The Disaster at Chernobyl

This post earned a spot in the Comrade’s Corner!

Chernobyl, Ukraine was once home to four Soviet nuclear reactors. The key word here is “was.” In the early morning of April 26th, 1986 there was an explosion inside the fourth reactor that led to massive amounts of radiation being released into the atmosphere. To this day there is an “exclusion zone” in Chernobyl that is off limits to the public.

The explosion occurred due to both human error and design flaws. There was a power surge that ruptured a few pressure tubes which contained uranium dioxide fuel. When the tubes ruptured the hot fuel mixed with water and caused a steam explosion. This explosion lifted the 1,000-metric-ton (2,204,622lb) cover off the reactor which ruptured the remaining pressure tubes and caused a second explosion. After the second explosion the core of the reactor was exposed to the environment. [1]

Photographer: Claudia Himmelreich

For 10 days a fire burned at the site and it is estimated that up to 30 percent of the 190-metric-tons (4,188,781lbs) of uranium dioxide fuel was released into the atmosphere. 335,000 people had to be relocated from Chernobyl after the disaster. [1] Thirty-eight people died immediately in the explosion and it is believed that up to 100,000 people died from radiation exposure in the aftermath. [2] This does not include the number of deformities in children born after the disaster and the environmental mutations around the site.

Photographer: Claudia Himmelreich

Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union at the time, suffered severe consequences as a result of the disaster. His first problem was that he failed to address the nation until three weeks after the explosion. While his administration made comments about it within the following days they lacked details. [3] They downplayed the incident as well. On May 1st the Council of Ministers claimed that only two people had died and that the situation was being dealt with. They even blamed “certain Western press agencies” for making the incident out to be worse than it really was. [4] The poor reporting by the government “unleashed” the Soviet media’s investigative reporting. The press began not only reporting on the environmental consequences of the explosion but on other accidents within the Soviet Union as well. The disaster was also a huge economic toll on the Soviet Union between controlling the radiation and relocating the victims. Gorbachev had no choice but to welcome international help. Furthermore, it led the citizens of the Ukraine to resent the central authorities in Moscow. [2]

REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

In 2006 Gorbachev recalled the impact that the Chernobyl disaster had on the breakup of the Soviet Union. He said “the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.” With the unleashing of the press, the disaster proved to him that his policy of glasnost, freedom of expression, must be continued. He acknowledged that the disaster ended the arms race because he couldn’t pay for both a building up of arms and a clean up of Chernobyl. Furthermore, after seeing the impact of the disaster on human lives Gorbachev took a stand against anyone having nuclear arms. [5]

The Chernobyl disaster led to the press revealing all of the Soviet Unions flaws. It bankrupt the country as well which forced the Soviet Union to work with the international community. It also led to the smaller countries within the Soviet Union to resent the central powers. This all led to the events of 1991 which saw the collapse of the Soviet Union.

An End to Russia’s Stalin’ Economy?

During Nikita Khrushchev’s famous secret speech to Congress in 1956 he made several things very clear, the most significant of course being that Stalin was the root of all of the USSR’s problems. The main effort of his “de-Stalinization” policy was to essentially erase Stalin from the memory of the USSR by eradicating his name from things and tearing down any memorials to him. Besides absolutely wrecking Stalin’s image though, this speech also marked the beginning of more liberal government reforms. Just a few of many examples of this new liberalism includes less government control of intellectual circles and increased stress on productivity and consumerism. Differing to Stalin’s centralization Khrushchev wanted to decentralize the economy and give the power back to local powers.[1]

In order to end the stalling (Stalin’) economy by stressing productivity and consumerism the USSR had to be modernized. In an article titled “From Baikal to Omsk” it speaks of how there was a massive project to electrify the USSR’s railroads. 2,000km (1,242 miles) of railroad had been electrified in 1960 and plans were in place to electrify the 5,300km (3,293 miles) Moscow-Irkutsk trunk. This of course would increase train speeds, allow for easier transportation of goods, and create jobs. [2] Other aspects of USSR infrastructure needed to be modernized in order to help the broken economy. This led to many construction projects throughout the state that the younger population flocked to. The infrastructure upgrades would not only help production but they would also create jobs and money therefore helping consumerism. The Bratsk High Dam which led to the creation of many factories and employed thousands is just another example of better industry.[3] This was all part of Khrushchev’s Seven-Year Plan which “included his new priorities for a much larger chemical industry, more housing, substitution of oil and gas for coal in the production of electricity and for powering the railroads, and more emphasis on agriculture, especially in the eastern areas.” [4]

