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The Politics of Catastrophe

Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature Under Siege

by Murray Feshbach, by Alfred Friendly Jr.
Basic Books, 376 pp., $24.00

The Truth About Chernobyl

by Grigori Medvedev, translated by Evelyn Rossiter, foreword by Andrei Sakharov
Basic Books, 274 pp., $12.00 (paper)

No Breathing Room: The Aftermath of Chernobyl

by Grigori Medvedev, translated by Evelyn Rossiter, Introduction by David R. Marples
Basic Books, 213 pp., $20.00

Ablaze: The Story of the Heroes and Victims of Chernobyl

by Piers Paul Read
Random House, 362 pp., $25.00


A case can be made that the Soviet Union collapsed because of the way it treated the environment. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which ruled one sixth of the earth’s surface, squandered the resources of an immensely rich country and created an ecological catastrophe. As much as anything else, this undermined support for the regime by exposing as fraudulent its claim to have invented a new type of “scientific” policy-making and by showing how little it cared for the well-being of its citizens. In the Gorbachev years, when public opinion became a political force, environmental issues provided a major source of popular protest and separatist sentiment.

In Ecocide in the USSR Murray Feshbach and Alfred Friendly, Jr., provide a detailed and depressing inventory of the environmental degradation of the Soviet Union on the eve of its collapse. Feshbach is well known for earlier work in charting the decline of life expectancy and the increase in infant mortality in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. He and Friendly argue that damage to the environment was a major cause of the decline in public health. Extensive use of pesticides and defoliants contaminated the rivers feeding the Aral Sea, for example, so that mothers in the region who breast-fed their babies ran the risk of poisoning them. Besides, these rivers were used to irrigate the cotton mono-culture of Central Asia, with the result that the Aral Sea shrank by two thirds, and storms spread toxic salts from its exposed bed. Three quarters of the country’s surface water was unfit to drink, and one third of the underground sources contaminated. Nuclear accidents at Kyshtym and Chernobyl spread radioactive fallout over large areas of agricultural land and damaged the health of thousands of people. The health care system was in crisis. Eighty percent of rural hospitals and polyclinics had no hot water in 1990, reflecting the low priority of health care as well as the backwardness of the countryside.

The Soviet Union was of course not the only country with environmental problems, but it had special features that made the situation worse. Land, air, and water were as much victims of Stalin’s ruthless policies as the people of the Soviet Union were. “We cannot expect charity from nature,” Stalin said. “We must tear it from her.” Planners regarded the country’s natural resources as limitless. No effort was made to conserve these resources, which were used with great profligacy; they were priced cheaply, so that no one had an incentive to use them economically. And although political repression was eased after Stalin’s death, the basic premises of economic policy were not revised. The Party leaders continued to stress production above all else, and to ignore the social and environmental costs of the drive to catch up with the West.

Public opinion could not provide a counterweight to these policies. The Party and the government bureaucracy withheld information on environmental conditions and tried to stifle any expressions of concern about them. Signs of ecological consciousness emerged in the 1960s when scientists and writers joined to protest against the pollution of Lake Baikal by a cellulose plant that had been built on its shore. There were other indications that Soviet citizens were worried about the environment in the Brezhnev years, but ecological issues remained largely taboo until 1985. Only under Gorbachev did it become possible to voice open criticism; and the environmental movement received a powerful impetus from the Chernobyl catastrophe. More information began to become available. The first environmental protection agency was established in 1988. As Feshbach and Friendly point out, environmental issues such as polluted water became important in the elections to the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989 and to the republican Congresses in 1990.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union new information has appeared about Soviet destruction of the environment. It was reported recently, for example, that for thirty years the Soviet Navy had dumped nuclear reactors and radioactive waste into Russia’s northern seas; how much radioactivity has seeped into the ecosystem remains unclear, but the situation is potentially hazardous. A recent accident at the closed Russian city of Tomsk-7 (one of the ten secret cities of the nuclear weapons complex) released radioactive materials into the atmosphere. This was a reminder of the legacy that the Soviet Union has left to its successor states and of the need to protect citizens from a variety of hazards in each of the separate republics. Russia now has a new law on the environment, and an extensive environmental protection service. At the end of 1992 the Russian government issued the first of a series of annual surveys on health and the environment. The survey, which covers topics ranging from the state of domestic water pipes to the area of land contaminated by Chernobyl, shows that the government is now anxious to monitor the situation and willing to make public the results of its investigations.

