Back in the USSR

Article excerpt

Twenty years ago, the most granthose political and social experiment of the twentieth century, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, came to an end. It was a slow and painful death; there was no Soviet 9/11, no sudden implosion of illusions amid smoke and rubble. When the Belavezha Accords, formally dissolving the Union, were signed in a primeval forest in Belarus on December 8, 1991, the gesture was merely symbolic, acknowledging what the Soviet leadership had known, though refused to believe, all along: that the country was fiscally and ideologically bankrupt, that after more than seventy years of building the bright future of Communism, there were only dilapidated factories and cities with bleak concrete apartment blocks, where nobody wanted to live.

If there was one defining event, however, that precipitated the disintegration of the Soviet Empire, it was the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, the effects of which can still be felt in most of Eastern Europe twenty-five years later. The brave efforts of environmental groups to puncture the official silence surrounding the disaster was what led, indirectly, to the birth of glasnost during Gorbachev's tenure and the collapse of the totalitarian containment vessel. There is no doubt that Chernobyl, for all its tragedy, freed millions of people and gave them the right to travel beyond the borders of the permissible.

Today, looking back at those events, it is hard not to feel a tinge of sadness. The dreams of a better world, liberated from the shackles of ideology, have come to naught. Liberal markets did not provide a solution to the problems of the Soviet Union, as greedy Communist Party officials and dodgy state -security agents simply privatized their official assets and power. Except for the Baltic countries - Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which recently joined the European Union and now enjoy a level of relative prosperity - the ex-Soviet republics, including Russia, have been mired in poverty and corruption, violent social conflicts, environmental degradation, and political repressions.

Indeed, if there is a mood that hangs over all the essays in this issue, it's the specter of that disenchantment. People who grew up in the Soviet era were raised on a diet of lies, and, even now, many struggle to divide old state-authored deceptions from genuine history. That past is clouded further by the haze of nostalgia and the natural human wish to salvage meaning from an era of repression and atrocities. Among the younger generation, many are still straining to find a voice that is more than opposition to the past - particularly because that past, as embodied by the Chernobyl era and its lies, is, increasingly, one they do not remember first-hand.

In April, Maria P. Vassileva and Maisie Crow traveled together to the northern Ukrainian town of Slavutych - a community erected to house the Chernobyl plant workers and their families evacuated from Pripyat. Vassileva and Crow arrived just days before the twenty-fifth anniversary of the disaster but found deep ambivalence about how to commemorate the date. Those who worked as "liquidators" - members of the clean-up crew that ventured into the fourth reactor - have a strong desire to be remembered and honored by the younger generation. Those who continue to work in the reopened plant, however, prefer not to think about the risks. For them, it is better to forget; only by forgetting do they have the courage to move on.

Indeed, for many Ukrainians, the memory of Chernobyl has grown into a paralyzing national terror of radiation. That fear, however, also led to the closure of nuclear facilities and gave rise to radiological storage complexes like the one visited by Steve Featherstone. The threat of these materials making their way onto the black market has fed the dark fears of the West, where the intelligence community worries about the prospect of a dirty bomb attack. But if loose nuclear material is most abundant in Ukraine, its citizens are also eager to cooperate with the efforts of the international community to dispose of these materials - in large part because Chernobyl, as Featherstone writes, "lingers in Ukraine's consciousness like a radioactive cloud, burning into the country's mind a regard for public safety that borders on paranoia. …