Chernobyl and the Meltdown of the USSR


This picture shows Ukrainian “liquidators” who worked to build a cement “sarcophagus” around the remains of nuclear reactor 4. Their banner reads “We will fulfill the government’s order!” (at least, according to the source of the photo it does, I myself have, shall we say, “limited” Russian..). Thousands of liquidators like these either died from or suffer from radiation related diseases. Chernobyl is an incredibly fascinating topic, but I will try to stick to some kind of organized, succinct structure.

Here’s the meltdown:

At around 1:30 a.m.on the night of April 26, 1986 (approximately a year after Gorbachev came to power and began implementing the revolutionary reforms of perestroika and glasnost) a combination of human and design error exploded in nuclear fashion in northern Ukraine. An experiment to test how long the turbines would continue powering the main circulating pumps after a loss of electrical power was designated to take place this night, however, a fatal design flaw made the reactors highly unstable at low power and the workers at Chernobyl were mainly unskilled men with little comprehension as to the possible problems that could occur. By the time an operator realized the danger in reactor number 4, it was too late, and his attempt to halt the experiment by shutting down the reactor accidentally resulted in a power surge 100 times greater than the structure could handle. Reactor number 4 blew its top off, releasing a plume of radiation into the atmosphere, and starting several strong graphite fires (these fires were actually the cause of most of the release of radiation rather than the initial explosion; the fires inside reactor 4 burned for several days without containment). This is a 6 minute excerpt from a film made by Vladimir Shevchenko of Chernobyl a few days after the explosion. He died several weeks after filming from radiation poisoning, along with his cameramen. There used to be a better version of this clip with English subtitles here instead of having to listen to thickly accented English spoken over Russian and music, but unless my computer deceives me its gone now unfortunately. Also! This is a short video of an enormous radioactive mass found in the basement of Chernobyl nicknamed the “Elephant’s Foot” about 7 months after the accident.

Sources: Mostly from The World Nuclear Association’s page at, but the part about the graphite fires is from Yuri Shcherbak’s article “Ten Years of the Chornobyl Era” in Scientific American. I found it on the university library website so unfortunately posting a link to it takes you to nowhere.

Here’s the tricky part:

Soviet response to this disaster was mixed. Firefighters responded quickly to the explosion and attempted to put out the fires throughout the nuclear plant. Later-released Politburo documents confirm that Gorbachev was aware of the disaster, the release of radiation, and the still-burning fires, within 8 hours of its occurrence (DANILOFF). The next day the town of Pripyat (a town composed mainly of Chernobyl plant workers and their families) was evacuated; supposedly only for 3 days although to this day the town is still considered too dangerous for resettlement. This is a video of Pripyat the day it was evacuated (isn’t it amazing that there is footage of this?! You can actually see radiation in the footage towards the end, manifested as little sparks). Despite knowledge of the accident, the Soviet government made no mention of it either to its people or to surrounding countries until two full days later, when international pressure following the discovery by Swedish officials of extremely high levels of radiation wafting over the Soviet border into Sweden. This is the full statement (DANILOFF) released by the Soviet government to appease international demands: “An accident occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power station; one of the four atomic reactors has been damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. Victims are being helped. A government commission has been created.” How very glastnost-y of the government; those 42 words perfectly describe the situation and the action being taken to control the damage- as a citizen, either Soviet or simply a neighbor, I would feel greatly comforted and reassured by that statement, and not at all concerned about my family’s health. In the spirit of Gorbachev’s darling glasnost, the Soviet government soon released a similarly long-winded and informative statement, promptly jammed foreign broadcasts, prohibited foreign press from entering any town near Chernobyl (TAUBMAN)(“I am so sorry,” they are told, “all of the hotel rooms in the city are simply booked full!”), and Gorbachev himself waited an appropriate 18 days before addressing the troubled Soviet population with a reassuring 25 minute pep talk denouncing Western anti-Soviet propaganda, defending Soviet responses, and acknowledging 9 deaths (DANILOFF). Despite Soviet measurements of extremely dangerous radiation levels up to 100 km surrounding the plant, in order to avoid panic rather than evacuating these towns they were merely told not to eat any of their crops, livestock, or any products of their livestock (SALISBURY)/(GLOBER) (not as though sufficient replacement food arrived, in effect making the warning udderly useless; apologies for the lame radioactive cow pun). More information slowly leaked out over the course of the next few years, although Politburo records containing vital information concerning the government’s conscious cover-up weren’t released until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Sources: unfortunately I can’t post links to these either since they either came off the university library site or from proquest and those links take you nowhere, but, information marked DANILOFF came from Nicholas Daniloff’s article “Chernobyl and It’s Political Fallout: A Reassessment” in the journal Democratizatsiya, retrieved from the VT library site. The sentence marked TAUBMAN came from Philip Taubman’s 1989 article “Soviet Keeps Lid on News Coverage: Information So Far Is Limited to 2 Terse Statements- Press Trips Are Curbed” in the New York Times, retrieved from ProQuest. The information marked SALISBURY came from Harrison Salisbury’s 1986 article “Gorbachev’s Dilemma” in the New York Times retrieved from ProQuest. Finally, the information marked GLOBER came from Katya Glober’s article “Chernobyl Cover-up” in The Toronto Star, retrieved from the VT library site.

