A comic adaptation of Yevgeniy Brovkin’s narrative from Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich. In his narrative, Brovkin describes his personal experiences in the wake of the disaster as well as his reflections on the public response to it.

The Comic

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No one text is about a single thing, or even several things, and I think it’s especially reductive to say that about Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer. It is a catalog of the following themes: government responsibility and culpability; what nations, families, and people do in the post-apocalypse; environmental grief; the legacy of war; outliving your own death or caring for somebody on their deathbed; disillusionment with what you’ve built your life around; and so many others that they could fill this website up with phrase-long taglines about what it’s like to listen to the things that hundreds of people say to you while they’re sitting in a nightmare. However, when you sit down to make an artwork or story, you usually have to narrow it down to a few things that you explicitly want it to be about, even though down the line it’ll start to become infused with roughly a million others.

Before I started my comic, I sat down to read a comic about the Chornobyl disaster that already existed, Springtime in Chernobyl by Emmanuel Lepage, which seems to be the only comic on the market published in a language that I can read, as well as watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, which was based on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic and provides a visual articulation of the earthly landscape made alien that resonated with many readers and viewers following the disaster. I wanted to get a sense of what these stories shared and what ideas they focused on to inform my own work.

Springtime in Chernobyl is more or less a diary, retelling Lepage’s trip to the Exclusion Zone and surrounding areas as part of an anti-nuclear advocacy group (Lepage 2019). I started the book on my guard, ready for a story about a foreign observer visiting to tell a particular narrative about a group of people he has nothing to do with. It does start that way: Lepage goes on the trip to tell the story of a land blighted by the disaster, full of suffering people. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the progression of the book: our narrator, despite being primed to expect the worst, encounters a lush, beautiful landscape and neighbors as happy or sad as any other, living normal lives alongside the legacy of the disaster. The effects of radiation aren’t completely invisible—it’s hard for a reader to forget the estimated death tolls listed in the opening pages, accompanied by snippets of Lyudmila Ignatenko’s retelling of the disaster and her husband Vasily’s death from radiation sickness that Svetlana Alexievich recorded in Chernobyl Prayer, and the occasional reminders from the damage done to human bodies—but are grappled with by the life that has necessarily gone on since. Color is used to poignant effect: a gloomy grayscale palette is splashed with gentle washes, then eventually blooms into rich color as Lepage integrates into life just outside the Zone (Lepage 2019, 132).

Color for beauty, for normalcy, for carrying on despite, occurs most noticeably in the faces of the local children. They are the crux of the book’s themes. These children are sick. They are also alive, and go to school, and play tag, and want to get their portraits drawn (Lepage 2019, 91; 122-123).

Roadside Picnic, and thus Stalker, both took root in the popular imagination for their detailing of a story startlingly similar to what happened in and around Chornobyl. They share imagery that’s profoundly similar: mysterious and dangerous zones sealed off from the public; “stalkers,” people who make trips into the zones as guides for others entering or thieves taking scraps from the alien objects deposited in the area; the Zone’s strange effects on the children of these stalkers. Roadside Picnic lives in the same realm of science fiction as Stanislav Lem’s Solaris, confronting the inscrutable face of the Other with dogged resolve and coming out the other end with nothing learned from the experience. Humanity runs toward the brick wall of the universe headfirst and gets a concussion to show for it, before getting back up to do it all over again.

Stalker in particular interests me for its visuals, which run opposite to its source material: this Other, unlike the book, is never actually seen, and barely discussed. The film’s three central characters—the Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor, the latter two being led by the former through the Zone to the Room at its center, a space said to grant a visitor to it their deepest desire—skirt around dangers we cannot see but are told are there that lurk in empty fields, running streams, and dripping industrial ruins. We can only imagine what might happen to people who don’t follow the roundabout paths laid out for the group by the Stalker, who is haunted by the Zone but can’t seem to leave it. Men wade through dark cesspools. They curl up to sleep and can’t seem to find it. We never do enter the Room (Tarkovsky 2017, 2:03:22).

