Book Review: Midnight in Chernobyl

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham CR: Simon & Schuster

Title: Midnight in Chernobyl
Author: Adam Higginbotham
Genre: Nonfiction History
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: February 12, 2019
Pages: 538
Format Read: Audiobook
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: Libby library app
Date finished reading: November 26, 2019

Goodreads Description: 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.

My Review: I’ve been interested in learning more about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster for years. Three years ago, while temporarily living in Ukraine, I had an opportunity to visit Chernobyl (see my Chernobyl post). It was a haunting experience, but I learned a lot and got to see the building of the new sarcophagus, which was just placed over the reactor a few months ago. Earlier this year, I learned a bit more about this disaster through the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. I looked up the literature that was used to create the miniseries and saw Midnight in Chernobyl on the list and have been looking forward to reading it every since. It did not disappoint.

If you are interested in learning about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Midnight in Chernobyl is the most comprehensive work about this disaster I have come across. The character list at the beginning is very helpful and was useful throughout the book. The book begins by giving some background on the early days of the cities that surrounded the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Around the time of the nuclear disaster, a nearby town, by the name of Pripyat, had grown to a population of 50,000 people.

Midnight in Chernobyl gives you a thorough account of the disaster itself. I’ve always been amazed that officials of the surrounding cities told civilians to just go about their daily lives, while high levels of radiation polluted the air. It seemed like such a horrific and unnecessary detriment to human life. However, Adam Higginbotham does a great job of explaining life and politics in the former Soviet Union. “The traditional reflexes of secrecy and paranoia were deeply ingrained. The truth about an incidence of any kind that might undermined Soviet prestige or provoke public panic had always been suppressed.” There were other nuclear incidences before Chernobyl that were covered up. People were not evacuated during from those areas, so why should they be evacuated now? By evacuating the cities around the Chernobyl nuclear plant, that would be alerting the public and possibly the international community of the accident, which the Soviet Union did not want. Not only did they delay evacuations but they quarantined the area, so no civilians could leave even if they wanted to. However, despite their best efforts, the international community would soon be alerted to this disaster as other European countries measured high levels of radiation in their air. The US President at that time, Ronald Reagan, stated “A nuclear accident that results in contaminating a number of countries with radioactive material is not simply an internal matter. The Soviets owe the world an explanation.”

Midnight in Chernobyl continues with such extensive details related to the aftermath, including the containment, the suffering of individuals exposed to acute radiation poisoning (ars), the building of the sarcophagus to put over the reactor, and the trial to hold certain individuals responsible for this nuclear disaster. While officially only 30-60 deaths occurred due to the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the UN states that 3.5 million people in multiple countries were affected. This book was the best piece of literature I have read on this event, and I highly recommend it!

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