The events of April 26, 1986 raised serious questions not only about nuclear safety and the dangers of nuclear power but also about the state of the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev. Following the devastating explosion of the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl atomic power station, the whole world got a taste of the downside of the eras’ nuclear advancements and the USSR’s attempt at downplaying the situation. Despite the obvious threat posed to anyone in the vicinity or downwind of Chernobyl, the Soviet Union leaders opted to remain silent about the situation and failed to warn the public and the world about the extent of the issue rather than take the blame as a responsible country should. In fact, it was not until surrounding countries like Ukraine, and even Sweden, began to register significant radioactivity levels that the USSR said anything of substance about the accident. But even at this point the Soviet Union opted to shift the blame and draw the public’s attention away from the event.
It was not until May 14th that Gorbachev finally addressed the situation in a television speech; however, it was hardly an accurate depiction of the incident. Gorbachev gave a brief synopsis of the events of April 26th and then he began to shift the focus of his address to everything from western exaggeration and misrepresentation of Chernobyl to the great response of the Soviet people to come to the aide of the nation. It was as blatant an effort at drawing attention away from a potentially serious political disaster as one can hope to find. After his quick overview in which the situation at Chernobyl was said to be completely under control, Gorbachev tried to put a positive spin on the event and talked about the wonderful humanitarian efforts by the Soviet people in the wake of the disaster. He summed this up by saying, “These manifestations of humane concern, genuine humanism and high moral standards cannot but move every one of us.” From this point onward Gorbachev shifted his emphasis to the over exaggeration of the scenario by the West, namely the US, and argued that all of the media surrounding Chernobyl was just “an unbridled anti-Soviet campaign”, an attempt “to blacken the Soviet Union and its foreign policy”, and a means by which “several Western politicians are pursuing clearly defined goals: closing off any opportunity to smooth the course of international relations and sowing new seeds of distrust and suspicion towards the socialist countries.” Then after dismissing the claims of those other countries in regards to the accident, Gorbachev began to attack those countries and shift the blame towards them. He blamed the world leaders of using Chernobyl as an excuse to ignore the real issues of the world when he said,
“The same thing was clearly in evidence at the recent meeting in Tokyo of the leaders of “the Seven.” What did they tell the world, what dangers did they warn mankind about? About Libya, which – without evidence – they accused of terrorism and the fact that the Soviet Union had apparently given then “insufficient” information on the Chernobyl accident. Not a word about the real issue: how to end the arms race and rid the world of the nuclear threat. Not a word in reply to the Soviet initiatives, our specific proposals to halt nuclear testing, free mankind from nuclear and chemical weapons, and cut down on conventional armaments.”
Finally he cited other incidents such as Three Mile Island and even Hiroshima in what seemed to be an attempt to move the focus away from the Soviet Union and back to the West’s past nuclear debacles.
Following Gorbachev’s address, another article was published in June that continued to downplay the events at Chernobyl entitled “A Common Misfortune, A Common Hope.” Just the title of this article suggests that what happened at Chernobyl was no worse than any other disaster by dubbing it a “common misfortune” and then it mentions that there is hope that goes along with the tragedy. The article is a Q and A piece about the safety of atomic energy that discusses the safety of nuclear power plants and paints the Chernobyl incident as an accident that was prevented from being as bad as it could have been by the safety measures that were in place. It is astounding that despite the evidence the world had slowly been obtaining since April 26th, the Soviet Union continued to ignore the facts.
In the years after this speech it became very clear that this was indeed an attempt to cover up the real extent of the meltdown and that many people were put in danger due to these efforts. As the economic and political fallout of Chernobyl began to take its toll, it became impossible to continue the cover-up. The disaster cost the government billions in damages and also hurt the image of the Soviet leadership. Additionally, the effects on Ukraine reignited the bitterness that had developed from the famine of 1932-33 and the repression of their nationalist movement after WWII. Following the embarrassment of the uncovering of the cover-up, Gorbachev pushed the idea of glasnost, or openness, however this only encouraged more questioning of the government which unearthed even more issues. All of this eventually led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union just five years after Chernobyl and it is difficult to ignore the fact that Chernobyl was the last straw for the USSR.
Siegalbaum, Lewis. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, “Meltdown in Chernobyl.” Last modified 2013. Accessed December 8, 2013. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1985chernobyl&Year=1985&navi=byYear.
Mikhail Gorbachev, Address on Soviet television. May 14, 1986 Source: United Nations and Chernobyl. 2002. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=article&ArticleID=1985chernobyltv1&SubjectID=1985chernobyl&Year=1985
Current Digest of the Russian Press, The (formerly The Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press), No. 32, Vol.38, September 10, 1986, page(s): 12-13 http://dlib.eastview.com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu:8080/searchresults/article.jsp?art=0&id=19991288
While the Chernobyl disaster pushed glasnost’ into a much higher gear, your post shows how limited and ineffective the official response to the disaster was. Nicely done.
Good post. It is a shame that the world had to face this tragedy, but it’s interesting to see some good come out of it. As you said it kicked off glasnost into a higher and helped the Russian world improve itself, until the Soviet Union eventually collapsed, as you said, partially due to this event.
I really enjoyed your post. It shows how glasnost’ was not always put in place. However, the fact that people called Gorbachev into question shows that the Soviet Union was starting to fail.