I would say that I also read and watched these pieces of media in order to avoid re-treading thematic ground that had already been covered, but there’s really only so much you can do to make a completely unique examination of the disaster. Maybe that isn’t important, anyways. Fear features somewhere in most narratives about it. The kind of fear specific to narratives about Chornobyl is a specific one that comes from its ambiguity and omnipresence: you are sitting in a field on a nice summer day, and the breeze is blowing, and the sun is shining on your skin, and you need to be afraid to breathe the air here, and your granddaughter two hundred thousand years from now needs to be just as afraid as you are. I get nervous reading long-term nuclear waste storage warnings. The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.

Yevgeny Alexandrovich Brovkin’s story in Chernobyl Prayer is titled “A Monologue about a Lunar Landscape.” Brovkin’s narration, which is taken from a letter he wrote to Alexievich in response to a newspaper ad asking for personal experiences of the disaster, varies slightly between versions but is ultimately about what he witnessed in the immediate wake of April 26th (Euroradio 2016). He describes seeing books on radiation’s effects disappearing from library shelves, how the public was fed misinformation about their safety, and an incident in a taxi he experienced in which he and the driver watched birds falling out of the air mid-flight and crashing into the windshield. I was initially drawn to it for the last bit of the narrative, in which he describes seeing fields on the way to his home covered in white dolomite and subsequent story based on it, submitted to a magazine and likely rejected for reasons beyond a lack of literary merit. Out of all the images and narratives described in the book, his struck me as getting the closest to the horror of deep time: an accident so bad that it lives on for what might as well be forever, and there’s probably nothing we can do about it but live and do whatever we can to not fall into despair. In the Russian version (Alexievich 2007), Brovkin points out:

Событие до сих пор ещё вне культуры. Травма культуры. И единственный наш ответ – молчание. Закрываем глаза, как маленькие дети, и думаем: «Мы спрятались. Нас проминет.».

The event is still out of the bounds of the culture. Cultural trauma. And our only answer is silence. We close our eyes, like little children, and think: “We’re hidden. It’ll miss us.”

The fields are farmland now. Brovkin notes in his Euroradio (2016) interview, “people got used to it.” I also became really interested in that gradient of fear and how it peters out over time, moving from a fresh nightmare to something dim that you just have to deal with, so I decided to choose that as the subject of my comic.

Now that I had my subject material, I began the comic by translating the Russian version of the monologue, followed up by sketching out thumbnails. These are rough sketches of how you want each page to look like. I chose to intersperse imagery described in the comic with additional context Brovkin gave in the interview, and in the drawings themselves went for a more abstract look that plays heavily with positive and negative space to reference the monologue’s initial idea of the surface of the moon.

Because a sketchier look was what I was going for, I started the final pages immediately after finishing thumbnails. The final comic is done in strictly black and white, with each image taking up an entire page in order to enhance its sequential aspect. I’m very satisfied with the final product, and if I can get readers to come away with anything after reading it, I hope it’s an interest in reading Alexievich’s full book and experiencing the multitude of personal narratives of the Chornobyl disaster that it deals with.


  • Alexievich, Svetlana. 2007. Чернобыльская молитва: Хроника будущего* [Chernobyl Prayer: Chronicle of the Future]. Moscow: Vremya.
  • Euroradio. “Geroi ‘Chernobyl’skoi molitvy’: Chernobyl’ kak voina — uzhe ne tak u liudei bolit [Hero of Chernobyl Prayer: Chernobyl as war– people don’t hurt like that anymore]”. April 26, 2016. https://euroradio.fm/ru/geroy-chernobylskoy-molitvy-chernobyl-kak-voyna-uzhe-ne-tak-u-lyudey-bolit.
  • Lepage, Emmanuel. 2019. Springtime in Chernobyl. San Diego, California: IDW Publishing.
  • Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. 2012. Roadside Picnic. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
  • Tarkovsky, Andrei. 2017. Stalker. New York: The Criterion Collection.

Katya Little is a Growth and Structure of Cities major at Bryn Mawr College. She also draws pictures.

RUSSB220 Chornobyl, Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2023

Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.