Remembering the Soviet Response to Chornobyl

April 26, 2023



Remembering the Soviet Response to Chornobyl



April 26, 2011 5:15 PM

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With the continuing earthquakes in Japan, the eventual cost of the disaster at the Fukushima power plant may not be known for years. The world should have all those affected in their prayers. But one thing we can know right now is that the Fukushima disaster and what happened at Chornobyl 25 years ago today are comparable only according to the narrow parameters of the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). By this scale, the Fukushima event was a Level 7, a “major accident” “with widespread health and environmental effects,” the same rating as Chornobyl. But it would be a serious mistake not to appreciate the differences between the two events, or to forget the genuine evil revealed in the Soviet Union’s response to Chornobyl. The distinctions matter.

Systemic Soviet corruption started affecting Chornobyl long before that April day in 1986. The RBMK reactor had many known design flaws, including fundamental problems associated with the Soviets’ insistence on having civilian power plants also capable of making weapons-level plutonium. Due to these design flaws, the reactors were susceptible to lurching out of control, a susceptibility that was widely known — and ignored. Two additional points are worth noting here: (a) As part of the Kremlin’s intense Russification program designed to destroy Ukraine’s unique culture and history, the Ukrainian language was marginalized, pushed mostly into the shadows; and (b) because of this marginalization, in February 1986, an article in a Ukrainian-language literary magazine published in Kyiv just a few months before the disaster specifically pointed to all of the problems at Chornobyl, but because this clear warning was in Ukrainian, it was not noted at the time either in Russian-speaking Moscow or by any of the operators of the power plant, who were all ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Even in the repressive Soviet society of the time, there were brave souls who warned that Chornobyl was a disaster waiting to happen — but because the warnings appeared in forbidden Ukrainian, they were denigrated and ignored.

At 1:23 a.m. on Saturday, April 26, exactly 25 years ago, a bit more than 90 miles from Kyiv (and near the city’s main water reservoir), an explosion blew the roof off Chornobyl’s fourth reactor building and, among other tragic consequences, huge quantities of radioactive particles began spewing into the air. Other than an immediate scramble by Chornobyl workers to try to put the fire out, there was no official reaction to this catastrophe — no announcement, no warnings, nothing indicating concern for the population of Ukraine, people in other areas of the Soviet Union, or anyone in the world beyond the Iron Curtain. The Communist government’s callous disregard for human life and health was not a momentary brain freeze, nor was it an accident; it was deliberate.

At 9:00 a.m., Monday, April 28 — more than 55 and a half hours after the explosion — an alarm went off at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Station in Sweden; high amounts of radioactivity were being detected. Workers were evacuated. High radiation levels were simultaneously detected in Denmark, Finland, and Norway. Scandinavian experts soon determined that the incoming nuclear cloud had originated in the Soviet Union, specifically Soviet Ukraine. But when Sweden asked Moscow for an explanation, Soviet authorities denied anything had happened, even though by then radiation had been spewing for days from the explosion and resulting fire.

Not until April 28 at 9 p.m. (65 hours after the explosion), and only after the Scandinavian countries had announced the source of immense radiation, did the Kremlin come forward, and then only slightly. A newscaster on the Moscow evening news program Vremya reported, “An accident occurred at the Chornobyl Atomic Power Plant and one of the reactors was damaged. Measures have been undertaken to eliminate the consequences of the accident.”

Over the next few days, only snippets of information got out of Ukraine from the few people who were aware of what had happened and some of the consequences. Into the void of real information flowed terrifying misinformation, resulting in reports of staggering death tolls, hospitals overwhelmed by dead and suffering, and mass graves. As a result of Moscow’s irresponsible silence, people in Ukraine who wanted to know anything had to find a way to receive Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and/or Radio Free Europe broadcasts despite the extensive Soviet radio-wave-jamming facilities established in Western Ukraine. At 8 p.m. on April 28, VOA broadcast into Ukraine its first reports on the radiation that had been detected in Sweden and the suspicion that it came from nuclear leakage at a power plant in the Soviet Union.

Tony Barber’s first-person account published in the Financial Times a few days ago recalls his being a 26-year-old foreign correspondent working for Reuters in Moscow. He had flown to Kyiv on Friday, April 25, to see a friend. He spent the weekend touring Kyiv in the warm spring sunshine, unaware of anything going on that might threaten him. It was only when he returned to Moscow on April 28 that a colleague asked him if he had noticed “anything funny going on,” which he hadn’t. After hearing word of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine, he had an American embassy official in Moscow test him for radioactive poisoning. His body’s background levels were normal but the jeans he had worn in Kyiv sent the Geiger counter beep-beep-beeping.

