Staunton, April 26 – Twenty-nine years ago today, the Chernobyl Atomic Power Station suffered the worst nuclear power accident in history. Its physical consequences are still a subject of dispute. But one thing is not: the accident and the way Mikhail Gorbachev responded to it snapped any trust that had existed between the Soviet population and their rulers in Moscow.
In a commentary for “Belarussky zhurnal” yesterday, Lidiya Mikheyeva says that after Chernobyl, “people believed rumors but did not believe news and official declarations,” a development that created an even greater “catastrophe” for the USSR than was the accident itself, “a catastrophe of trust” (journalby.com/news/katastrofa-doveriya-394).
As she points out, “the Soviet government acknowledged the fact of an explosion at Chernobyl only after incontrovertible evidence obtained by Swedish scholars was published.” No Soviet official wanted to disturb the celebrations of May Day or Victory Day, and only one, the Ukrainian SSR health minister alluded to it directly before mid-May.
On May 6, the Ukrainian official recommended that Ukrainians avoid going out in to the streets and cut down on their ventilation of their apartments.
Only on May 14, did Mikhail Gorbachev speak about the accident, and the way he did so does him no credit. On the one hand, he began by saying “you all know that not long ago a misfortune came to us.” And on the other, the communist leader devoted more than half of his text to condemning “lies” and “disinformation” in the American press about Chernobyl (pripyat.com/documents/pravda-15-maya-1986-g-vystuplenie-m-s-gorbacheva-po-sovetskomu-televideniyu.html).
“If the silence of the authorities had led only to baseless anger and a storm in the international press, this would have been a lesser evil,” Mikheyeva says. “In reality, this secrecy on ecological issues by itself became a risk factor for new catastrophes” because secrecy prevented people from learning from past mistakes and correcting them.
Eleven years before Chernobyl, we now know, she continues, an accident at the Leningrad Atomic Power Plant, one similar in construction to that in Chernobyl, occurred, but fortunately, its reactor was shut down in a timely fashion. But how that happened was kept secret from even the employees of other such plants.
How many other missed opportunities to prevent a disaster is still unknown, she says; and officials made the situation worse by acting as if there are no real dangers in the use of atomic power. The director of Chernobyl infamously said just before the accident that “an atomic reactor is as simple as a samovar” (fakty.ua/108581-quot-ekspluatacioncshiki-chaes-obracshalis-so-stanciej-kak-s-samovarom-quot).
Official silence about the accident which people nonetheless found out about via various means (x-libri.ru/elib/sherb000/00000169.htm) reflected not only the military past of all Soviet atomic power projects but also a desire to avoid sowing panic in the population. But it had the effect of completely destroying confidence in official sources because the gap between them and reality and the dangers of failing to know the truth were both too great.
Many analysts argue that Gorbachev began to promote glasnost as a result, but in fact, his media freedom was highly selective and very restricted when it came to Chernobyl. Moscow continued to reject any proposals to develop a centralized data base on the impact of the accident lest just how bad it was leak out.
As a result, Mikheyeva says, after “the ‘initial panic’ of complete ignorance in 1986 arose ‘a secondary panic,’ generated by an excess of varied and often unproven information. The result has been an information trauma which has lasted almost 30 years and the psychological burn out of people who chronically do not know whom and what to believe.”
That was true in Ukraine, the Russian Federation and elsewhere where the radiation plumes came down, but it has been especially true in Belarus whose leadership has proclaimed it “the heir of all the best, purest and brightest” from the Soviet past and thus ensured that Belarusians have not been able to overcome the problem the 1986 accident accentuated.
Belarusians have dealt “with this problem in their own way. Just as when Gorbachev said ‘You all know.’ Our people know,” Mikheyeva says, “that in extreme situations it isn’t worth waiting for truth and help from the government.” Most Belarusians “are ready to live without answers” because “only a few understand that the ecological problem … is a political one.”
“We are not Japanese,” she laments. “We are able to get accustomed to everything. Thirty years we have been living with Chernobyl, and for 20, with Lukashenka. But nothing has happened: we put up with it.” And that is “a catastrophe comparable with the explosion at the Chernobyl Atomic Power Plant.”
Today, Belarusians will mark this sad anniversary as they have in the past with a march. Its main slogan is scheduled to be “No to the Russian Nuclear Threat!” Meanwhile, in Ukraine, President Petro Poroshenko will lead the nation in commemorating the 1986 disaster (belaruspartisan.org/politic/302791/).