But it will take time to translate the new environmental consciousness into action. People throughout the former Soviet Union are preoccupied with the problems of economic collapse and political crisis. Governments lack the resources to invest in cleaner technologies. In some cases the breakup of the Union has made the situation more difficult to deal with. The future of the Aral Sea, for example, would be helped by tree-planting to contain soil erosion in Tadzhikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where the two main rivers that feed the sea have their source. But it is not clear why these two states should undertake to plant trees to solve a problem that does not affect them directly.


In the 1970s Grigori Medvedev, a nuclear engineer working at the chief directorate for atomic energy, saw (as he later wrote)

how certain powerful people who were quite remote from the nuclear energy field thoughtlessly, as if in a state of incomprehensible euphoria, decided to cover up dozens of accidents at nuclear plants and press ahead with the construction of nuclear power stations in the European part of the USSR.

Medvedev was not opposed to nuclear power, but he believed strongly that the secrecy surrounding the nuclear industry should be removed. “Society will be able to make the right decisions,” he writes in No Breathing Room, “only when it has the fullest and most accurate information possible about the state of affairs in the nuclear industry.”

Medvedev decided to write a series of stories in order to warn people of the dangers that nuclear power presented. In “The Reactor Unit,” which he wrote in 1979, he refers obliquely to the 1957 accident at Chelyabinsk-40 (another of the secret nuclear sites) in the Urals, where an explosion in a tank containing nuclear waste spread radioactive materials over a wide area. This was the worst nuclear accident to take place anywhere in the world before Chernobyl, but it was covered up by the Soviet government, which acknowledged it only in 1989. Medvedev soon found the nuclear industry did not want to call attention to past accidents or to the possibility of future ones. When he took his stories to the editors of various journals, most of them wanted to help, but they could not publish without approval from an appropriate ministry, and the ministries had the right to censor anything that they deemed unfit for publication. As the chief censor said in 1989, “Many restrictions on the press, in force until very recently, were of ministerial origin, designed not so much to protect state secrets as to hide the failings of the ministries themselves.”

Medvedev was able to get some of his stories published; one of them appeared in 1981, though much altered by the journal. But his tale is basically one of frustration, relieved only by the courage of one or two people who were willing to take risks to help him. He continued to work in the office of the Ministry for Energy, which was responsible for the construction of power stations. On May 8, 1986, twelve days after the accident at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, he was sent to find out what was happening. He was already thinking of writing a book about the catastrophe. He had been chief engineer at Chernobyl when the plant was being built and knew some of the key people there. He gathered material about the accident, its causes and consequences, and about the cleanup effort. The result was The Truth About Chernobyl, which was published in the Soviet Union in 1989 and in this country in 1991.

Medvedev provides a wonderfully moving account of the Chernobyl tragedy. He describes in detail what happened at Reactor No. 4 in the early hours of April 26, 1986, and quotes extensively from interviews with those who were there. The accident began when, in order to carry out a safety test, the operators reduced the power level of the reactor and disabled a number of its safety systems. The relatively simple type of reactor used at Chernobyl is very unstable at low power levels: if the flow of cooling water to the reactor is reduced, the power can rise very sharply. This is what happened, and the result was that two explosions destroyed the reactor building and spewed radioactive materials into the atmosphere. The reactor operators and plant managers were bewildered by what had happened, and were unable to grasp the magnitude of the disaster. Officials were flown from Moscow to take charge of the cleanup operation, in which more than 600,000 people were ultimately involved.

Medvedev describes the confusion caused by the accident and the remarkable heroism shown by many of the operators and “liquidators,” as those who took part in the cleanup were called. He is critical of the technicians who ran the reactor for neglecting safety procedures, and he condemns the design of the reactor. He stresses above all, however, that the accident was the result of the nuclear industry’s secrecy and its refusal to allow plant operators to learn from past accidents. The nuclear industry and its leading scientists, notably Anatolii Aleksandrov, director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy and president of the Academy of Sciences, had insisted that nuclear power was safe, and that nuclear accidents could not happen in the Soviet Union.

The main lesson Medvedev draws from the disaster is that the truth must never be hidden. He wonders whether publication of his own stories might have prevented the catastrophe. He writes of his belief in the “magic power of the creative word, of the truth.” Is this belief so naive? “After all,” he writes, “the Word was God. And if God is the highest justice, the Word would have prevented and stopped the calamity. The Word can materialize. I believe in the immense power of words; that’s why I fight.”

