TCUP Book Club Reads Kate Brown's Manual for Survival

May 10, 2020
KateBrown Chernobyl

tcup book club logoHURI's Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program will hold its second month-long, interactive book club in June. Readers can participate on Twitter and in a series of virtual meetings.

Using the hashtag #TCUPreadsKateBrown on Twitter, the club will read MIT professor Kate Brown's Manual for Survival: An Environmental History of the Chernobyl Disaster (note: the hardcover version is under the title Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future). The book is also available in e-book and audiobook formats. It examines the nuclear explosion and its aftermath, including cover-up, medical discoveries, and ecological impact.

Register for Book Club

Like the first TCUP Book Club, which read Paul D'Anieri's Ukraine and Russia, TCUP Director Emily Channell-Justice will facilitate discussion on Twitter and offer weekly round-ups and discussion prompts by email.

Readers who don't have Twitter accounts can still see the discussion using the hashtag and are invited to email Dr. Channell-Justice ( with their questions, comments, and responses.

Throughout the month of June, we'll organize weekly mini-sessions on Zoom for club members to talk with each other about the book and, when possible, listen to 15-minute talks from experts approaching the topic in different ways. The club will culminate in a live event, which most likely will be held on Zoom or YouTube in early July (details to come as the summer situation becomes clearer).

To receive Book Club emails, register here.

KateBrown ChernobylTo keep the conversation focused, we are suggesting the following reading schedule:

  • June 1-6: Introduction & Parts I & II
    Human contact with radiation - first responders, liquidation, and people left behind
  • June 7-13: Parts III & IV
    Ecology and politics
  • June 14-20: Part V
    Medical discoveries
  • June 21-27: Part VI
    Chernobyl internationally
  • June 28-July 3: Part VII & Conclusion
    Carrying on in the Zone - "survival artists"

Book Description

After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, international aid organizations sought to help the victims but were stymied by post-Soviet political roadblocks. Efforts to gain access to the site of catastrophic radiation damage were denied, and the residents of Chernobyl were given no answers as their lives hung in the balance. Drawing on a decade of archival research and on-the-ground interviews in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, Kate Brown unveils the full breadth of the devastation and the whitewash that followed. Her findings make clear the irreversible impact of man-made radioactivity on every living thing; and hauntingly, they force us to confront the untold legacy of decades of weapons-testing and other catastrophic nuclear incidents.


Finalist for the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction
Shortlisted for the Pushkin House Prize

“A magisterial blend of historical research, investigative journalism and poetic reportage…. an awe-inspiring journey.”

“In this explosive, exquisitely researched account, Brown draws on four years of fieldwork in Soviet and other archives―27 total, some previously unvisited―and in towns and farms in contaminated territories to provide a powerful story of the devastating health and environmental effects of radioactive fallout in areas outside the 30-kilometer Chernobyl Exclusion Zone… This sobering book should be read―and studied―by policymakers and citizens”
Kirkus (starred review)

“Kate Brown introduces new archival material to document the public-health crisis ― creating a handbook for a 'postnuclear reality'…. Brown’s page-turner skillfully weaves an original narrative on the long-term medical effects of the Chernobyl disaster.”

“With bountiful, devastating detail, Brown describes how doctors, scientists, and journalists―mainly in Ukraine and Belarus―went to great lengths and took substantial risks to collect information…. One of the most alarming―though also eerily beautiful―aspects of Brown’s book is her description of the way radioactive material moves through organisms, ecosystems, and human society…. Manual for Survival asks a larger question about how humans will coexist with the ever-increasing quantities of toxins and pollutants that we introduce into our air, water, and soil. Brown’s careful mapping of the path isotopes take is highly relevant.”
- Sophie Pinkham, New York Review of Books

“Brown’s in-depth research and clean, concise writing illuminate the reality behind decades of ‘half-truths and bald-faced lies.’ Readers will be fascinated by this provocative history of a deadly accident and its consequences”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A remarkable book, distinguished by formidable archival history, investigative research, and vivid storytelling. Parts of it grip with the force of a thriller―but again and again, the plot is proved true. A decade’s work has gone into uncovering the real human cost of Chernobyl. Yet this is a book about even bigger subjects than the disaster at its core: about how politics processes disaster, about the unseen legacies of the ‘friendly atom,’ and about the Anthropocene futures faced by the human species, surviving in an epoch of ruin.”
- Robert Macfarlane, author of The Old Ways

“Kate Brown presents a convincing challenge to the official narrative of the Chernobyl disaster. Deeply reported and elegantly written, Manual for Survival is chilling.”
- Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Sixth Extinction

“Combining the skills of a historian, investigative reporter, and detective, Kate Brown has blown the lid off the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and decades of official efforts to suppress its grim truths. Disturbing in its conclusions, destined to incite controversy, Manual for Survival is first-rate historical sleuthing.”
- J. R. McNeill, coauthor of The Great Acceleration

“Gripping…Kate Brown’s relentless, tenacious reporting shows that Chernobyl isn’t the past at all. Nothing, she makes clear, can stop its radiation from seeping through all attempts to bury the truth for a long time to come. This deftly written, impassioned, courageous book should make the world think twice about what’s at stake when we unleash nuclear reactions.”
- Alan Weisman, author, The World Without Us and Countdown

“[A] humane and strange book about the irreversible things a technological disaster does to people and landscapes.”
- Owen Hatherley, New Statesman

About the Author

Kate Brown is an award-winning historian of environmental and nuclear history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her previous book, Plutopia, won seven academic prizes. She splits her time between Washington, D.C., and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

See also: TCUP