By Michael Fludkov – originally posted to Flickr as Bratsk hydropower station #3

The industry and infrastructure of the 1960s USSR is interesting because the seven year plan and other liberal policies had so much potential. It was a big contour of “de-Stalinization” to give the people more freedom, including economic freedom. While a great modernization took place it failed to deliver in the long run though. Possibly because so much money was spent elsewhere, such as on the Space Race.


By Sage Michael

Picture the scene.

The year is 1957. The world is still recovering from the most brutal war in history. Millions of people were killed and the whole of Europe was decimated both economically and militarily. We, the US, are now the leading western power charged with cleaning up the whole mess. But the USSR, who was once our ally, is expanding it’s backwards communist influence over developing countries in Eastern Europe. All while promoting an anti-western, anti-capitalist narrative. This has caused tensions to rise between the East and the West, and has led to a “Cold War.” We have elected to adopt a policy of containment to prevent the USSR from gaining any more strength and influence. Then, at 2:29 in the afternoon on October 4th 1957, you learn that the USSR has launched the first ever earth-orbiting artificial satellite.

This was what occurred that day. The USSR had launched Sputnik I, a device weighing 184lbs, from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan [1]. Overall, Sputnik was only the size of a beach ball, but it could circle the Earth once every hour and 36 minutes and travel at 18,000 miles per hour. It had an apogee (farthest point from Earth) of 584 miles and a perigee (nearest point from Earth) of 143 miles. It could be viewed with binoculars and it’s radio signal could be picked up by amateur radio operators [3]. The launch of Sputnik I marked the beginning of the “Space Race.”

The USSR began to develop their plans for Sputnik when in 1952 the International Council of Scientific Unions established July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958 as the International Geophysical Year (IGY) due to increased solar activity. In 1954, they called for artificial satellites to be launched during this time to map Earth’s surface, and the US complied. The US Naval Research Laboratory developed plans for a satellite called Vanguard in 1955 to be launched during the IGY. It was going to be small, with the ability to carry a payload of just 3.5lbs [2].

Imagine the fear when the monster 185lb Sputnik I was launched. Imagine the additional fear when just one month after the launch of Sputnik I, on November 3rd, 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik II, which weighed 1,120lbs and contained a dog named Laika [1]. This was all before the US even attempted to launch Vanguard, which ultimately failed in December 1957. The concern was that these USSR satellites could spy on the US and signaled that the USSR had ballistic missiles capable of launching nuclear warheads into Europe and parts of the US [2].

Laika before launch in 1957 (AP Photo/NASA)

The US worked hard to catch up with the Soviets by funding Vanguard and another project led by Wernher von Braun called the Explorer project. On January 31st, 1958 Explorer I was launched successfully and carried a scientific payload with it. And on October 1st, 1958 NASA was created to fight in the space race [2]. Also in 1958 the National Defense Education Act was passed to increase spending on higher education in the science, foreign languages, and the humanities [1].

The USSR has a lot of “firsts” when it comes to space exploration thanks to the booming Khrushchev economy which was the best in the post-Stalinist era [Freeze, pp. 423]. First man in space, first woman in space, first three men in space, first space walk, first spacecraft to impact the moon, first spacecraft to to orbit the moon, first spacecraft to impact Venus, and first spacecraft to land on the moon. Only when the Apollo 11 astronauts walked on the moon in July 1969 did the US claim a big “first” in the space race [3].