Why am I making you read/watch all this stuff (I promise this is the end)

The main point I am trying to make is that despite Gorbachev’s call for glasnost, when it came down to it, he heeded the advice of his Politburo companions and sought the safety of censorship. Ironically, Chernobyl is the turning point for glasnost that Gorbachev had aimed for, albeit not at all in the manner he’d hoped. The Chernobyl disaster opened the floodgates for the media, both foreign and domestic. More and more information came out that implicitly proved that the government had continued to censor information from its citizens at the needless expense of many Soviet lives, which led to many people questioning other reformation policies like perestroika (despite its intentions, perestroika was kind of a complete economic and social failure; not radical enough for liberals, too radical for conservatives). As the Soviet people and press began using newly won freedoms to express their disenchantment with Soviet leadership, the breakup of the Union became more and more accepted and imminent. Chernobyl served as a major catalyst to bring about true glasnost and as a side-effect became a catalyst that expedited the fall of the Soviet Union.


** I have learned something else interesting! Not only have people returned to illegally live in the contaminated areas surrounding Chernobyl which scientists agree will not be safe for human habitation for upwards of 600 years, but due to the shortage of energy in the Ukraine people still actually work in the Chernobyl plant (it no longer produces plutonium). They work two weeks on and two weeks off to avoid radiation, a very logical system since they probably also live there, and are paid three times the normal wage for their labor. Wow.

Sources For More Pictures/Videos If You’re Interested

I provided the link to the picture in my post below it, and that site definitely has many interesting captioned pictures of Chernobyl and Pripyat that I didn’t see anywhere else (but I’d suggest control+f “chernobyl” since there are many pictures and the ones about Chernobyl don’t start ’til about halfway down the page)

Also, all the videos I used and more videos have been collected on a site called They’re all interesting, but the one called “Ghost Town” was particularly interesting because it showed more footage of Pripyat during the evacuations including the people being piled onto buses, and the accompanying song about Chernobyl is worth turning on your volume for the video.




5 comments on “Chernobyl and the Meltdown of the USSR

  1. Can I just say that my favorite part of this post is that picture? It reeks of happiness, and everyone in it looks like they’re having a marvelous time. “Woohoo! Cleaning up lethal waste and doing what the government says party! Alright, alright, alrighttttttt.” This post does a great job of illustrating yet another instance of Gorbachev making questionable decisions. In my post I talk about his anti-alcohol campaign. In that case, he felt he had to choose between prohibiting the sale of alcohol or allowing alcoholism to run rampant [moderation and encouraging people to drink responsibly apparently was not an option]. A post about the 500 Days Plan this week illustrates yet another poor decision of his: he could have either chosen to enact the plan and lose power or not come with any meaningful power, allowing the state to collapse and still losing his power. Your post shows his questionable decision regarding the employment of glasnost policy. Although it was fine and well to say that the government under him would be more transparent than ever before, it was another story to actually make that so. The Chernobyl meltdown is a great representation of the meltdown of Gorbachev’s glasnost facade.

  2. This is a fantastic blog post!! Those videos are disturbing to watch, especially the one about the evacuation of Pripyat. This was very well written and informative but still had a personality that made it exciting to read.

    • matthew wilkins says:

      Really nice to read this post, the personal touch really makes it enjoyable and I love puns so it was even better. Interesting to know how glasnost and perestroika were involved in this event, not just learning about how they helped bring about the end of the Soviet Union.

  3. Jessica Sutherlin says:

    This was a really cool post! I really liked the picture at the top. Its so interesting how happy and proud of themselves the men look, not even realizing how much danger they were putting themselves in, exposing themselves to all that radiation. I also really liked the first part where you described in detail what actually happened and how the accident occurred,it gave a good background for the rest of the post.

  4. […] Chernobyl and the Meltdown of the USSR […]

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