Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A May Day Not to Be Forgotten – Kyiv 1986 Five Days after Chernobyl

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 2 – On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl atomic power station suffered the most serious nuclear accident of all times. The Soviet government said nothing, but people in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine knew about the accident from foreign radio and in some cases television broadcasts and were terrified.

            For the first three days after the explosion, the prevailing winds carried the radiation bloom northward into Belarus; but then the winds shifted and radiation levels in Kyiv and adjoining parts of Ukraine began to go up. The big question for the Soviet leaders, of course, was would May Day be celebrated as they wanted.

            Vladimir Shcherbitsky, first secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine, appealed to Mikhail Gorbachev to allow him to cancel the parade lest marching in public lead more people to be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Gorbachev refused and told Shcherbitsky that the Ukrainian leader would lose his job and his party card if he cancelled.

            So the CPSU leader having given the order, the Kyiv authorities had no choice but to go ahead. They did, however, reduce the numbers of people from various parts of the Ukrainian capital who were required to attend by as much as 50 percent, undoubtedly saving many from the kind of radiation exposure that leads to cancer.

            Thirteen days later, Gorbachev finally acknowledged the disaster and exploited it to launch his glasnost campaign. Indeed, he gets credit for doing that but has generally escaped blame for his role in ordering the Kyiv parade to go forward. What is worse, many now blame Shcherbitsky for that despite his honorable role in trying to block it.

            This story is important for everyone to remember, especially those who have an uncritical affection for Gorbachev. He could have acted, as Shcherbitsky urged him to do, to protect his people; instead, the Kremlin leader acted only to protect his position in the party hierarchy.

            This story has been oft told. This year it was reproduced by Maksim Mirovich, a Belarusian blogger whose republic suffered even more than did Ukraine because its party leader wasn’t even in the Politburo and so couldn’t object ( in a post republished by Novyye izvestiya (

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