The death of the last “Old Bolshevik” General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Konstantin Chernenko, in March of 1985 gave way to the rise of the young, liberal, and ultimately final General Secretary of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev. But just over one year after Gorbachev became General Secretary the Chernobyl nuclear explosion took place. Here, Brenden Woldman argues that it was this explosion that was the most important element that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Mikhail Gorbachev, newly crowned leader of the USSR in 1985, was a product of the communist system and a firm believer in Soviet ideology. Nevertheless, Gorbachev understood that the USSR was at a crossroads and liberal reforms were necessary for the survival of the Soviet empire.
Gorbachev thought that the enactment of glasnost (openness and a new era of honesty between the government and the people) and perestroika (restructuring of the Soviet economic and political system) would spark a golden age of Soviet ingenuity and would reignite the USSR as a super power. However, the USSR was not ripe for the backlash that would come with glasnost’s emphasis on openness. The reason for Gorbachev to double-down on glasnost was the failed cover-up that came from the Chernobyl disaster. Within a year of Gorbachev’s ascension to power, one of the greatest man-made environmental disasters the world had ever seen placed the Soviet Union in the global spotlight and showed the hypocrisy of the Soviet Union’s new “reformer”.
All was quiet on the morning of April 28, 1986 when Swedish monitoring stations showed an unnaturally sparked heightening of radioactive activity near northern Kiev at the Chernobyl nuclear electricity-generating plant. The Soviet Union did little to confirm reports of the accident or the danger of it. Pravda, the official newspaper of the CPSU, did not report the accident until two weeks after it had occurred and Gorbachev himself did not publically acknowledge the disaster until May 14, nearly three weeks after the initial incident. The reason for this silence was the attempted cover-up of the Chernobyl disaster by Gorbachev and the CPSU, even though the radioactive cloud released was ten times more hazardous than that of the radiation discharged by the nuclear bomb at Hiroshima. However, those two weeks in which the Soviet Union tried to cover-up the severity of the accident showed the fragility and unwillingness of the USSR to implement the so-called media “openness” that was to come with Gorbachev’s glasnost.
The problems with the Chernobyl nuclear power plant were well documented before the accident. Government reports dating back to the initial building of the power plant in 1979 showed the brittleness of the structure with a KGB memorandum stating that the Chernobyl plant, “could lead to mishaps and accidents”. The poor quality of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was not shocking to those who had inspected the quality of the structures around the USSR. An accident involving one of the power plants was not a surprising revelation due to their poor quality. Nevertheless, in the early morning of April 26 the Chernobyl nuclear power plant erupted, causing the CPSU to begin plans for a cover-up.
The Failed Cover-Up
After the extinguishing of the fires and the securing of the scene, in depth urgent reports about the nature of the incident were sent to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. When questioning began on the severity of Chernobyl from Europe and the west, the CPSU began to intensify their cover-up plan by sending statements to ambassadors of the Soviet Union throughout the globe. These statements explain that a minor accident had occurred at Chernobyl and that the level of contamination may have exceeded norms, but “not to such a degree that it requires special measures to protect the population” and that the USSR did not need foreign aid as “no foreign nationals in the Soviet Union (particularly specialists or tourists) have made application to relevant Soviet organizations in connection with the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident”.
However, readings from radioactive stations across Western Europe showed that the Chernobyl accident was far more severe than initially expected, as journalists, foreign and domestic, reported on the severity of the calamity after the USSR allowed press to come to the scene. As one Pravda journalist reported, the low quality standards, lack of safety equipment, lack of evacuation of public citizens, and the overall “silence of the leaders of the republic” proved the unwillingness of the CPSU to report on the severity of the Chernobyl calamity. It became clear that Gorbachev and the CPSU attempted to downplay the disaster which occurred at Chernobyl. The result was not only an environmental disaster but a political one as well, as the Soviet citizenry doubted the claim that Gorbachev was to be a new and honest General Secretary.
For Gorbachev, the calamity at Chernobyl came from two fronts. The first was the physical, environmental destruction that had occurred and the cleanup that was going to take years and require a lot of money. Yet the second hurt Gorbachev the most, as the attempted cover-up hurt Gorbachev’s reputation as a reformer and the legitimacy of glasnost. It also did not help that this reinforced the view among some of the Soviet citizenry of the poor infrastructure within the USSR in comparison to the west, which sparked the fall of the “Soviet façade”. The embarrassment that came from Chernobyl left Gorbachev more decisive in implementing glasnost rhetoric, but it was too late for many as Soviet citizens began questioning the validity of glasnost.
Life After Chernobyl
Chernobyl was the perfect storm of all the problems that were to come with Gorbachev’s reforms. However, the Chernobyl accident occurred in 1986, five years before the Soviet collapse. In short, there were more trickle down effects to come from glasnost and perestroika. However, the Soviet government was uneasy about granting complete open expression for the first time in the USSR’s history. Yet the embarrassment that followed the Chernobyl accident led Gorbachev to become more decisive and hardheaded with his implementation of glasnost and perestroika.
