‘I remember the horror,’ says Baillie Gifford non-fiction prize-winner, who lived through the 1986 nuclear disaster
Serhii Plokhy, who on Wednesday won the Baillie Gifford non-fiction prize for Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, always intended to write about the world’s worst nuclear disaster, not least because he lived through it. “I was there at the time,” he says of his days as a young university lecturer living 500km downstream from the explosion at the Ukrainian nuclear plant in 1986 that contaminated vast swaths of Europe, worrying if the waters of the Dnieper River had been contaminated. “I remember the horror.”
Former classmates were directly affected by the radiation released by the explosion, and he suffered from an inflamed thyroid he believes may have been the result of exposure. Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union in 1986, and the disaster had such an impact on the country that the 61-year-old Plokhy, now professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, felt he should tell its story. But he was almost too close to it; the testimonies of survivors were too emotional, too powerful. As a historian, he felt he lacked critical distance.