The Iron Curtain

The Iron Curtain

After World War II the USSR began “liberating” Eastern Europe from the evil capitalist ideology of the West. Unfortunately this “liberating” had less to do with setting people free than it did with executing those who didn’t submit to the communist ideology. The USSR began supporting communist uprisings and installing communist puppet governments from East Germany and Poland all the way down to Albania an Bulgaria. Stalin called this “Sovietizing.” Furthermore, there was a communist uprising in Greece, tension between the USSR and Turkey, and the USSR was backing Kurdish regimes in Iran. [Freeze, 398-403][2]

The West saw this as expansionist and revisionist and in 1946 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech to condemn the Soviet actions. [3]

The Iron Curtain speech was also an attempt to woo the United States. The US came out of WWII in better shape than it’s European allies. Our economy was stable, our military hadn’t been too badly depleted, and our infrastructure hadn’t been obliterated like Europe’s had. We also had superior weaponry such as the atomic bomb. [Freeze, 398-403][3]

Around the same time as the Iron Curtain speech George Kennan sent his 8,000 word “long telegram.” Kennan was very critical of Stalin and warned FDR about befriending him as he did during WWII. In his telegram Kennan informed Washington that the USSR saw no possible cooperation with the west. He spoke of the USSR’s expansionist nature and how the Soviets wanted to stop Western influence in developing countries. This fell in line with Stalin’s “Marxist Weltanschauung predisposition” which was his belief of inevitable war with the capitalist west. [Freeze, 398-403][4]

The end result of all this was the Cold War policy of containment and thereby NATO, the Truman Doctrine which noted US support of “free peoples”, the Marshall plan to help rebuild Europe, and the Warsaw Pact which was an alliance between the USSR and the now communist countries that bordered it. [5]


The development of the so-called Iron Curtain is one of the biggest events in modern history and it set the tone for US-Russia relations for decades to come. That’s why this is so interesting to me! The impact of the Iron Curtain can still be felt today! You can see some parallels between the Cold War and now. Russia has become expansionist again by invading Crimea, and then of course they “hacked” the 2016 US election.

The Red Army

After the 1917 Russian Revolution the Imperial Russian Army was disintegrated and the Soviet government was left without a strong defense. The solution was rolled out on January 15, 1918 when the Worker-Peasant Red Army was formed. This proved to also be an inadequate means of protection due to the lack of training and incompetence of the “toiling masses” that the army was composed of [1].

In comes Leon Trotsky, who was the People’s Commissar for the Army and Navy from 1918 to 1925. He came up with the idea of merging the workers and peasants with former officers of the Imperial Army. Though these officers weren’t necessarily Soviets, they were willing to help defend Russia. Trotsky also abandoned the concept of a volunteer army and instead imposed universal military training and the formation of a draft. By the end of 1919 the Red Army stood at 3 million highly trained men [1].

The Red Army defended the Soviet government against multiple “White” armies. These consisted of “Patriots, anti-communists, liberals, SR’s, peasant rebels (‘greens’), urban anarchists, and minorities.” They also defended the regime from outside forces including Great Britain, France, the United States, Japan, and Poland [Freeze]. Without the Red Army the Soviets would have been overthrown by one of these interfering forces. The Red Army also strengthened Soviet influence and led to the creation of a military-state.

The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905)

This post earned a spot in the Comrade’s Corner!

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 helped further along the revolution of 1905. It was just one of many factors that did, but the embarrassing result of the war did not sit well with the Russian people who so value their honor. It furthered their belief that the capitalist autocracy of Russia was no longer a good way to govern the country.

The Cause of War: In what was known as the “Triple Intervention,” Russia, Germany, and France had forbidden the victorious Japan from occupying any parts of Manchuria after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. In 1898, however, Russia entered an agreement with China which allowed them access to Port Arthur in southern Manchuria. Not only was this viewed as hypocritical, but due to their presence in the region Russia prevented Japan from staging a coup in nearby Korea. Russia also extended the Trans-Siberian Railroad through Manchuria from their seaport in Vladivostok to Port Arthur, thereby furthering their presence in Northeast China. Finally, Russia formed an alliance with China against Japan. Japan was pushed to the breaking point after Russia refused to withdraw troops from Manchuria in 1903. [1][2]

