by Yashvardhan Sharma
Q) How did this incident impact the cold war on the politics of USSR and the ongoing cold war?
Gorbachev’s first response to the accident was that it justified his policy of removing nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. He responded quite angrily at the reports of the US media which were highly exaggerated. I mean, it was not until it the end of April that the West got any report about an incident that was serious. Gorbachev never came on television until 14 May, nearly three weeks later.
Firstly, the Soviet Union refused all offers of aid from Germany, France, and the United States and tried to seal off the accident as if it was an internal matter and nothing serious. Once the radiations started spreading around the world, and the Swedes alerted about something coming from the Soviet Union. It was then due to the policy of Glasnost that the news took off, otherwise, it could not have spread this way.
I mean, you’ve got to give Gorbachev some credit, he allowed for the news to be reported, and liberalized the press to an extent. The anti-nuclear movement developed with Glasnost in the Soviet Union. So, every place where there was a nuclear plant, there were agitations and protests to get rid of it. Due to the anti-nuclear movements and glasnosts, the various republics in USSR started asserting their identity and seek some sort of Autonomy from Moscow. The ministry of nuclear weapons was based out of Moscow, and all decisions about matters relating to Chernobyl while states like Ukraine and Belarus had no say in it. This was resented more and more, especially when they got to know that the Soviet Union had not been honest to them about the effects of the accident.
I think that the big turning point was when in the spring of 1989, the newspapers published maps of the radiations and that it had spread all across Ukraine and Belarus whereas before, only the 30km radius around Chernobyl had been evacuated. So, the evacuations and the demands for evacuations had begun.
So, even though I wouldn’t say it was the only reason why the Soviet Union collapsed, but it was definitely a pivotal one.
Q) Do you think this explosion had an impact on the rise of nationalism which eventually led to the disintegration in 1991?
Yeah, it definitely had a role of play in the disintegration of the Soviet Union because the republics and the people living in USSR lost confidence in Moscow and their decision making. When more and more problems such as economic problems and cold war problems compounded, the republics thought maybe they’ll be better on their own.
Actually, the smallest three republics, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which joined the Soviet Union in 1940, actually led the way. These states were the last to join and the first to protest to move out. Their standards of living were higher than republics in the Soviet Union.
I think a really key aspect was that a country like Estonia had its own language, which is virtually impossible to understand if you weren’t grown up there. So, maybe countries like Ukraine could follow with Moscow was saying and doing but a country like Estonia with such a different language couldn’t. So, I think Gorbachev started losing control, but there were more reasons too.
Q) I know that you’ve written a book on this issue, but I’d like to briefly ask you about the social impact that the Chernobyl incident had in the Soviet Union and how did it change the perspectives of the people?
It had an enormous impact on the people in many stages. Firstly, the cleanup crew, which initially consisted of volunteers from all around the Soviet Union. They stayed and worked in Chernobyl for months and then went home again and many of them got sick.
Then, military reserves were brought in the country and they were given a choice between working at Chernobyl or going to the war in Afghanistan. They were told they were going to be there for six weeks, after that they were required to be there for another six weeks and so on. Since it was difficult to adequately monitor it, they had no idea how much radiation they were actually facing.
So, when people got sick they had no idea what the cause was. By 1990, only in Ukraine, about 10,000 of these workers had died. These were young guys in their 20s and 30s, so they should not be getting sick like they were. Another thing was the evacuation, which the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) still thinks it was a bad decision so evacuate so many people.
Moving out of their homes involved a lot of emotion, and caused troubles that wouldn’t have arisen if they stayed at home. It’s a bit like Covid-19, right? Whether one should stay indoors or not. The problem with evacuation was that the people were ignorant of radiation. So when the people came out of their homes and they were asked to find accommodation, they thought that these people were contaminated.
Secondly, the evacuation went in the wrong direction. They were moved to the areas where the direction of the clouds went, so the radiations simply followed them. Radiophobia then began a factor, wherein people attributed every single problem they were facing to the radiations. They looked out to vodka and wine for help, which was definitely better than bleach, to reduce the radiations.