By Tuesday, April 29, the Kremlin began to grasp that the world knew something significant had occurred and the Soviet government grudgingly responded in another Vremya broadcast. It acknowledged that an “accident” had killed two people, but said that “the situation had now been stabilized and was under control.” Such a statement was preposterous. By this time, nobody was buying the Soviet disinformation. On April 30, the winds that had blown the radioactive fallout over Scandinavia turned back on Belarus and Ukraine. American satellites relayed pictures of fires still burning out of control from at least one reactor and showed aircraft circling the power plant dumping chemicals to try to stop the blaze. (Within a few years, all of the young pilots who had flown those dumping missions were dead, though none of their deaths were officially attributed to Chornobyl.)

There were offers of assistance and aid from, among others, the United States and American volunteer organizations. The offers were rebuffed by Moscow, with one exception. #more#Through his longtime cozy relationship with the Kremlin, Armand Hammer was able to get American bone-marrow specialist Dr. Robert Gale invited to help the injured — in Moscow, 470 miles from Kyiv. Gale was not allowed into Ukraine.

With winds pushing the fallout back over the country and the release of radiation still continuing, the evening news on April 30 led with a story about spring flowers in Ukraine and preparations for the annual May Day celebration. Halfway through the news broadcast came a story about Chornobyl. The Soviet news agency, attempting to downplay the findings of the U.S. satellites, showed a photo of the affected reactor. It revealed little more than destruction to the reactor’s roof, with no evidence of smoke. Looking at the picture, it would be difficult for the average Soviet citizen to realize that a nuclear disaster had occurred that had released radiation over half of Europe. In an excellent 1986 article in The Ukrainian Quarterly, Yurii Bohatiuk translated the Moscow broadcast report introducing the story on Chornobyl:

Now we show you a picture taken by a man at the Chornobyl atomic power station shortly after the accident took place. As you can see for yourself there is no enormous destruction that some Western agencies are writing about, or no great fires, as there are no thousands of dead. In fact, inhabitants of the nearby settlements have been evacuated though the level of radiation had decreased during the past day and night. So it is hardly the place for the Western mass media to spread rumors.

The report also assured viewers that the air and water around Kyiv was safe and the drinking water and reservoirs were fine. And, according to Tony Barber’s report: “Dwelling in time-honoured fashion on propaganda rather than facts, Tass then issued a[n] … article alleging the US had experienced 2,300 nuclear accidents and breakdowns in 1979 alone. Hypocrisy and duplicity were as Soviet as stale bread.”

There is no way this sequence — Kremlin silence, denial, misinformation — was the result of mistakes. This strategy was all quite calculated and deliberate and, it would appear, now almost forgotten.

On the same day, April 30, CNN reported that a man in New York had been able to get through to his brother in Ukraine, a hospital worker, who said that he had seen hundreds dead and that his hospital could not handle the dead and injured. Traveling French students interviewed by CBS quoted a hospital source as saying at least 500 were dead. Though factual reports by the foreign media varied greatly, the Soviet media, completely controlled by the Kremlin, continued to say everything was fine.

Perhaps the worst example of this total disregard for the truth and human lives came on May 1. Winds that had initially blown the radiation north and over the Scandinavian monitoring devices had turned and were keeping most of the increasing radiation over Ukraine, Belarus, and some areas within Russia. While this radiation continued to drop over the Ukrainian countryside, the Soviets staged their annual extravagant May Day parade in Moscow. Mikhail Gorbachev, whose leadership guided the Kremlin response, smiled and waved to the crowd in Red Square. To the south, just 90 miles from where the fires of Chornobyl were still burning out of control, the Soviets staged another massive parade in Kyiv that included children dancing down Kyiv’s broad central avenue, Khreshchatyk. Perhaps the only noticeable difference from previous May Day celebrations in Kyiv was the fact that as the marchers and dancers reached the reviewing stands where Communist Party bosses traditionally watched the festivities, they found the stands empty. Some members of the “classless” Soviet society had been given enough information to know to evacuate the republic’s capital. There was also a May Day bicycle race. Exercise and deep breathing — all the better to inhale radiation.

