The Half Life of Valery K
The Half Life of Valery K
There’s been a fair bit of magic realism in Natasha Pulley’s novels to date but the story she tells in her new book is strange enough not to need it. In 1963, in a Siberian gulag, former nuclear specialist Valery Kolkhanov has mastered what it takes to survive, keeping the guards onside and securing access to warm boots and cigarettes. When his university mentor appears to put him to work researching radiation in a mysterious town, he wonders what the radiation is doing there.
Tell us about the true story of the Mayak facility and Chelyabinsk-65, which you dubbed the Lighthouse and City-40, and why you were compelled to write about it.
An amazing amount of it isn’t made up! I first heard about City 40 through Serhii Plokhy’s book Chernobyl; he mentions it very briefly. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of a place that had had a Chernobyl-like nuclear disaster, but it really did happen. Late in the 1950s, a gigantic blast in what was probably a radioactive waste storage unit caused radiation sickness in people in the next city downwind. Because everything was so secret, and so covered up, it’s difficult to say anything else with a lot of certainty; but the accident was certainly vast, because the area is still contaminated today, and Igor Kurchatov, the director of the Soviet nuclear programme, disappears strangely from Moscow for about nine months around just this time. And then I realised that as far as I could tell, nobody else had written a book about this.
How much research did you have to do into the facility and nuclear science and how did you go about it?
A lot. It took me a long time to piece together what might have happened. If you glance over Wikipedia’s entry for what they call the Kyshtym disaster (Kyshtym is just the wider region) there are little “citation needed” markers next to anything that deals with actual quantities of radiation; and a lot of the articles about what happened are published a good 40 years after the fact. This is because, unlike Chernobyl, the accident was kept successfully quiet at the time. Of course people in the region knew something had gone really wrong, but how wrong and what the consequences would be were definitely not shouted across the newspapers. A great resource is Zhores Medvedev’s book about it. He’s the one who exposed the accident to the West, and he adds up a lot of suggestive data from archival journal articles and even declassified CIA documents, but again, many years after it happened. In order to even understand what those sources are talking about, I had to do a course in nuclear physics.
How did Soviet ideology shape the development of science in a nation that was quick to develop an atomic bomb and took part in the space race but lagged behind in many other areas?
There were lots of problems with science. One was that sometimes, a theory sounded ideologically great but was experimentally unsound – and was prioritised over the theories that were politically annoying but experimentally correct. The famous, horrible example is Trofim Lysenko, who didn’t believe that genes existed, and thought that seeds of the same “class” wouldn’t compete with each other to grow – even when you planted them far too close together. This is lovely Soviet ideology (people of the same class aren’t meant to compete either, so it made the unity of the working class look like a biological law) but the science is obviously wrong. But the ideology, to Stalin at least, was more important. Using Lysenko’s theories led, in part, to widespread famine and millions of deaths. This also held up study of the effects of radiation. If you’re not allowed to work on genetics – which Soviet scientists weren’t, while Lysenko was popular – how do you study radiation-related health problems?
The two main characters have a complex and multifaceted relationship throughout the book. Is that how you envisioned their relationship from the start or did it evolve as you were writing?
They just sort of arrived that way. Valery was just himself, and so was Shenkov. It’s the least I’ve ever had to work on character.
Valery, the protagonist, always goes straight to the worst-case scenario in whatever situation he finds himself in. What did this fatalistic device allow you to do in the book?
It’s a useful device because it can illustrate the stakes. If someone knows and fears the worst case scenario, it’s very clear just how bad the consequences of X, Y, or Z might be; if they don’t, it’s much harder to generate tension.
A big theme in the book is ignorance, which was prevalent in the Soviet era. Is Putin still relying on this to suppress opposition to his invasion of Ukraine?
Of course. On our news, we see tanks and slaughter and we hear about war crimes, but Russian state TV has been showing Russian soldiers being received with great relief and joy in Ukraine, and people are told that war crime allegations are fabricated. I think we all like to imagine that we can spot lies a long way off, but I think that would be very hard, if everything around me were dedicated to the same, very coherent lie. It means that if someone says, no, look at the BBC, look at Al Jazeera, Russia Today is clearly wrong, they look crazy. I think to a lot of Russians, that reads as it would to us if someone tried to say that the only person in the English-speaking world telling the truth is Joe Rogan. I trust the BBC because I trust its reputation – and there are plenty of Russians who trust their state TV for the same reason. This is of course much to Putin’s advantage, just as it was for Soviet leaders.
Does The Half Life of Valery K mark a change in direction for you as an author?
It does. I’ve never written anything with no magic in it before, but when you’re dealing with something as viscerally weird as radiation, you don’t need magic!