The Warpath: Japan launched a surprise attacked on Port Arthur on February 8, 1904, where the Russians were easily defeated. In March of 1904 Japan overtook the whole of Korea and by May they had moved into the Liaotung Peninsula. The Japanese Army kept pushing the Russians northward into Mukden, then Fu-hsien, and finally Liao-yang by the end of August 1904. In the meantime Port Arthur, located in the Liaotung Peninsula, had been cut off from Russian forces. On January 2, 1905 the Russian commander surrendered the Port without consulting any other officers, an act which provided the Japanese with ammunition and other needed supplies that were located at the base. Shortly thereafter, in the battle at Mukden in late February-early March of 1905, Japan won yet another battle and the Russians were forced to retreat further north. The final battle took place on May 27-29, 1905 in the Battle of Tsushima. In this naval battle at the Tsushima Strait the Japanese destroyed the entire Russian Baltic Fleet, which had sailed all the way from the Baltic Sea, and forced Russia to conceded the war. [1][2]

The Negotiations: The negotiations were held at Portsmouth, New Hampshire from August 9 to September 5, 1905 and was moderated by President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was requested to be the moderator by Japan, and he wanted the negotiations to leave both Japan and Russia as powers in Northeast China. The final peace agreement, or the Portsmouth Treaty, resulted in Japan gaining control of the Liaotung Peninsula (and therefore Port Arthur and the railway that connected it) as well as half of the Sakhalin Island, Russia was forced to evacuate southern Manchuria, and Japan was given control of Korea. [1][2]

Russo-japanese War, 1905 is a photograph by Granger

The 1905 Russian Revolution: The Russo-Japanese war that resulted in “national humiliation” only furthered the Russian peoples belief that Czar Nicholas II and his administration was incompetent. Dr. George Ernest Morrison, a correspondent to the London Times in 1905, summed up the result of the war well; He said “Russia has lost honor, prestige….They scored no victory. Japan won in the field by feats of arms; she won at sea by her seamanship and ability, and in peace she won the victory of surpassing magnanimity.” The epic failure just escalated the tensions that had been festering since the 1890s. Add it to the protests of the “Revolutionary Parties” and the economic issues and labor unrest caused by the Witte era, and you get the Russian Revolution of 1905. [Freeze, Ch. 8][4]

The Weapons Cabinet

This post earned a spot in the Comrade’s Corner!

Photographer: Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

Founded in 1754, Zlatoust became “a center of finished metal production, including armaments.” Metal work was so important in the town that in 1825 Pavel Petrovich Anosov built a weaponry museum dedicated to the armaments made in Zlatoust. Anosov was also the director of the “thriving” factory in Zlatoust from 1831 to 1847. Years later in the early 1900s, during his travels across the Ural Mountains, Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii came across Zlatoust and took this picture of a “hill” of sabers and daggers located in the museum. [1]

Weaponry wasn’t just important to Zlatoust, it was important to all of Imperial Russia. The mid-18th century and 19th century was a time of great expansion and conflict. Russia was involved in the Seven Years War from 1755 to 1762, a series of Russo-Turkish wars, and the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s. [Freeze, 134,174-177]

Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great, was in power for much of the Seven Years War, during the years of 1741 to 1761. Russia fought alongside Austria in their war against Prussia and its King, Frederick II (the Great). Russia was interested in East Prussia, and they moved to conquer the territory in 1757. The Russians had their victory on August 26, 1758 at the Battle of Zorndorf, where 18,000 Russian troops died. A year later on August 12, 1759 the Russians defeated Frederick’s men again in the Battle of Kunersdorf. The Russians kept marching all the way to Berlin, while Austria advanced on Saxony and Silesia. The seeming end to the Kingdom of Prussia was never realized though because in 1761 Tsarina Elizabeth died, and her predecessor Peter III called the Russian troops home . The war was a lost cause without Russia, and a peace treaty was signed between Prussia and Austria in 1763 that forced pre-war conditions to remain. [2][Freeze, 134-135]

