When the Chornobyl nuclear accident took place in 1986, the behavior of the Soviet powers that be was to remain silent, understate the nature of the problem or lie about it and the reaction of the population of the USSR was to fear the worst because they knew they weren’t being told the truth.
Mikhail Gorbachev who initially behaved just as all other Soviet leaders did was able to use this accident to promote his program of glasnost and thus prevent Chornobyl from undermining his position, although in the end, the glasnost he opened as a result of that tragedy cost him his job and his country.
Now, Russia has suffered a deadly nuclear accident at the Severodvinsk naval facility, and both Russian officials and the Russian population have responded almost to the letter the same way their Soviet predecessors did. Officials have remained silent, understated the seriousness of the problem or outright lied about it.
And the Russian people who know they aren’t being told the truth by their own leaders – they are getting it only from foreign sources — are once again fearing the worst, with some talking about Armageddon and others rushing to take iodine in the mistaken belief that it will provide complete protection against exposure to radiation.
But there is little evidence that Putin wants to use this tragedy as the occasion for changing either the way in which he and his officials respond to anything the authorities don’t want talked about or the ability of domestic Russian media to cover what is going on openly and honestly, including challenging the duplicities of Russian officials.
Instead, there is something more ominous, the suggestion by close observers of the scene that Putin himself bears direct responsibility for the tragedy, something that will make it even more difficult for the Kremlin leader to change direction but that could lead to an explosion of popular anger against him and his neo-Soviet dishonesty.
In a commentary for Deutsche Welle, Russian political analyst Ivan Preobrazhensky puts it bluntly: “The main person responsible for what has happened in Arkhangelsk Oblast,” he says, “is Russian President Vladimir Putin.”
“More than once,” the commentator continues, Putin “has given to understand that the development of new arms in the country is taking place under his personal control. And since 2018, he has demonstrated his personal involvement in this sector more than once.” Given Soviet-Russian psychology, those working in this area will do anything to please him.
They will work extra hard, ensure that any successes are reported upward, and do whatever is necessary to make sure that any problems are covered up lest they reflect badly on “the leader of the nation.” That is what has happened in this case as so often in the past, Preobrazhensky says.
But there is a deeper link between this disaster and Vladimir Putin. He and no one else is responsible to exacerbating tensions with the West and demanding new super weapons to defeat it in a nuclear war the Kremlin leader has more than once implied that he is prepared to fight and win.
That too will add to what the Russian commentator says is already “an explosion of disbelief.” Preobrazhensky says that he “doesn’t know what will be the consequences of the failure of this test for Russia’s defense capabilities. No one, I think, knows that or what will be the impact of this on the health of people in the zone of the accident” or farther away.
“On the other hand,” he argues, “one can say precisely that what has taken place is a real media ‘Chornobyl.’ This is the diagnosis of the Russian authorities who have been no more willing to speak the truth to their fellow citizens than were the rulers of the USSR before its disintegration.”
Just like the Soviet citizens then, Russian citizens now “no longer believe their leaders; and this will without fail have consequences,” perhaps even more serious and direct for Putin than the 1986 accident had on Gorbachev.
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