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Chornobyl: the secret tragedy which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union

A man wears a respiration mask protecting from radiation particles after the Chornobyl catastrophe
Chornobyl: the secret tragedy which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union
Article by: Olena Makarenko
Edited by: Alya Shandra

Kyiv, a 10-y.o. old boy comes from school and says:
– Mom, a girl in my school told me that her parents said that a huge catastrophe happened and that it is dangerous for all of us.
– You should not believe in rumors, son.

It was the end of April 1986 right after the Chornobyl catastrophe happened. A few days later it turned out that the son’s words were not rumors, but the mother discovered this not from media. She used to work as a geologist and colleagues from another department who were measuring the radiation background told her that it rose a hundred times. A bit later the mom also found out that she is pregnant and together with thousands other women and children had to leave the city for the summer.

Why was such a disaster kept secret, endangering the lives of people in close proximity? Moreover, people living in Prypiat, the city built around the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, also discovered that there was a break-down at the plant much later. During the critical period, they stayed in the city as if nothing had happened.

Olha Kozachenko, born in Prypiat

Born in Prypiat, Olha Kozachenko was 8 months old when Chornobyl exploded. She describes how it was from the words of her mother who at that time was in maternity leave:

“People knew that something happened, but there were no official statements. So nobody did anything about it. That day [on the 26th of April], my mom felt ill and went to a doctor. However, she was told that all efforts are directed to the incident on the power plant and she has to try some home methods. Than she went to a first aid point were she was told the same. In the evening some workers started to come to peoples apartments and to give medicines with iodine which reduces radiation. Also people were told to close their windows. The official statement only in local media appeared on April 27: It said that everyone has to take their documents and things for three days of evacuation. Everything was organized. The buses, policemen. They told people to come at 2 p.m., but everyone left only at 4. We went out by ourselves to my grandmother. Others were telling that they were taken to some villages to other people’s homes and were told to live there.”

People were told that they were leaving Prypiat for three days, but left it forever

After that Prypiat residents had been given temporary apartments in other cities until Slavutych (the city where people working on the liquidation of the accident live) was built. The three days in which people were promised to be able to return to their homes never passed – Prypiat became an Exclusion Zone. Olha first saw they native city when she was an 8th grade school student. “There were excursions for Slavutych alumni. However, I came there early as there also were cemeteries and we used to come there for commemoration days,” says Olha.

When information about the tragedy started to appear, it stated that two explosions with an interval of a few seconds took place on the plant. First they led to a partial and then to a total collapse of the 4th reactor.

The explosions took place during an experiment on what would happen in the case of a power failure. The first one was caused by an emission of steam, and the reason of the second is still unclear. 30 years later, it became clear that the real reasons for the tragedy go deeper.

The explosion on the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant

Real reason of the tragedy lies in Soviet system, declassified KGB documents reveal

For the 30th anniversary of the tragedy, KGB documents dealing with the tragedy were declassified, in line with Ukraine’s recent decommunization efforts. Volodymyr Viatrovych, head of the Institute of National Memory Volodymyr Viatrovych published some of them on

The Soviet government, like any totalitarian regime, offered a person a contract: in exchange for your freedom, we guarantee you safety and that you need not take any responsibility.

The documents reveal that the problems on the station started long before the tragedy. In messages to the leadership of the Communist Party, the KGB informed about constant troubles with the construction of the power plant. However, the speed and not the quality was a priority for the Soviet Union whose objective was to “reach and exceed targets” in the planned economy and show off their power to the rest of the world. Ignoring the fact that shoddy materials were used in the construction process, equipment was stolen, and some supplies were substituted led to several problems in the work of the station.

The first incident happened in 1978, then a more serious problem occurred in in September 1982. There were also accidents in 1983 and 1984.

All of this did was hidden from the public. The explosion of 26 April 1986 was a tragic consequence of the rush and desire to impress the world with the presumed capabilities of the communist state. The behavior of the Soviet leadership just after the tragedy was even a more telling example of what the Soviet system was about.

When foreign newspapers and channels were already sounding alarms about the catastrophe, the Soviet leadership was drawing the curtain on it. To demonstrate that everything is fine, on May 1, the traditional march devoted to the Day of Workers was organized in Kyiv.

Kyiv, May 1, 1986

“Traditionally, the demonstration started at 10:00 AM. Everyone was  waiting, but Volodymyr Vasilyovych [Shcherbytsky, the leader of Ukrainian SSR] is not there. Suddenly a car arrives, he comes out of it black as a thundercloud… Later it turned out that the day before he talked with Gorbachev, who him: “If you do not conduct the demonstration, you can say goodbye to the Party.” Then people were saying that if Scherbytskyi would have had the courage and canceled the demonstration with his rule of thumb, he would have become a national hero… At that time no one could do such a thing! Especially a devoted communist,” said the wife of Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, Rada Scherbytska.

“I guarantee it: if the radiation cloud did not cross the borders of the USSR after the Chornobyl accident, the world would not have learned of the tragedy,” the newspaper Fakty quoted Ivan Plyushch, who used to be the Head of the Kyiv Regional Executive Committee, a member of the governmental commission on liquidation of consequences of the catastrophe.

The leader of the Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev first commented the tragedy only on May 14. In his statements he expressed his condolences to the victims and explained what is being done to fight the consequences of the tragedy, but his main message was about geopolitics. He accused Western powers, NATO, and the US in particular in deliberately spoiling the image of the Soviet Union:

Gorbachev first commented the tragedy almost 3 weeks after it happened

“They launched an unbridled anti-Soviet campaign … In general, we faced a real conglomeration of lies, the most shameless and toxic ones… Its organizers, of course, were not interested in true information about the accident or the fate of people in Chornobyl, Ukraine, Belarus and in any other place, any other country. They needed a pretext to discredit the Soviet Union and its foreign policy, to weaken the impact of Soviet proposals on ending nuclear testing, to eliminate nuclear weapons and at the same time mitigate the growing criticism of US behavior in the international arena, their militaristic course.

“Speaking frankly, certain Western politicians pursuing well-defined goals: to block the possible alignment of international relations, to sow new seeds of distrust and suspicion towards the socialist countries.”

This video by RFE/RL shows some examples of Soviet media coverage of Chornobyl:

Chornobyl marked the start of the end of the Soviet era

Volodymyr Viatrovych

Russia’s rhetoric has changed little since that time. The country still searches for enemies who causes its troubles and find it in USA and NATO. However, secrets from their own people and desire to conceal problems and present everything in the country in the brightest lights eventually played against the Soviet system.

Ukrainian historian Volodymyr Viatrovich is confident that the Chornobyl tragedy served as one of the main reasons of the collapse of the Soviet Union:

“The Soviet government, like any totalitarian regime, offered one a contract: in exchange for your freedom, we guarantee you safety and that you need not take any responsibility. Actually, it was this total lack of responsibility, imposed by the Soviet system, that was the main cause of the Chornobyl disaster. At that, people who publicly displayed their loyalty to the system had the opportunity to survive.

“However, the people most loyal to the government were affected by the consequences of the Chornobyl accident the most. They believed in the system, they did not believe rumors, did not take their children away from the radiation contamination zone, took part in the parade on May 1 … It has led to the loss of loyalty. People no longer trust the authorities.

“In addition, the loyalty of the people was based on the myth about the power and invincibility of the state. However, the accident showed that the state which claimed that it is able to win in a nuclear confrontation cannot cope with the peaceful atom, cannot cope with the consequences of man-made disaster. The paternalistic world view had to collapse. People were forced to save themselves.”

Edited by: Alya Shandra
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