Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Chernobyl and Its Political Fallout: A Reassessment

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Chernobyl and Its Political Fallout: A Reassessment

Article excerpt

Two technological disasters stunned the world in 1986. On January 28, the U.S. Challenger spacecraft blew up minutes after launch as the nation watched in horror. Three months later on April 26, a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power plant in Soviet Ukraine exploded, spewing radiation across Belorussia, Poland, the Baltic states, and northern Europe.

Responding to the Challenger catastrophe, President Reagan cancelled plans for the State of the Union speech that had been scheduled for the same night of the explosion. Within hours, he addressed the nation on television with a message of condolence and determination that U.S. space exploration would continue. In the Soviet Union, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, who for months had been preaching openness in his nation's affairs, lapsed into an eighteen-day silence before addressing the nation about the Chernobyl disaster.

What accounts for this silence from the father of glasnost'? Was fear of creating a panic the main factor that restrained the Soviet leadership and Gorbachev, or were there other considerations? Was the machinery of government so ineffectual that it could not act and needed to cover up this failure? Within governmental circles, was the flow of information adequate? In the end, did the Chernobyl catastrophe bolster or hinder glasnost'?

Insights into these questions may be gleaned from declassified Politburo documents, (1) memoirs of key participants, and a plethora of books on Gorbachev's glasnost' and perestroika. The glasnost' literature can be conveniently divided into two groups: works that deal with the challenge that Chernobyl posed to Gorbachev's new openness policies and those that examine what went wrong technologically.

Dr. Joseph Gibbs, a journalist and associate of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University, assesses Soviet transparency in his volume Gorbachev's Glasnost': The Soviet Media in the First Phase of Perestroika. (2) Gibbs draws on memoirs and interviews he conducted with former Soviet editors. He devotes a section to the handling of the Chernobyl crisis. Unfortunately, he has not studied the Politburo documents on Chernobyl, which were declassified in 1994 in connection with the trial of the Communist Party.

In The Gorbachev Factor, (3) Professor Archie Brown paints a thorough picture of Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power and his thinking as secretary general of the Soviet Communist Party. This well-known British scholar makes use of memoir material available in the mid-1990s, as well as transcripts of interviews with major actors in the Chernobyl crisis. Although he gives a critical account of glasnost', he does not delve into the handling of Chernobyl in as much detail as Gibbs.

A very valuable source is the television series The Second Russian Revolution: The Battle for Glasnost', produced for the BBC, the Discovery Channel, and NHK by Brian Lapping Associates. Angus Roxburgh, a former University of Glasgow scholar on Soviet subjects, conducted interviews with key players such as Gorbachev, Yakovlev, Dolgikh, and Ryzhkov for the series. The unedited transcripts, which contain useful comments (not all of which were used in the TV series), are held in the "2RR" Collection of the archives of the London School of Economics. The TV series inspired Rosburgh's book The Second Russian Revolution: The Struggle for Power in the Kremlin. (5)

Dr. Yevgeny Velikhov, a top nuclear scientist who participated in the clean-up operations, submitted to an interview for Stephen Cohen and Katrina vander Heuvel's volume Voices of Glasnost: Interviews with Gorbachev's Reformers. (6) However, his views in "Chernobyl Remains on Our Minds" are disappointingly uninformative on the Kremlin's reaction.

Several books written in the early years of glasnost' give a good description of the limits of the new transparency, but provide only modest insight into the Chernobyl catastrophe. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.