Chernobyl: Not The Only Soviet Meltdown of the Late 20th Century

Chernobyl Reactor No. 4 Before the Nuclear Meltdown (image via Pinterest)

On Friday afternoon, April 26, 1986, life in Pripyat Ukraine was wonderful. The newly founded city was flourishing with men, women, and children, all enjoying the modernism of the new nuclear city. It is estimated that at the time, there were roughly 50,000 people living and working in Pripyat, essentially all in support of the Chernobyl power plant. In the Soviet Union, nuclear power plants were seen as a pinnacle display of Soviet engineering, and were considered safer than other types of power plants at the time. This would all prove to be untrue just hours later.

Earlier that afternoon, operators at the Chernobyl power plant began a safety test on Reactor No. 4, to ensure that the plants cooling systems were still functional in the occurrence of a power outage. The test was soon put on hold, and set to begin later that evening. At around 1:23 a.m. on the morning of April 26, the test is given the green light to proceed. Almost immediately, “an unexpected power surge occurs, and an operator presses the emergency shutdown button, but the control rods jam as they enter the core” (History). Seconds later, a series of explosions blow the roof off of Reactor No. 4, as nuclear fires breakout everywhere around the reactor, and inside of it as well. Firefighters arrive on the scene within minutes and began battling the nuclear blaze, none wearing protective gear to combat the radiation (History).  By 6:00 a.m., almost all of the fires are extinguished other than that inside the reactor itself, but the disaster was far from over. An article from the Current Digest of the Soviet Press describing the cleanup process wrote, “in a number of places the grounds of the atomic power station’s industrial area look as if they were covered with pockmarks. Everything must be cleaned up. It’s an unbelievably complicated business” (Prokopchuk).

Reactor N0. 4 Shortly After the Explosion (image via Pinterest)

A day and a half later, evacuations began for over 100 thousand inhabitants of Pripyat and its surrounding communities. Many of the inhabitants were already sick, complaining of headaches and vomiting (Livescience). Residents were told that the evacuations were temporary, and thus many left their homes leaving everything behind, unknowing that they would never return. Many of these people would eventually die from cancers and other effects of the radiation, decades later.

A Recent Image of a Child’s Teddy Bear That Was Left Behind in a Pripyat Apartment During Evacuation (image via Frank Grace; Flickr)

The cleanup process began immediately and is still continuing to date. Many of the early responders knew they would die from the radiation, but bravely continued on. The process began by trying to limit the radiation seepage from the reactor, by dumping lead, sand, and other materials on the toxic waste. Eventually, a steel dome was placed over the entire reactor, designed to keep the radiation inside. Over time, this dome began to leak and rust, but in 2019, a new dome was placed over the original at a cost of over 2 billion euros.

Original Chernobyl Dome (image via Wikipedia)
New Chernobyl Dome (image via Washington Post)

For the Soviet Union, the Chernobyl meltdown was another catastrophe in a series of downward spiraling events leading up to the eventual dissolution of the USSR. Around the same time, the Soviet Army was facing another disaster in Afghanistan. Both events were quite costly for the Soviets international reputation, internal reputation, and economic well being. Between the two situations, billions and billions of rubles were lost, further damaging an already struggling economy, not to mention the thousands and thousands of lives lost as well. The accident also “fueled resentment in both Ukraine and Belorussia against the central authorities”, further threatening Soviet legitimacy (17 Moments). The events also enforced Gorbachev’s desires to end the nuclear arms race, as he stated, “We learned what nuclear war can be” (Freeze 457). Five  years later, the Soviet Union collapsed, its final meltdown.