Given the lack of concern Gorbachev’s government showed for the population’s unnecessary exposure to the deadly Chornobyl radiation, the ordinary citizens of Ukraine might as well have been the “kulaks” Stalin sought to “liquidate as a class” in his intentional and forced famine of 1932–33. Their safety and health meant nothing. From Stalin to touted glasnost, what had changed?

At the same time, Gorbachev’s government began to block Western-news-media attempts to report on Chornobyl. American television companies were told technical problems were keeping photos from reaching communications satellites. This followed some Western news interviews with tourists in Moscow who had arrived from Kyiv and strongly disputed the Soviet casualty count and expressed great anger because Soviet authorities lacked the human decency to tell either them or the citizens of Ukraine what was happening.

The brazenness of the cover-up extended even to a Soviet embassy official, Vitalii Churkin, appearing in Washington at a briefing of a subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. For almost two hours Churkin talked in circles. Pressed by direct questions to explain why the Kremlin had not warned other countries, he replied, “It is my opinion that there was no real harm to other countries.” This, the Soviet view, was being expressed on Capitol Hill on Thursday, May 1, as the parades were under way and a spy satellite was transmitting pictures of the fires still burning, while Ukrainians in Kyiv and around Chornobyl were still in the dark as to the poisons they were breathing. Even as the Voice of America and Radio Liberty increased the number of their broadcasts in order to warn anyone who could pick up a signal, the Soviets had not yet issued the most basic of emergency announcements, no food or water or safety precautions.

It was not until May 6 that announcements ran on Kyiv local radio and television warning the population to close their windows, to wash and peel vegetables, and to keep children indoors (directives similar to ones foreign governments hundreds of miles away had given their citizens over a week earlier). These tragically delayed announcements immediately led to thousands flooding train stations and all potential routes out of Kyiv; the Soviet government quickly established travel controls. Only a certain number from each family could travel — families had to prioritize who among them could try to escape and seek help. Armed police blocked the main roads leading out of Kyiv. The authorities’ tight control of travel out of the area continued for weeks.

On May 7, the New York Times reported that large numbers of uniformed police and plainclothes KGB agents were at Moscow’s Kievsky train station when trains arrived from Kyiv, mostly with children and elderly women. The officials were doing everything they could to prevent Western journalists from interviewing the arrivals. They ordered reporters to leave the station and turned away a television crew while whisking away the Ukrainian arrivals. But it was obvious that the West was aware of the panic that had set in, so the Kremlin began to release more doctored information. The bland reports that everything was under control morphed into graphic descriptions of the Motherland’s Finest fighting 100-foot high flames after the initial explosion. Again, Yurii Bohatiuk’s article translates the Soviet press describing the firemen’s efforts: “Their boots stuck in bitumen that melted because of high temperature, soot and smoke made it difficult to breathe, but the brave bold men kept on fighting the blaze courageously.” Still there was no mention of casualties or the risk to people still being exposed to large doses of radiation.

As the days wore on and pressure grew for the Kremlin to explain what had happened and was happening, the Soviets stumbled over their lies and their profound incompetence amid the growing exposure of their near total disregard for the people. The situation is under control, everything is fine. The people in close proximity to the plant were evacuated immediately. The evacuation of Prypiat was not completed until May 6. A total of 49,000 people were evacuated. No, 84,000 have been evacuated. Radiation readings show that the area 35 miles outside Chornobyl and in Kyiv is safe. It looks like much of the area around Chornobyl will be unlivable for at least 100 years. If it weren’t so deadly serious, this zig-zagging might have been comical.

On May 9, an early summer holiday was announced for Kyiv’s quarter of a million school children, although at the same time authorities were saying radiation levels were normal. Enjoy the holidays — inside.

Mikhail Gorbachev, whom the Western media helped so much to acquire a “progressive” image, took 18 days to make up his mind what to say to the anxious populations of Eastern Europe and the citizens of the countries he was supposedly leading. On May 16, after having entertained the president of Angola and after visiting various factories in Russia and taking part in those glorious May Day celebration as if nothing had happened, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet was able to cross his fingers and say publicly, “As soon as we received reliable initial information, it was made available to the Soviet people and sent through diplomatic channels to the governments of foreign countries.” Progressive? More like a prototypical Stalinist; not one word of public reassurance from him for the population of the stricken area nor a single word of encouragement to the people dealing with the disaster. And, of course, not one word of truth. The strength of any system of governance can be measured at least in part by how well it reacts to the unexpected. Soviet Communism failed. Yet the Kremlin’s reaction and Gorbachev’s own behavior in the spring of 1986 seems to have been forgotten or dismissed as history marches on.

