Twenty years ago the nuclear plant Chernobyl exploded. The Guardian did an excellent article on the event and its lingering effects. There is no official count on how many died as a result. The number is probably in the tens of thousands, and its effects will continue to be felt in the region for several decades more. In a UN report released last September that was supported by Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine estimates 4,000 deaths. The World Health Organization altered the estimate to 9,000. Greenpeace estimates up to 100,000 deaths as a direct or indirect result of the nuclear meltdown.
Chernobyl’s historical significance goes beyond environmental catastrophe. As Pyotr Romanov argues in a comment on RIV Novosti that Chernobyl was a major blow to the Soviet Union and should be included as one of the factors in its collapse. It completely undercut the moral and political authority of the Perestroika reformers.
There is one more consequence of the Chernobyl disaster, which is rarely mentioned. I think it was Chernobyl that exploded the U.S.S.R. Needless to say, the reasons for the disintegration of such a colossus were bound to be multiple. Some people say with good reason that the founders of Marxism programmed the elements of self-destruction into the Soviet Union’s policy and economy. Others justifiably quote the arms race or Afghanistan, which also undermined the Soviet might. Still others blame the then leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus for signing a document in secret from President Gorbachev in Belovezhskaya Pushcha. They believe, not without a reason, that this document finished the U.S.S.R off.
However, I still think that Chernobyl was one of the major factors behind the Soviet collapse. The tragedy was not just about radioactive contamination. It produced a huge pack of lies, which shocked the Soviet people. The authorities concealed from them the truth for several days. In blissful ignorance, children and adults were walking under the genial spring rain in Kiev and Minsk, eating fruit, fishing, going to Ukrainian and Byelorussian resorts. If they had known the truth, they would have been running away. When rumors finally got through, people panicked. They rushed to railroad stations and drug stores. Only the first semi-truthful official reports outlined the enormous scale of the catastrophe.
Importantly, the liars were the Party reformers whom many people had trusted when they said that the Soviet system could be reformed. After this lie there was nobody to believe. So, when a report on the Soviet Union’s demise came from Belovezhskaya Pushcha, nobody tried to resuscitate it. The lie proved to be as deadly as radiation.
In addition, what is more disconcerting is that the lesson of Chernobyl and the dangers of nuclear power have fallen on deaf ears. Nuclear power is considered acceptable again, not only in Russia, but the US, and of course in Iran. Unfortunately, nuclear power, whether it be fore energy or in its weaponized form is still with us.
For more news on Chernobyl, I point readers to Wally Shedd’s entry at his blog Accidental Russophile. He has provided a number of useful links to news stories debating, commemorating, and shedding historical light on the event.