Works Cited

Freeze, G. L. (2009). Russia: a history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Greenspan, J. (2019, April 15). Chernobyl Disaster: The Meltdown by the Minute. Retrieved from
Lallanilla, M. (2019, June 20). Chernobyl: Facts About the Nuclear Disaster. Retrieved from
Prokupchuk, S. (1986, May 25). Current Digest of the Soviet Press. Retrieved from
Siegelbaum, L. (2015, September 2). Meltdown in Chernobyl. Retrieved from






The Beginning of the End: The Battle of Stalingrad

Soviet Soldiers Advance on a German Position, February 1943

By early summer 1942, the Nazi war machine was firing on all cylinders. Most of mainland Eastern Europe was under the rule of Adolph Hitler. To the Germans, the undoing of the Treaty of Versailles was bittersweet, but the true Nazi interest was in the East. Hitler and the Nazis had two reasons for eastward expansion; “lebensraum”, or “living space” for ethnic Germans to grow and prosper, and to defeat the archenemy of fascism, communism and the Soviet Union.  Until now, the Nazi’s had faced little challenge in overcoming each of their conquests, but they had yet to face a beast like the Soviet Union.

Initially, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union started off on the right foot, as the Far Eastern states of Belarus, Latvia, and Ukraine fell without too much trouble for the advancing Germans. Originally, their target was the northern oil fields of the Caucuses, but Hitler made a last second decision to divert towards Stalingrad (Limbach, Britannica). Historians have debated the tactical significance of this move, but it is widely supported that its naming after Soviet leader Josef Stalin played a major part in Hitlers decision. Hitler believed that taking Stalingrad would diminish the morale of the Soviet people, but he underestimated the courage of which they would defend it.

On August 23, 1942, the Germans launched a Blitzkrieg attack on Stalingrad. While ground forces speared into the city at a blazing pace, the Luftwaffe rained ordinance from above. The first two months of the campaign proved a success, as the Soviets were pushed all the way to the Volga, but the harsh Russian winter slowed the advance. In late November, the Soviets launched a counterattack dubbed Operation Uranus to take back the city. The Soviets pushed and defeated the flanks guarded by the weak Romanian and Hungarian forces, thus encircling some 250,000  Nazis inside the city (Siegelbaum, 17 Moments). For the next two months, the Soviets sent patrol after patrol into the city, house by house, to rid the Germans, sometimes even without firearms. The tedious patrols were costly, but on February 2nd, 1943, the starving Nazis surrendered.

An Iconic Photo of the Town Center as Stalingrad Burns

Of the 400,000 original Germans  that began the attack on Stalingrad some six months earlier, only 110,000 remained. The Soviet losses were much greater. Over 750,000 Soviets were casualties of the battle of Stalingrad (Siegelbaum, 17 Moments). Including civilians, it is estimated that over 2 million people died in total from the 6 months of fighting. With that being said, the battle of Stalingrad was a major success not only for the Soviets, but for the entire Allied forces. The defeat at Stalingrad fatally crippled the Nazi war machine. Over the next two and a half years, the Soviets were able to consistently push the Germans back, until the Red Army marched the streets of Berlin.


Works Cited:

Dan, May. “Statue in the Center of Stalingrad after Nazi Air Strikes, 1942.” Rare Historical Photos, 14 Oct. 2017,
Limbach, Raymond. “Battle of Stalingrad.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 16 Jan. 2020,
Siegelbaum, Lewis. “The Nazi Tide Stops.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, 18 June 2017,


Labor Discipline “or lack thereof”

Soviet Anti-Alcohol Poster

In the early 1930’s, a massive influx of both skilled and unskilled workers, drove down the efficiency of the labor force. The industrial complex saw its production numbers in some cases cut in half. The projection of 100 billion kilowatts of electricity to be produced in 1937, saw only roughly 38 billion (Freeze, 358). As the international front was becoming increasingly hostile preceding the Second World War, Stalin became aware of the need to “tighten up” the labor force. At the time, the Soviet Union was especially  technologically inferior than most of West, and Stalin knew it was crucial to catch up before the onset of another war. The Soviet response was dubbed “labor discipline”.