Shortly after the Seven Years War Russian desire for a warm water port renewed hostilities between them and the Ottoman Empire in the South. Russia was particularly interested in the Black Sea. Peter’s reign didn’t last longer than a year, and his predecessor Catherine the Great (1762-1796) was so enthralled at the idea of southern expansion that she wanted to make Constantinople her capitol. This led to the first major Russo-Turkish War when Turkey declared war against Russia. No help came from its European allies though, and Turkey was easily defeated and forced to sign a peace treaty in the village of Kuchuk Kainarji on July 10, 1774. With the victory came access to the Black Sea. This in turn led to the creation a Russian war fleet in the Black Sea which increased Russian military power and ultimately led to the annexation of Crimea in 1783. Further war from 1787 to 1792 led to Russia gaining the entire western Ukrainian Black Sea Coast with the signing of the Treaty of Jassy on January 9, 1792. The battles between Russia and the Ottoman Empire continued into the 19th century. [3][Freeze, 135-136]

  • 1811-12: Russia annexed Bessarabia in the Treaty of Bucharest (May 28, 1812)
  • 1828-29: Russia annexed Georgia, parts of Armenia, and the eastern shore of the Black Sea in the Treaty of Edirne (September 14, 1829)
  • 1853-56: Crimean War; no territory was gained due to European allies coming to Turkey’s aid and the war was ended with the Treaty of Paris (March 30, 1856)

In the last Russo-Turkish war, from 1877-1878, Russia aided Bosnia and Herzegovina to expel their Turkish rulers. During this time, from July 20, 1877 to December 10, 1877, major battles in the town of Pleven, Bulgaria took place; these events are later referred to as the Siege of Plevna. In Pleven the Russians were fended off three times by the Turks, but the fourth attack on December 10th succeeded and the Turks were defeated. With battles won also in Turkey the Turks were forced to sign the Treaty of San Stefano (March 3, 1878), effectively ending the war. This treaty also “freed Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro from Turkish rule, gave autonomy Bosnia and Herzegovina, and created a huge autonomous Bulgaria under Russian protection.” Russia’s “military gains from the war were severely restricted” by Europe though with the signing of the Treaty of Berlin. [3][4][Freeze, 135-136]

The final major war, or set of wars, to mention during the peak of Zlatoust was the Napoleonic Wars which occurred from 1803 to 1815. Tzar Alexander I attempted to ease tensions between Napoleonic France and Europe, but when Napoleon executed he Duke of Enghien Russia went to war. Alexander formed an alliance with Austria and Prussia, refused to comply to an embargo on Great Britain that Napoleon had declared called the Continental System, heavily taxed French items, and refused to let Napoleon marry his sister. The war didn’t go well for Russia and they were defeated in 1805 at Austerlitz, in modern day Czechia, and then again in 1806 in Friedland, in East Prussia. Many other defeats led to Alexander conceding the war in 1806 at Tilsit, Poland where he agreed to adhere to the Continental System and recognize the independent state of Poland called the Duchy of Warsaw. [5][Freeze, 174-175]

For a few years Russia laid low, but secretly traded with Britain. Napoleon discovered the treachery in 1808. Then he “annexed the German territories on the Baltic” and a fief of the Tzars brother-in-law. Tensions rose and a military build-up on both ends began. Then on June 24, 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia. [5]

Mr. Yankey’s World History Class, Owasso Mid High School, 8800 N 129th East Ave, Owasso, OK 74055

Between 450,000 and 650,00 men in Napoleons “Grand Army” crossed into Russia to fight only 200,000 Russians. The Grand Army won the battle but Mother Nature took her course. The harsh weather killed the Grand Army’s horses and made food hard to find. The Army still marched and the Russians lost city by city. Then the weather struck again, with the July heat causing massive illness among the ranks. September 7th, 1812 at the Battle of Borodino, just 75 miles from Moscow, casualties ran high on both sides. The Russians withdrew, burning the city as they left, and Moscow was Napoleons for the taking, and he did take it, and pillaged it. What was left of it at least. It was abandoned and burned down as well before his army had arrived, and Alexander never conceded as was expected. Napoleon was forced to leave in October after realizing they wouldn’t survive the Moscow winter. Most of the Grand Army never made it out of Russia, dying on their way out due to exposure to the weather. What was left of the now not so Grand Army was defeated the following year in the Battle of Leipzig, or Battle of the Nations, in Germany and Poland. [5][6][Freeze, 176-177]

“Charles XII tried it, Napoleon tried it, Hitler tried it…it never seems to work out invading Russia.” – Unknown