twice, following Serhii Plokhy’s recognition for The Last Empire in 2015. It comes at a time of fresh interest in Chernobyl, including with the launch of a televised drama presently screening on HBO.
Chernobyl is the first book to comprehensively explore the origins of the 1986 nuclear power station disaster, the fatal blast, clean-up and aftermath, and the longer term consequences that helped lead to the collapse of the USSR. It draws on freshly revealed archives including of the KGB, highlights deep tensions and dysfunctionality within the Soviet political system, individual stories of bravery and courage, and lessons for the global nuclear industry today. It also indicates how central the explosion and its aftermath were to the collapse of the USSR.
Sergei Guriev, chair of the jury, said: “The jury has faced a challenging task of choosing the winner from a very impressive short list. Each book is an excellent read which promotes better understanding of both today’s Russia and of Russian and Soviet history. But Chernobyl stands out as a well-researched and well-written masterpiece on an event of momentous importance. The Chernobyl disaster is not just a historical episode. The main themes discussed in the book strongly resonate today - and not just in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine."
Serhii Plokhy received the £5,000 award at a dinner at Charterhouse in London.
Douglas Smith and Stephanie Ellis-Smith, co-funders of the prize, said: “We are thrilled to congratulate Serhii Plokhy as this year’s winner for his superb book. Chernobyl is a truly masterful combination of the finest scholarship and the best story telling. A model for all historians.”
Marc Polonsky, trustee of the Polonsky Foundation, which also funds the prize, said: "Once again, the Pushkin House Book Prize has demonstrated the calibre and variety of contemporary writing about Russia. Congratulations to the worthy winner selected from such a competitive field."
Andrew Jack, head of the prize advisory board, said: “The unprecedented but well merited award of the prize to a winner for the second time reflects Serhii Plokhy’s extraordinary achievements as a historian, whose deep analysis, fluent writing and original research align perfectly with Pushkin House’s mission to showcase the best writing on the Russian speaking world.”