Timed perfectly for HBO’s new mini-series, Higginbotham’s book takes you through the catastrophe of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. While it will satisfy your rubbernecking lust for all the inescapably horrific details that are depicted in the miniseries—and the scientific explanations thereof—it will also challenge and reframe the narrative significantly. This book contains a wealth of material left out of the show that adds to your scientific and historical comprehension of the events on the morning of April 26, 1986, in Pripyat.
The 1986 Chernobyl accident is so far the most serious nuclear disaster in history. Yet more than thirty years later, the extent of its damage isn’t clear: experts disagree about the number of deaths it caused (from thirty-one to hundreds of thousands), about the danger, if any, of low-dose radiation, the extent of the danger zone and need for resettlement, the various vectors through which radiation spreads, and much more. Whatever statements were issued in the early days, Brown shows in her comprehensive study of the incident and its ongoing aftermath, were largely made up for the sake of avoiding panic; reassuring numbers were not science but “expediency and politics.” Brown, a historian with extensive experience in the former Soviet Union, spent years in archives tracing the complicated chain of official denials and lies. Her report of the massive cover-up is shocking. But it’s her meetings with frustrated doctors, scientists, and especially residents still living in irradiated villages—where the environmental damage is severe and irreversible—that are heartbreaking. And as she did in her excellent Plutopia, she shows that Americans were as invested in defending nuclear power as the Soviets were and used many of the same tactics in downplaying the dangers from atmospheric and underground tests. Few know, for instance, that the radiation released from explosions in Nevada between 1951 and 1992 “dwarfed Chernobyl emissions three times over.” Not just about Chernobyl, this book brings home that since we first split the atom, we’re all living in a contaminated zone.
Masha Gessen’s breathtaking history of Russia from the end of communism to today is a detailed analysis of what initially looked like a revolution but that, in the end, only brought the country full circle. Chronicling the shifts from glasnost and Gorbachev through Yeltsin and on to Putin’s efforts to re-establish a Greater Russia, The Future is History (Riverhead, $28) doesn’t recount a story of the iron curtain being torn apart and rewoven as much as it charts the condition of a patient with “a recurrent infection.” The disease is totalitarianism. Its toxins include terror and ideology, secrecy and repression. Those it afflicts suffer a host of symptoms, including constant anxiety and depression, both economic and emotional. These combine to turn ordinary individuals into the hollow, traumatized Homo Sovieticus, a creature too insecure to make demands. While this species seemed to die off with the Soviet Union, Gessen shows that, like Soviet-style totalitarianism itself, Sovieticus has survived. Her analysis puts this survival into the contexts of both political theory and psychoanalysis, showing first how totalitarianism took hold and continues to hold on, and then describing exactly how this repression breaks a society. While she invokes leading theorists such as Orwell and Arendt, Gessen grounds her account in the stories of seven people and their families. If her focus on a psychologist, a sociologist, a pioneering gay academic, a philosopher, and a Pussy Riot activist emphasize the social sciences, this is no accident. One of Gessen’s most striking points about the Soviet system is that it deliberately erased sociology and related disciplines, thus robbing people of the tools they needed to see, define, and understand themselves.