After this incident, people started questioning every single decision that the officials in Moscow made. So, the society felt it was hard done by and badly treated by the authorities. Even the communist party at the time was divided into those who believed in liberal policies and those who believed in the old ways of ruling. Gorbachev was caught in the middle trying to balance both of them and gather support from all and was threatened to be more liberal with his policies. Essentially, once the communist party was threatened, it posed a great danger as it consisted of a sort of building block of the society and consolidated everyone together.
This is often compared to world war 2, which was a triumph of the Soviets against the Nazis whereas this was a major failure. Even when something familiar happened in 2011, people were not prepared to deal with it and there’s no real preparation.
Q) What were the inefficiencies of the administration that made the matter worse and what lessons did they sort of learn from it?
Well, I think the first thing that went wrong was the idea to have a safety experiment to start with, which was carried out on a weekend by non-nuclear physicists with the plant director and chief engineer at home. All the safety equipment were also switched off so that the reactor wouldn’t shut itself down. So these were very basic human problems.
On top of all that, their plant was working on very old, inefficient technologies. But there was this feeling of invincibility that since it was a nuclear power station, nothing wrong could happen to it. They had already faced several nuclear accidents but they were all weapons-based. So, there were technological problems then communication problems since the officials couldn’t give clear commands and instructions.
Then, centralized authorities controlled the media and no information was given out, possibly to limit and reduce the panic that would be caused by it and that the people don’t go crazy. But basic information should have been given about what happened, what’s outside their homes and what would happen if they went in those areas and that was not done.
Then, a lot of reforms took place to avoid such an incident. The nuclear ministry was formed in 1986. The safety equipment was improved and uranium enrichment was increased and steps were taken to avoid the human errors in the process. Those involved and responsible for this accident were faced with harsh punishments for up to 10 years in the labour camp but there was no real attempt to question the nature of this nuclear industry for a long time.
The system was left in place and there were many accidents that happened in the Soviet Union that happened after that, the only difference being they were reported immediately and appeared in the press and media at the time. It is also noteworthy that the Soviet televisions were very popular at that time and a large audience was viewing the news. By 1989, the parliamentary debates were televised and the media was reporting fairly objective news as compared to before.
I was personally there in 1989 and 1990 and could see the difference in Soviet society and it was actually quite remarkable in many standards. By 1989-90, USSR was one of the most liberal places around at the time. There were debates, the formation of new associations, pluralistic elections and popular fronts emerging, etc. were there and they remained in place until 1991 when it was all revamped. This group of so-called,” emergency committee” came in power and tried to push everything backward again.
So, I think the society did improve and the people learned a lot from this incident but by the time they realized all that, the collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable. For example, there was a big Armenian conflict in Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh conflict), clashes in Uzbekistan, and a volatile situation in Georgia. You know, all these republics in USSR had been put together so hastily in a manner such that if one state was released, there would be a lot of civil conflict around them. There weren’t necessarily a lot of such conflicts in Russia itself to an extent or even in Ukraine where the accident took place. In fact, in Ukraine, the communists became nationalists overnight and became an independent government.
So, a lot of lessons were learned. Now, that I look back to it, there was a condescending attitude from the west towards the Soviet Union, like “what are you doing, we can help you out” which was kind of hypocritical. Similar accidents happened in England Windscale in 1957, the three-mile conflict in Pennsylvania in 1979, and then in 2011. So, on a world scale, this became more of a global problem and brought a change in the way we resolve problems. This is one of the positive effects of globalization.
Q) So, that’s all about Chernobyl, thank you. Do you have any message for all the school students and college students who are reading this right now?
Well, first of all, I’d like to send across greetings from Canada! I’ve never been to India before, but I’d love to visit sometime. I would say,
do what you want to do, study what you wish to, and find what interests you and pursue it to the very end because there’s really no limit where you can end up if you do.
There are a lot of problems in this world, and the more of these international contacts that we have and improve international communications, the better off we all will be.
So, I wish all the best to you!