The regime’s reaction to the catastrophe was quite different. It initially tried to cover it up. Only when the radioactive cloud passed beyond the Soviet borders and aroused anxiety in Europe did the Soviet government issue a terse official statement. Journalists were at first banned from writing about Chernobyl. Even after a Soviet delegation presented a detailed but incomplete account of the accident to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna in August 1986, the instinct of the Soviet bureaucracy was to restrict information, for fear of causing panic among the people of the Ukraine and other Soviet republics affected by the explosion. The effect of this policy was to spread fear and anxiety, and to enhance popular mistrust of the authorities.

Medvedev ran into a series of Gogolesque obstacles when he tried to publish his book. He still needed the censor’s stamp of approval, and Deputy Premier Boris Shcherbina, who had directed the initial stages of the cleanup operation, was determined that he should not get it. In spite of glasnost, editors were reluctant to go ahead without authorization. In 1988, Andrei Sakharov read the manuscript and liked it. He wrote to Gorbachev that “the publication of this story…would be of great service to our state; it would greatly broaden public discourse and self-knowledge on the part of the Soviet public.” This appeal to the “good Tsar” did not have an immediate effect. The Politburo discussed Sakharov’s letter but deferred a decision. It was only after Kommunist, the theoretical journal of the Communist Party, published excerpts on its own initiative that the whole of The Truth About Chernobyl appeared in Novy Mir in late 1989, with an introduction by Sakharov.


Controversy still rages about the consequences of Chernobyl. The official figure for the number of people killed was given as thirty-one shortly after the event. Feshbach and Friendly write that the number of fatalities inside the USSR “almost certainly reached four thousand in excess deaths by mid-1991 and may go ten times as high before 2036.” Others have claimed that by the spring of 1991 more than seven thousand of the liquidators—some of them soldiers sent to do such work as filling sandbags—had died from the effects of radiation.

It is, unfortunately, impossible to give precise figures. Eyewitness accounts make it clear that many of those involved in the cleanup were exposed—sometimes needlessly—to high levels of radiation, and some of the deaths could be attributed to such exposure. But the degree of exposure is not always easy to ascertain, and the effects of low-level radiation on health have not been definitively established. The only way to know how many people have died or fallen ill as a result of the accident is to compare the health of the exposed population with what its health would have been had there been no accident. The figure of seven thousand deaths among the liquidators does not appear to be based on such a study.

This is not to minimize the consequences of the accident, but to indicate how difficult it is to assess them precisely. In Ablaze, his account of Chernobyl, the English novelist Piers Paul Read devotes particular attention to the controversy about the consequences of the accident for health. Read’s tone is very different from Medvedev’s. Medvedev writes with the passion of a man who is possessed by his own quest for truth. Read strives for detachment. His book lacks the power and immediacy of Medvedev’s work, and it is also apparent that he is an expert neither on nuclear power nor on the Soviet Union. But he is a skillful writer, and he has interviewed many of those involved in the catastrophe. The result is a highly readable account both of how the explosion took place and of the reactions that followed.

Read describes the sorry experience of the International Chernobyl Project, which was organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1990–1991 to assess the radiological situation in the contaminated areas. The Soviet government had requested that the project be set up because it realized that its own statements on radiation were widely distrusted. Between May 1990 and January 1991, 220 scientists, mostly from the United States and Western Europe, went to the contaminated regions in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. In their report, which was made public in May 1991, the Western scientists concluded that the Soviet government scientists had overestimated the radiation doses that people had received. They found that the contamination of food and drinking water was in most cases significantly below the levels set as guidelines for international trade. The inhabitants in contaminated zones did not suffer from worse health than those living in nearby uncontaminated areas; health was generally bad, but none of the ailments could be ascribed directly to radiation.

The report observed that Soviet government scientists, by adopting a cautious approach, had exaggerated the radiological consequences of continuing to live in contaminated areas and thereby contributed to fear and anxiety in the population. More importantly, their overcautious estimates had resulted in unnecessary evacuations, causing stress and damage to people’s health.

By the time the International Chernobyl Project completed its report, Chernobyl had become a central political issue. It was now a symbol of the Soviet regime’s lack of concern for its citizens. Medvedev, for example, writes of Chernobyl as a continuation of Stalinist genocide by means of radiation. In Ukraine and Belarus popular anger and mistrust of Soviet mismanagement fed the movements for national independence. Feshbach and Friendly quote a Ukrainian ecologist who argued that “only a free people will survive in the land which experienced the disaster of Chernobyl.” In view of such feelings, it is not surprising that the report of the International Chernobyl Project proved controversial. The Ukrainian minister for Chernobyl rejected as too optimistic its findings about the extent of radioactive contamination. Environmentalists in Ukraine dismissed it as a whitewash by the international atomic energy mafia anxious to save nuclear power by playing down the significance of the catastrophe. As Read observes, decisive evidence for such charges has not been produced.