This horrid approach of disinformation and callousness continued for months. Genuine assistance from the community of nations really never got to Ukraine and Belarus until all that was possible was too-long-delayed remedial efforts trying to comfort the afflicted. Most of the international involvement focused on the “children of Chornobyl” and scientific inquiry and assessment.

Much has been written about the way the Soviet Union handled its eventual studies, which were compromised from the outset by the Kremlin’s delayed reactions. I remember meeting with scientists in Ukraine in March 1990 and having one explain how some time after the explosion, scientists with certain specialties were directed to undertake tests and analysis, but to keep their work to themselves, not to communicate with others undertaking different tests. He explained that this was the way the Soviet Union did things: compartmentalize research and keep the individual tests and conclusions from being shared among experts; turn over the individual and discrete work products to authorities, and they would decide what would be shared or made public, essentially without the benefit of vigorous interaction among the experts.

Once the people in Ukraine and Belarus were told the basics of what happened, their attention turned immediately to their children. It has already been noted that, due to transport controls, families had to choose who would get out of the area; it was mostly children who were put on the planes, trains, and buses. Children already showing symptoms were moved into local hospitals. Once they were allowed in, foreign relief efforts focused on the children, getting aid to many in Ukraine and getting others out to Western countries where they could be given the best possible treatment. In addition to assistance from foreign governments, there were numerous private organizations — Children of Chornobyl, Chornobyl Children Charity, Chornobyl Children Project, etc. — operating from the West. These efforts, often involving concerned and dedicated members of the diaspora of Ukraine and Belarus, were — and are — wonderful examples of charitable and voluntary efforts arising from within free societies. They also were so successful that they masked the totally inadequate response and capabilities of the Soviet system.

As for the human “cost” of the disaster, we may never know. There have been many studies, each with different methods and different results. To take one example, the Chornobyl Forum, which included numerous international agencies, issued a report in 2005 that estimated the total number of deaths due to the disaster at around 4,000 (of which 2,200 were expected from among the 200,000 people who in one way or another responded to the explosion or tried to deal with the clean-up). Later, the 4,000 estimate was “updated” to 9,000 excess cancer deaths. Others criticized this report in part because its data — 200,000 people involved in the cleanup, and 400,000 most directly affected by the released radiation — did not even consider the fact that over a half of the radiation from Chornobyl (specifically iodine-131, which increases the risk of thyroid cancer) was deposited outside the former Soviet Union. Possible increases in thyroid cancer have been reported in countries like the Czech Republic and England. Some reports project 30,000 to 60,000 excess cancer deaths, with predicted excess cases of thyroid cancer ranging between 18,000 and 66,000 in Belarus alone, depending on the risk-projection model.

Whatever the study and whatever the eventual outcome, the fact is that the Kremlin and the Soviet system made Chornobyl many times worse than necessary.

Those who play down the Soviet Union’s response must not be allowed to hide the facts. Even today Mikhail Gorbachev expects people to believe the Scandinavians learned about Chornobyl before the Kremlin did with its extensive KGB and apparatchik networks. And he claims he started getting information out to the general population of the Soviet Union on April 28 when, in fact, all Vremya reported was that there had been an accident and “measures have been undertaken to eliminate the consequences of the accident.” Gorbachev goes so far these days as to blame “the closed nature and secrecy of the nuclear power industry.” Whether it is Gorbachev trying to rewrite history, or those who use Chornobyl to oppose nuclear energy and/or the nuclear-power industry, we must not allow them to bury the truth about the system of governance that existed in the Soviet Union. To learn the lessons of the past, we must face the truth.

Since the crisis at the Fukushima power plant, criticisms have been leveled at the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and at the Japanese government. But the entire world has been able to follow the ongoing story, international aid has been welcomed and encouraged, and there has been focus on the safety of the population. If a comparison must be drawn between Chornobyl and Fukushima, let it be between a government that showed concern for its people and one that failed to do so.

— Robert McConnell is co-founder of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. Throughout this article the Ukrainian spelling of the subject power plant and Ukraine’s capital city are used.