Radiation is damaging to the body. However, what makes the Chornobyl-caused illnesses so grave? What makes them so frightening to think about or portray in the media? Is it the way that they are described, or is there a scientific reason as to why Chornobyl has such a damaging effect on the body?

Even though I cannot fully answer the aforementioned questions yet, I found that there is a motif of describing the human body as weak and the effects of Chornobyl radiation as incredibly powerful in literature. So, I have gathered excerpts which describe the effects of Chornobyl on the human body. The annotations are meant to aid the viewer to reflect on these topics and to highlight areas which prompted my own reflection when I first read these texts. For this project I have used excerpts from the following: Voices From Chornobyl,” ARS And Skin Damage in Chornobyl Patients,” and “The Real Chernobyl: Q&A With a Radiation Exposure Expert.” In order to test my hypothesis, I chose texts that are scientific in nature and that are more literary. My analysis will prove that my hypothesis stands in both kinds of texts. I chose the medium of a close reading in order to see how diction and figurative language are used to describe illness and their effects on the reader.

Voices from Chornobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

Voices from Chornobyl is a literary testimonial by Svetlana Alexievich in which she presents the viewpoints of different individuals and their first-hand experiences of the Chornobyl disaster. The accounts were collected from the interviews Alexievich took and then incorporated into her book. They vary from children, to politicians, to physicists, to wives, to soldiers, to civilians. By encompassing such a wide array of voices in her novel, Alexievich was able to create a multifaceted account of the event and its variety of consequences.

Excerpt from Voices From Chornobyl

“Because this wasn’t just an ordinary cancer, which everyone is already afraid of, but Chernobyl cancer, even worse. The doctors told me: if the tumors had metastasized within his body, he’d have died quickly, but instead they crawled upward, along the body, to the face. Something black grew on him. His chin went somewhere, his neck disappeared, his tongue fell out. His veins popped, he began to bleed. From his neck, his cheeks, his ears. To all sides. I’d bring cold water, put wet rags against him, nothing helped. It was something awful, the whole pillow would be covered in it. I’d bring a washbowl from the bathroom, and the streams would hit it, like into a milk pail. That sound, it was so peaceful and rural. Even now I hear it at night. While he was still conscious, if he started clapping, that was our sign: Call the ambulance. He didn’t want to die. He was forty-five years old. I’d call the ambulance, and they know us, they don’t want to come: “There’s nothing we can do for your husband.” Just give him a shot! Some narcotic. I learned how to do it myself, but the shot […]” (130)


In this excerpt, the speaker describes the last weeks of her husband’s life, how she took care of him, and the way his body reacted to the radiation he got while working to clean up Chornobyl. Throughout the excerpt there is a motif of weakness of the human body and the strength of the “Chornobyl cancer.” The speaker starts by distinguishing between “regular cancer” and “Chornobyl cancer,” portraying “Chornobyl cancer” as more frightening and stronger than regular cancer. This creates the suggestion that Chornobyl has a special effect on the body — the cancer caused by Chornobyl is lethal, disintegrating every tissue in its way. The speaker then continues to describe the fluids that came out of the skin lesions of her husband onto his pillow as something “awful,” which evokes a feeling of something indescribably horrid and graphic, too gruesome to put into words. However, even though her husband needs constant aid, the speaker finds some semblance of peace and maybe even beauty in everyday things, as when she describes her husband going to the bathroom. The sounds of her husband’s body remind her of a simpler, more wholesome, better time in her life- a life that was taken from her by the “Chornobyl cancer.” Lastly, the speaker describes the response she received from medical professionals, which was that they simply cannot fight such a strong disease and that there is nothing they can do to cure or heal her husband, which both feeds into the aforementioned motif of weakness and strength.

“ARS And Skin Damage in Chornobyl Patients” by Gerard Wagemaker

“ARS And Skin Damage in Chornobyl Patients’’ is an article written for the International Atomic Energy Agency bulletin by Gerard Wagemaker and other scientists. The article explains the general symptoms of acute radiation syndrome and the effects of those symptoms on the body. It brings in a number of casualties for each ARS severity group as well as the common cause of death, which is usually complications from combined injury and skin lesions. The article also describes how survivors of ARS have health complications for the rest of their lives, including somatic and psychological trauma.

