Shortlist author interview with Serhii Plokhy
What does it feel like to be shortlisted?
The news came as a complete surprise. Originally I was a little bit confused about the name of the prize, and it took me some time to figure out that the Baillie Gifford Prize was the new incarnation of the Samuel Johnson Prize, the names of the people on the shortlist ended all confusions—I was among the best of the best. I am very excited. Still am. Maybe even more than before.
What inspired you to write this book?
I lived through Chernobyl, my classmates, friends, relatives, and even my students were all in one way or another affected either by the event itself or by its ecological, political and social fallout. So I was always interested in the topic. I realized that I can say something important about the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe when I took a tour to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone with a very good tour guide. There was however one problem. My guide was born after Chernobyl and was missing the context, and context, as one of my colleagues used to say is everything for a work of history, even if it is the history of our times.
How did you research?
As a historian I am more comfortable working with the written word than with the spoken one, but in this particular case I relied on both. The written word came from the recently opened KGB archives. The Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity played an important role in making the formerly secret files accessible. What a trove of information it has been! The KGB monitored the nuclear industry quite closely, reporting on the accident all the way to Kremlin, but working even harder on hiding that information from the people. It is the voices of the rank and file participants of the events, the perpetrators, heroes and victims that I tried to recreate in the book by putting together the archival materials collected by me and the interviews collected by others.
How much responsibility do you think Gorbachev bore for the tragedy?
Gorbachev had high hopes for the nuclear industry. When he became the supreme leader of the Soviet Union one year before the Chernobyl accident, he tasked the nuclear industry with doubling the number of new reactors to be launched in the next five years. He was going nuclear, so to speak, to revitalize the dying Soviet economy. The Chernobyl disaster helped to kill it. It took him a while to admit what had happened and even longer to realize that he had no choice but to tell at least some form of truth to his own people. He never told the whole truth, being afraid of panic and of losing face on the international arena, but Chernobyl changed him as well and launched a policy of glasnost that very much defined his presidency.
What is your favorite non-fiction book and why?
I will probably not surprise anyone and certainly will not be too original if I say that I have been truly impressed by Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. I think I know what went into the book, how it was made, what the key components of the narrative are and where the stitches bringing it all together can be found, but at the end of the day I can’t explain the magic that the reading of that book produces on the reader, even the most critical and sceptical one, like myself.
What are you working on next?
I have a number of projects going on at the same time, competing with each other, but the most advanced one is on the history of the American airbases in the Soviet Union in 1944-1945. They were used for shuttle bombing of the German-held territory by the US bombers taking off from the airfields of UK and Italy. Stalin allowed the bases to appease the allies before the D-Day, but after the Normandy landing his secret police did its best to spy on, and harass the unwelcome guests. The story is more or less known from the American sources, but now we have more than a dozen volumes of surveillance repots by SMERSH, Stalin’s military counterintelligence. They present a very different picture of the allegedly well-known story of the collapse of the Grand Alliance. It is amazing what you can find these days in the former Soviet archives and how relevant it is for today’s fears, hopes and concerns.