Labor discipline referred to a variety of workplace attributes. Everything from showing up on time, to following instructions, to staying awake on the job, was considered labor discipline (Seigelbaum,  17 Moments). In essence, Soviet laborers had become lazy, unfocused, and obsessed with alcohol. According to Don Filtzer, this was due to a highly irregular pace of work. Workers would work inconsistent schedules of intense forced overtime followed by opportunities for slacking, leading to a lack of care for quality (Filtzer). If the Soviet Union was going to defend itself from its adversaries, something was going to have to change.

In 1938, the government introduced a series of decrees that would describe how the Soviets would enforce this new concept of labor discipline. Workers that were late by more than 20 minutes were to be fired immediately, and evicted from their housing. By 1940, a new decree made failure to show up for work, and voluntary quitting a criminal offense (Seigelbaum), most likely resulting in years of forced labor in a gulag.

In conclusion, labor discipline was an overall success. By the start of the Second World War, the Soviet defense industry was producing 230 tanks, 700 aircraft, and well over 100,000 rifles a month (Freeze, 372). Now, instead of being utterly inefficient, the Soviets were producing weapons at an unparalleled rate. I think its fair to say labor discipline directly benefit the success of the Soviets in defeating the Germans.


Works Cited:

Filtzer, Donald. “Labor Discipline and the Decline of the Soviet System – Don Filtzer.”,
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Seigelbaum, Lewis. “Labor Discipline.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, 28 Sept. 2015,



Camels in Imperial Russia?

Turkmen Man with Camel and Sacks of Cotton     Weird right? When I think of Imperial Russia, the last thing that comes to mind is the thought of camels. This image is estimated to have been taken in 1911, by Prokudin-Gorskii, just out side of the town of Bayramaly, in what is now Turkmenistan. I think a lot of people have a misunderstanding of the sheer size of the Russian Empire at the turn of the 20th century, and how it stretched all the way down into the Middle East.

Right away, it’s hard not to notice the hundreds, if not thousands of large burlap looking sacks in the background, identical to the two draped across the camel. These sacks were filled with cotton, harvested from the local Murgab estate, and awaiting transportation to a processing facility or other type of gin. As the empire rapidly expanded into the region, cotton quickly became a major Russian interest in the Middle East.

Similar to the situations in other areas of the Russian Empire, labor in the areas of cotton production was brutal. According to John Whitman, “Methods of cultivation were primitive to an extreme degree, as were processing techniques, and labor requirements were heavy” (190). Men were worked like animals, planting, harvesting, and processing the cotton. The cotton was then placed on camels like the one above, and transported to the rapidly growing system of railways that were beginning to arise, as the industrial revolution reached the empire. Whitman continues, “the fiber was packed in loose bales without the benefit of pressing, and [carried for sometimes up to months]”(193). Laborers like the man above, would then have to travel with the slow convoy of camels, although not every route was as extensive as some of the longer range ones, that could take months. Most, if not all of the cotton was transported back to Moscow.

The man in the photo has quite an interesting outfit. At first glance, I wasn’t sure if i was looking at a man in the Russian Empire, or at a London guard. The man is wearing a telpek, a traditional Turkmen hat made of long dark wool with a leather base, that could be easily folded and stowed away, without damaging its shape (World of Hat).

Here you can see a modern telpek being worn in Turkmenistan.

Because of its extreme climates, Turkmenistan can get very cold during the winter, and there is no doubt a telpek would most certainly keep the wearer quite warm.

In conclusion, this Prokudin-Gorskii image, indirectly includes several of the key course themes we have discussed thus far in class. It shows evidence of the hard labor endured by the working class, that eventually led to revolt. It also shows how the dynamics of the industrial revolution were reaching the empire, as cotton was mass produced and shipped via railway. Lastly, it demonstrates how not everyone living in the Russian Empire was ethnically Russian, as many races and religions were under control of the Tsar.


Whitman, J. (1956). Turkestan Cotton in Imperial Russia. American Slavic and East European Review, 15(2), 190-205. doi:10.2307/3000976