Excerpt from “ARS And Skin Damage in Chornobyl Patients”

“Among the victims of the Chernobyl accident were people who were accidentally exposed to high doses of radiation. Such high dose exposures — which acutely and severely affect blood cell production, resistance against infections, and intestinal functions — may result in severe damage to the skin. The complex of disease symptoms from such exposures is known as “acute radiation syndrome”, or ARS. Its most common symptoms are initially nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea and, later on, bleeding and generalized infections with high fever, often caused by micro-organisms that are normally not harmful. If untreated, ARS is lethal, even following radiation doses which are not necessarily incompatible with survival of the human organism and are regularly used in clinical medicine to treat some forms of cancer. In an accident situation, the radiation damage is frequently even more complicated by other injury, such as thermal burns (29).”


Unlike the previous text, this one feels more formal. One can argue that it’s because that since this is a scientific report, it will have a more “sterile” tone. However, even the way the author describes ARS is different. Because the author begins by listing relatively normal symptoms of sickness. However, toward the end of the article the motif of the fragility of the human body against the effect of radiation arises, when the author begins describing the way different systems stop working simultaneously and the body cannot keep on living. The ending also seeks to discern a difference between Chornobyl radiation and everyday radiation by stating one is lethal in large doses and will lead to the life-threatening symptoms of ARS and the other is normal and may even be beneficial in certain cases, such as x-rays.

“The Real Chernobyl: Q&A With a Radiation Exposure Expert” by Nicoletta Lanese

“The Real Chernobyl: Q&A With a Radiation Exposure Expert” is an interview article written by Nicoletta Lanese for the University of California San Fransisco. This article consists of an interview Lanese conducted with Lydia Zablotska, a physician who studies the long-term health effects of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster. The article describes and debunks the common misconceptions about Chornobyl and its health effects, in the context of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. These misconceptions include passing on radioactivity to others and radiation causing specific kinds of cancer. Zablotska relies on data gathered from the effects on people in Japan after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions.

Excerpt from “The Real Chernobyl: Q&A With a Radiation Exposure Expert”

“Large doses of radiation could affect a number of systems in the body that are necessary for survival. Patients with ARS could develop a bone marrow syndrome, which suppresses their immunity, or a gastrointestinal syndrome, which could lead to damage to the lining of the intestines and associated infection, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalance. Then, a couple days later, the circulatory system collapses so people start having blood volume issues and so forth. The whole body is essentially collapsing (np).”


This excerpt follows suit of the previous one by Wagemaker. Ultimately it continues upholding the motif of weakness of the body’s inability to withstand the radiation from Chornobyl. The speaker describes how every system necessary for survival begins to shut down in the body. The slow disintegration of these systems while the individual is still alive, creates the effect of inevitability of the body to give in to the illness. However, the speaker does say that the illness can manifest in several ways such as through the bone marrow, hindering their immunity, or through the gastrointestinal system, which would lead to infection and dehydration. Even though the tone of the excerpt is official and matter-of-fact, the speaker ultimately contends that the body will not be able to withstand the damage created by the cancer and will “collapse.”


All of these excerpts uphold my initial thesis that when describing the effects of Chornobyl radiation on the body, the body is described as weak, while the illness is described as overtaking the body in numerous forms. This creates the effect that a human cannot withstand Chornobyl and radiation, which evokes a feeling of hopelessness and despair. The motif is used in scientific literature, as highlighted by the comparison of excerpts. Even though the scientific literature is describing the real, physical effects of radiation, one could argue that their usage of diction continues the aforementioned motif. We can use this conclusion to alter the way we talk about health in various texts in order to prevent hopelessness and despair when discussing others medical situations. Perhaps, preventing radiophobia in literature will allow for people to seek treatment without shame and for the world to be less ostracizing to those who are unfortunately sick with acute radiation poisoning.

Works Cited

Ksenia Mats is a sophomore studying biology and data science at Bryn Mawr College.

RUSSB220 Chornobyl, Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2023

Licensed under CC BY 4.0.