The Chernobyl Disaster exploded in the Soviet Union’s face in more ways than one. On April 26, 1986, radiator number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine experienced a power surge, then exploded. This explosion and subsequent fire released massive quantities of radioactive particles and dust into the atmosphere, which eventually spread throughout much of Europe and the USSR. The Kremlin stayed silent on the matter for a while, even though Sweden was able to detect “significant traces of radioactivity” (Siegelbaum) soon after the blast. Due to massive panic, thousands of people were evacuated from nearby towns, Pripyat in particular. “Thirty-eight people were killed instantly as a result of the accident, and it has been claimed–though not confirmed–that as many as 100,000 subsequently died or suffered severe harms to their health from radiation. Among them were workers–many of them volunteers–who were rushed to the scene to shut down the reactor and build a concrete sarcophagus around it. By the time Gorbachev went on television almost three weeks later to report on the accident, his credibility had suffered a severe blow” (Siegelbaum).
The effects of Chernobyl have been felt since 1986, and many are still felt now. Because of the amount of radioactive particles released into the air, the effects are widespread. Many people have died from cancers and deformities, and these problems are still being accounted for today. In addition to health problems, economic trouble undoubtedly followed. The clean-up and contamination procedures cost the USSR billions of rubles, with estimates soaring to the equivalent of $18 billion USD (Schonhardt). Also, “[t]he Chernobyl disaster marked a watershed in the government’s commitment to glasnost, which until then had been little more than a slogan. Not only did the government welcome international assistance in treating victims of the accident, but the media was unleashed and began to engage in investigative reports about environmental degradation and accidents elsewhere in the Soviet Union” (Siegelbaum).
As if the Soviet Union needed more drama, this disaster created even more hatred and resentment in Ukraine and Belorussia. “In Ukraine in particular, it added to an already acute sense of victimization derived from the famine of 1932-33 and brutal repression of Ukrainian nationalists after the Second World War” (Siegelbaum).
In another history class, I read Voices from Chernobyl, an oral history book by Svetlana Alexievich. The writer-translator interviewed a number of people who experienced the Chernobyl disaster in different ways–some were first responders, some were forced out of their homes, some chose to stay in their homes despite the risk of radiation. This is an excerpt from an interview with Zinaida Yevdokimovna Kovalenko, a re-settler, and the author-translator, entitled ‘Monologue About what can be Talked About with the Living and the Dead’: “I’ve been living alone for seven years, seven years since the people left. Sometimes at night I’ll just be sitting here thinking, thinking, until it’s lights out again. So on this day I was up all night, sitting on my bed, and then I went out to look at how the sun was. What should I tell you? Death is the fairest thing in the world. No one’s ever gotten out of it. The earth takes everyone—the kind, the cruel, the sinners…. The first time they told us we had radiation, we thought: it’s a sort of a sickness, and whoever gets it dies right away. No, they said, it’s this thing that lies on the ground, and gets into the ground, but you can’t see it. Animals might be able to see it and hear it, but people can’t. But that’s not true! I saw it. This cesium was lying in my yard, until it got wet with rain. It was an ink-black color. It was lying there and sort of dripping into pieces…. We’d always lived off our potatoes, and then suddenly—we’re not allowed to!” (Alexievich, 27-29).
First-person and primary sources are so important to remember when learning about history, especially something that happened so recently as the Chernobyl disaster. This event truly was catastrophic in many ways, and its harrowing effects are still felt today.
Alexievich, Svetlana. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of the Nuclear Disaster. Dalkey Archive Press 2005.
Schonhardt, Sara. “Costs beyond measure.” http://sschonhardt.com/2011/03/24/costs-beyond-measure/
Siegelbaum, Lewis. “Meltdown in Chernobyl.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. http://soviethistory.macalester.edu/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1985chernobyl&Year=1985&navi=byYear