Staunton, May 3 – Speakers at a Sakharov Center conference on the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster say the accident there intensified anti-Moscow feelings in Eastern Europe and triggered the rise of eco-nationalism in the non-Russian republics of the USSR, two developments the Kremlin had no choice but to respond to.
And both these movements and the Politburo’s response to them lead to the inescapable conclusion that political fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 led to the destruction of both the bloc and then the USSR, various experts argued at the Moscow meeting last weekend (rosbalt.ru/moscow/2021/05/03/1900226.html).
Ute Kohlovski-Kajaia, head of the Moscow office of the German Neumann Foundation, says that when she was growing up in East Germany, the media there provided no information about the Chernobyl disaster, but most East Germans watched West German television and found out what their rulers were concealing from them.
East Germans also learned about what was going on from another development, she continues. Because Moscow couldn’t sell many of its goods to the West because of fears about radioactivity, suddenly, the shelves in East German stores began to fill up with goods that people there had never seen before.
As a result of these two developments in the wake of Chernobyl, Kohlovski-Kajaia says, civic activity in East Germany increased and increasingly resonated with the growth of the Green movement in West Germany, something that set the stage for the eventual reunification of the two countries.
But most of the participants at the Sakharov Center meeting focused on the impact of the 1986 accident on developments within the USSR. Sergey Plohi, author of Chernobyl: The Story of a Nuclear Catastrophe, said that what the accident highlighted most of all was the dangerous hyper-centralization of the Soviet system.
Local people at Chernobyl could not react until Moscow made a decision. Thousands suffered and many died as a result of a situation that could have been very different if people on the spot or even at the level of the Ukrainian SSR had had the right to take responsibility. They didn’t, and everyone could see that.
Because of that, Plohi continues, “Chernobyl became the impetus for ‘eco-nationalism’” and that in turn contributed to the growth of nationalism more generally. It hit three places especially hard – Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia – but with very different results because of differences among them.
Chernobyl had the greatest impact on Ukraine because there it quickly came to be viewed as “’a crime of the center,’” and out of that belief, the Ukrainian national movement Rukh was born. Thus, in Ukraine, the nation arose not so much as an ethnic movement but as a territorial one including all those affected by the nuclear accident, Plohi says.
In western Russia, the impact of the accident was less precisely because residents there viewed themselves as part of the center and consequently, they viewed themselves and Moscow as being less at odds than being on the same side of the problem. Environmental concerns grew but they didn’t lead to a national movement like the one in Ukraine.
The situation in Belarus was more complicated. On the one hand, the regions of that republic which suffered the most were located further from the republic capital than was the case in Ukraine. And on the other, the Belarusian communist structure remained overwhelmingly pro-Moscow while in Ukraine many of its members shifted to the opposition.
Consequently, former Belarusian deputy Sergey Naumchik says, “the Belarusian Popualr Front never had the influence Rukh did in Ukraine.” It didn’t have as large a share of deputies in the parliament, and it didn’t have the allies in the nomenklatura that the Ukrainians could count on.
“The communist party of Belarus,” he continues, “was the most powerful monolithic structure and remained faithful to the center. It hated Gorbachev, considering him a traitor.” But it wasn’t prepared yet to oppose the center. Alyaksandr Lukashenka has continued that tradition of loyalty and of opposing any talk about Chernobyl.
But Naumchik says, the recent pandemic has reminded Belarusians of the events of Chernobyl, of the inability of the authorities to cope with something they hadn’t planned on. And that is a major reason, he suggests, why so many Belarusians have now gone into the streets in what is in many respects a delayed reaction to the Chernobyl accident.
Another participant in the Sakharov Center meeting, Vasily Zharkov, a political scientist at Moscow’s Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences, says that in his view, the accident happened because of Gorbachev’s commitment to accelerating economic development. Officials at the plant felt they had to push ahead faster to win preferment from the center.
The result was a disaster, and that led Gorbachev to change course and adopt his policy of glasnost, something that had the effect of opening the floodgates of criticism of the regime not only on environmental grounds but all others. And discussions of those problems triggered the developments which brought the USSR to its knees.