Just as the scientific issues were complex and open to different interpretations,” Read writes, “so were the motives of many of those who joined battle in the aftermath of Chernobyl.” The scientists who worked in the ministries and research institutes of the Soviet military-industrial complex were committed to the Soviet state and proud of its success in building up an extensive nuclear industry. But this association, Read points out, undermined their credibility. “To the democrats, nationalists and Greens,” he writes, “the subordination of the scientists to their superiors and the subordination of their superiors to the ideological imperatives of the state were proof enough that the scientists could not be trusted, and the wretched populace of the controlled zones were easily persuaded to agree.” In Read’s view, some of the critics had personal motives. Some loathed the Soviet state because their families had suffered from repression; others loathed the state for the shameful compromises it had forced upon them; others saw in the issue of Chernobyl the chance to establish their democratic credentials. Read is skillful in showing how personal fates were caught up in the larger tragedy.

Anti-nuclear feeling was strong after Chernobyl, and construction of new plants was halted in the Soviet Union. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, attitudes to nuclear power have changed. Separatist movements which once embraced the antinuclear cause in their struggle against Moscow have been abandoning it now that they have achieved independence. In Armenia, which has suffered from severe shortages of electric power for the last two years, the government wants to reopen two reactors that were shut down for safety reasons after the 1988 earthquake. In Belarus, where Chernobyl caused extensive contamination, the government has announced its intention of building a nuclear power plant. The Ukrainian government decided recently to restart Reactors No. 1 and 3 at Chernobyl, although the Parliament has voted to shut them down permanently by the end of this year. The Ukrainian authorities also want to complete three reactors on which construction had been stopped. In December of last year the Russian government adopted an ambitious nuclear power program, which calls for upgrading the safety of older reactors and completing the reactors whose construction was suspended in the aftermath of Chernobyl. In the second phase of the program, which is to start in 2000, new reactors will be built.

The new interest in nuclear power has arisen mainly for economic reasons. Some governments, like those of Armenia and Belarus, want to reduce their dependency on energy imports; others, like Russia’s, want to increase their exports of energy. Economic collapse has displaced nuclear safety as a matter of public concern. The change in attitude does not reflect a change in the safety of nuclear power. Some safety measures have been taken in the operation plants, and regulatory bodies have been set up for the nuclear industry. But these steps have not altered the underlying situation. On the contrary, there are serious reasons to be concerned about what is now happening to the nuclear industry of the former Soviet Union.1

As a group of Soviet and Western experts pointed out in May 1991, there were three main causes of the Chernobyl accident. The first was the defect in the reactor design, which made a rapid increase in power possible at low power levels. The second was the design of the system for shutting down the reactor, which operated slowly and could, under some circumstances, trigger an increase in power. The third was the lack of strong commitment to safety which would ensure that designers and operators placed safety above all other considerations.2 These causes have not been eliminated. Chernobyl-type reactors are still in operation, and so too are other old reactors with serious flaws in their design. These plants are generally recognized as more susceptible to the risk of a major nuclear accident than any other reactor in the world. Improvements have been made in the system for shutting down Chernobyl-type reactors, but funds are lacking for large-scale safety improvements. Ukraine, for example, has difficulty in finding the hard currency to buy spare parts from Russia. Finally, little progress appears to have been made in developing a strong sense that safety should be the overriding consideration in nuclear energy policy.

This situation indicates that although Medvedev is surely right to argue that secrecy contributed to Chernobyl, glasnost is by no means a sufficient guarantee of nuclear safety. The state of the nuclear industry of the former Soviet Union is still a matter for great concern. The human tragedy of another catastrophe like Chernobyl could become a political tragedy as well if such an accident discredited the current efforts to institutionalize democratic rule in the Soviet Union’s successor states.

  1. 1

    For a good survey see William C. Potter, “The future of nuclear power and nuclear safety in the former Soviet Union,” Nuclear News, March 1993, pp. 61–67.

  2. 2

    Recommendations and Proposals of Experts on the Theme: Global Implication of Chernobyl Disaster and the Future of Nuclear Power,” First International Andrei Sakharov Memorial Congress, Moscow, May 21–25, 1991, pp. 1–4.

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