Gorbachev and the Chernobyl Disaster

Vladislav Zubok

The Chernobyl disaster was a major factor in the fall of the Soviet Union, but how much was it exacerbated by Mikhail Gorbachev?
Reactor 4 some months after the disaster
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Gorbachev and the Chernobyl Disaster

Whatever calculations Mikhail Gorbachev, his Prime Minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, and Soviet economists had made for the long term, the catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear plant wrecked everything. The explosion of one of its four reactors on 26 April 1986 in the northern part of Ukraine, not far from Kiev, took Soviet technicians, scientists, and bureaucrats completely by surprise. The flight of hundreds of thousands of people from Kiev, and mass panic elsewhere, was reminiscent of scenes from World War II.

Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985

During the first month after the accident, the military, engineers, doctors, miners, and scientists risked their lives in an unprecedented operation to plug the source of radiation, evacuate 100,000 people from the nearby city, organize a 30-kilometer perimeter around the plant, remove the contaminated soil, secure rivers from radiation, take care of hundreds of thousands of children, provide necessary medicine, and more. The cost of the Chernobyl disaster to the Soviet budget during the first month alone was 3 billion rubles. In early 1989, Ryzhkov estimated the cost to be about 8 billion rubles. He recalled: “Chernobyl dealt a sudden and devastating blow to our convalescent economy.”

The concrete sarcophagus

Raisa Gorbacheva, an atheist but a superstitious woman, considered Chernobyl a very bad omen; millions thought the same. Gorbachev’s authority was badly tarnished. People surmised that “the stained leader” (they meant the birthmark on his forehead) brought misfortune. Aside from this nonsense, Gorbachev tarnished his authority again by not informing the people of the scale of the disaster until 14 May, when he finally made a televised address to the stunned country. And throughout the crisis, the top trouble-shooter and real hero was Ryzhkov, who spearheaded the massive efforts to tame the nuclear monster. The Prime Minister flew to Kiev and then to Chernobyl, to inspect the calamity for himself. Gorbachev went to Chernobyl, in the company of Raisa, only in February 1989, after the reactor had been covered by the concrete “sarcophagus.”

Nikolai Ryzhkov

Gorbachev’s insecurity about the nuclear accident came through with a vengeance. In June–July 1986 he scapegoated the Soviet atomic industry and its aged leaders, Anatoly Aleksandrov and Yefim Slavsky. Those men, then in their eighties, were the supreme brahmins of the Soviet defense establishment, the builders of the Soviet nuclear superpower and the atomic energy complex. In Gorbachev’s harsh words, they embodied the worst qualities of the old elites. The atomic establishment, Gorbachev argued, “is dominated by servility, bootlicking, cliquishness, and persecution of those who think differently, by putting on a good show, by personal connections and clans. We are about to put an end to all this.”43 This was an unfair and inaccurate assessment: the Soviet nuclear science industry was one of the few that could demonstrate world-class achievements.

This reaction to Chernobyl was typical of Gorbachev, and was repeated in the years to come. The Soviet leader no doubt was angry, but he also re-enacted Lenin: he used the crisis to jump to sweeping conclusions: the entire old system was deeply sick and contaminated. The crisis demanded another revolution. His main message was that the USSR was a country on the brink; during the previous fifteen years the state and the people had lived beyond their means and learned awful habits. Either the Party should pull them out of this morass rapidly or the country would sink back into the “swamp” with lethal consequences. In September, speaking about the heroic efforts of tens of thousands of military and civilian “rescuers” at Chernobyl, Gorbachev said: “A Russian needs a mission impossible, so that he would send everything to [hell] . . . and do what is needed. A new Chernobyl should happen every day to make him wake up and move forward.”

Vladislav Zubok is a historian and academic and the author of Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, which is published by Yale University Press and is out now.