Open expression became a staple of glasnost. Individuals connected to media began showing the gritty, more realistic portrayal of Soviet life instead of the utopian society depicted in propaganda. Crime, child abuse, suicide, prostitution, homelessness, declining health standards, poverty, and corruption were detailed extensively. TV exposé’s like the news program Fifth Wheel filmed and broadcast the luxurious homes of the party elite in comparison to the impoverished living conditions of the working-class. Soviet history was rewritten to show for the first time that Stalin was a mass murderer who killed millions of innocents and former General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev lived an extravagant, corrupt, and materialistic life. Glasnost opened up a variety of new problems that angered and humiliated many of the Soviet citizenry. The dissolving of the “Soviet façade” intensified.
Soviet essayist Alexander Tsipko summed up the feelings that many citizens felt during the era. True, glasnost created more opportunities for freedom of speech and of the press, but the revelations that came with glasnost on Soviet history completely demoralized the Soviet populace. Tsipko wrote the following to define the shocking feeling that many Soviet citizens had from glasnost’s “therapy by truth”:
No people in the history of mankind was ever enslaved by myths as our people was in the 20th century… We thought that building communism in the USSR was the greatest deed of our people, but we were purposefully engaging in self-destruction…We thought that our national industry, organized like one big factory…was the ultimate achievement of human wisdom, but it all turned out to be an economic absurdity which enslaved the economic and spiritual energies of…Russia.
This powerful sentiment mirrored the feelings to the majority of Soviet citizenry. The heartbreak felt by Tsipko echoed throughout the Soviet Union, as it seemed that everything that Soviet citizens had learned and believed in were all lies fabricated by the CPSU. The feeling of confusion and loss of the Soviet ideology was quickly replaced by open protest and rage against the system that many Soviets had spent their entire lives trusting. Consequently, glasnost allowed open expression of anti-communist and anti-Soviet views that ultimately gained momentum as organized social movements led to public protest against the CPSU. Between the Chernobyl meltdown and the collapse of the USSR was five years of brutal honesty that destroyed many Soviet citizens’ belief in the Soviet system. What sparked this doubt toward the system and the intensification of glasnost was Chernobyl.
Gorbachev in Retrospect
In a 2006 interview Gorbachev saw Chernobyl as the real reason the Soviet Union collapsed. Chernobyl showed the hypocrisy of glasnost, the CPSU’s unwillingness to be honest with the Soviet people, the economic and environmental devastation on the USSR, and the embarrassment of admitting a cover-up. Combined, they proved to the Soviet people that Gorbachev was not the reformer he claimed to be. Gorbachev states, “The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later”. Chernobyl was a moment that represented all the problems and hypocrisies that were to come with Gorbachev’s reforms. Yet this loosening of media relations led to more complications than the Soviet Union could swallow, as the policy of glasnost became more of a problem than a solution. Without the intensification of glasnost the Soviet Union could have survived longer than its collapse in 1991. However, if it was not for the Chernobyl meltdown and its failed cover-up, Gorbachev would not have felt obligated to intensify his policy of glasnost.
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 Diane Koenker and Ronald D. Bachman, Revelations from the Russian Archives: Documents in English Translation, 499.
 Ibid. 499.
 Ibid. 499.
 Yuri Andropov. “KGB memorandum from Andropov to the Central Committee, February 21, 1979, on construction flaws at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant”, in Revelations from the Russian Archives: Documents in English Translation, 501.
 The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, “Urgent report on the Chernobyl accident from the first deputy minister of energy and electrification, April 26, 1986” in Revelations from the Russian Archives: Documents in English Translation, 501.
 The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, “Resolution of the Central Committee, April 29, 1986, on additional measures to be taken concerning the damage caused by the Chernobyl accident” & “Central Committee resolution of April 30, 1986, concerning progress in repairing damage caused by the Chernobyl accident” in Revelations from the Russian Archives: Documents in English Translation, 505-508.
 Vladimir Gubarev. “Report by Pravda journalist Gubarev on his observations at the site, May 22, 1986” in Revelations from the Russian Archives: Documents in English Translation, 509-511.
 Malia, The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991, 421.
 Strayer, Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse?: Understanding Historical Change, 99.
 Ibid. 99.
 Ibid. 100.
 Ibid. 100.
 Alexander Tsipko. “Novy Mir 4”, in Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse?: Understanding Historical Change, 105.
 Ibid 105.
 Green Road Journal Writing Staff, "Gorbachev; Chernobyl Nuclear Accident Was Real Cause Of The Collapse of Soviet Union, But It Took 20 Years For The Truth To Come Out, Just Like TMI And Fukushima, Denial Plus Cover Up Is The Norm," A Green Road Journal, April 15, 2016, , accessed October 24, 2016, http://www.agreenroadjournal.com/2012/12/gorbachev-chernobyl-nuclear-accident.html.