Not much has been said about Chernobyl — books have been written, documentaries and feature films have been shot, international scientific discourses are being held. For this purpose, most of the Ukrainian archives have recently been opened for general study, including the early classified materials from the KGB archives that have become available. Today, they are the ones that cause the greatest interest among fans of digging in the past.
Among such “fans” is professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, S.N.Plohiy. He came to Chernobyl more than once. Many at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant knew that the eminent Soviet-Canadian-American historian was working on a large book for the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. And so, his work dedicated to the Chernobyl disaster under the name “Chernobyl” was published in 2018.
For this work, the author received the most prestigious British literary award, Baillie Gifford Prize, which was repeatedly mentioned by leading Ukrainian media. He brilliantly illustrates not only the events in it that took place at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant at the time and after the accident, but also their long-term historical significance. This book is the final story of the disaster that happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986.
According to the author himself, his work is the first story of the Chernobyl disaster from the moment of the explosion until the station was closed in December 2000, and ends with the story of the construction of a new sarcophagus over the damaged rector in May 2018.
Further, the latest history opens for Chernobyl. The preface tells about the author’s visit to Pripyat and how he collected material bit by bit for those who want to understand what really happened on April 26, 1986, as well as in the following days, months, years.
After the Revolution of Dignity, foreigners, like the Ukrainians themselves, gained unprecedented access to the previously secret KGB archives. This fact became another motive for S.Plohiy. He decided to write the history of Chernobyl.
Below are some fragments that have already become historical, which give the reader the opportunity to briefly familiarize themselves with the work of a famous Harvard scientist who was born and received a ticket to life in Ukraine.
“… It is known that one of the first countries that recorded a radioactive cloud from the border with the USSR was Sweden. At that time, firefighters at the Chernobyl NPP extinguished in full swing the intense foci of flame formed at the 4th power unit during the explosion. It was possible to completely localize the fire only closer to May 10.
It was at that moment that V. Bryukhanov, the director of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, recalled how, at the beginning of 1986, returning from the next congress of the CPSU in Moscow, in an interview with one of the Moscow publications he positively spoke about the activities of M. Gorbachev and the party as a whole, but less firmly added:
“We hope that more attention will be paid to the reliability and safety of nuclear energy and especially our Chernobyl station. This is the most important thing for us.” However, the conversation was published in the press without this warning.
We will build in Chernobyl, near Kiev…
… The decision on the need to build a nuclear power plant near Kiev was made back in 1966. One of the biggest enthusiasts of this decision was the then Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Ukrainian SSR and a member of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR Alexander Shcherban. Subsequently, Vladimir Shcherbitsky “gave the go-ahead” to the start of the construction of the Chernobyl NPP, as it was then called the Central Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plant. S.Plohiy writes on the pages of Chernobyl the history of Pripyat as a city that was very comfortable for living by Soviet standards: “In the mid-1980s, it was almost impossible to buy in most cities of the USSR, for example, cheese or sausage. However, these products were completely available in Pripyat. People in the city lived in one friendly family: Vasily Kizema, the head of the Chernobyl construction department, fought with party officials to improve working conditions at the station.
Lyubov Kovalevskaya, a reporter for the local newspaper “Tribune of Energetiks”, published articles on the problems of building the 5th power unit in Literary Ukraine. And charismatic Leonid Vetrov, a simple mechanic, believed not only in God, but also in the “great” power of Soviet science and nuclear energy in particular.”
Hell for the Pripyat residents came suddenly, on the night of April 26, 1986
On the day of the accident, 132 firefighters, station operators and engineers ended up in a Pripyat hospital with signs of radiation damage. The staff of the main hospital of Pripyat was ready for everything except radioactive poisoning.
When fire engines moved towards the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and ambulances brought the wounded to the hospital, the KGB cut off long-distance telephone lines in order to prevent the dissemination of information about the accident. Engineers and station workers on shift were forbidden to talk about the incident even at home, although smoke from the station rose higher and was clearly visible in Pripyat itself.
The Secretary General of the Central Committee for Communist Party of the Humanities M. Gorbachev could not fully believe what happened, because leading Soviet scientists assured him of the safety and reliability of nuclear energy:
“Academician Aleksandrov told me that a nuclear reactor could even be installed on Red Square, because there would be no greater danger from it than from a samovar.”
S.Plohiy describes the mixed reaction of all-Union and Ukrainian officials and scientists to the Chernobyl disaster. The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was compared with the 1979 incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in the United States, which is probably why Armen Abagyan, director of one of the Moscow institutes for the study of nuclear energy, who was sent to Pripyat as a member of the government commission, demanded the immediate evacuation of the city.
The same was requested by the Russian academician Valery Legasov, warning the leadership: “I do not know what may happen to the reactor tomorrow.” Everyone was afraid of radioactive contaminations of groundwater, which could fall into the ocean through the Dnieper and the Black Sea. V. Legasov believed that the main threat was radioactive water pumped out from under the reactor. Soviet scientists demanded to freeze water under the reactor as quickly as possible.
What happened in Pripyat remains in Pripyat
A separate section of Chernobyl is devoted to describing the attempts of the Soviet leadership to hide what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, both from the world and from its own citizens. “What happened in Pripyat remains in Pripyat. This requirement strictly applied at the time of the accident and a few days after it,” S.Plohiy writes.
The Kremlin had previously managed to classify a similar catastrophe that occurred in 1957 at a nuclear power plant in the city of Ozersk, near Chelyabinsk. According to the same plan, they planned to act with the Chernobyl disaster.
The Soviet media began to talk about the Chernobyl disaster only at 9 a.m. on Monday, April 28, 12 hours after high radiation was recorded in Sweden. On April 30, the All-Union newspaper “Pravda” published a short report about the accident at the bottom of the second newspaper page.
News of the death of firefighters was kept secret from foreign correspondents. M.Gorbachev first spoke about the accident on May 15, 1986, and visited Chernobyl only on February 23, 1989. Rumors of a Chernobyl explosion scared tourists, especially in Kiev, but the KGB made a lot of efforts to reassure foreigners. Soviet officials “deftly fought back” from attacks by foreign media and tried to keep everything under control.
Chernobyl: Crime and Punishment
The author of Chernobyl tells about the trial of the station workers, who were accused of violating safety procedures – V. Bryukhanov, N. Fomin, A. Dyatlov and three of their colleagues who served time in prison, almost documented.
A special attitude is felt to Valery Legasov, who was a member of the government commission to investigate the causes and to eliminate the consequences of the accident. Subsequently, at the cost of his own life, Legasov told the world the truth about the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster and about problems in the design of the reactor.
In May 1987, he was diagnosed with cancer cells in the blood, his health condition deteriorated sharply. Two years after the Chernobyl tragedy, Legasov presented at the Academy of Sciences a plan to create a council to combat stagnation in Soviet science, which, to his great disappointment, was rejected by his colleagues.
The title of Hero of the Soviet, for which Professor Legasov was nominated twice, was not given to him, nor was he elected to the academic council of the Institute of Atomic Energy. “Radiation and psychological depression” exacerbated his own guilt, and pushed for an awful decision to commit suicide.
Chernobyl also describes the activities of Ukrainian dissidents and cultural figures in protecting the environment. In June 1988, a turning point came in an attempt to draw public attention to the terrible environmental consequences of Chernobyl.
In connection with the policy of publicity, “in the name of perestroika,” M. Gorbachev encouraged criticism of cultural elites and officials. Local bureaucrats gave the green light to rallies and demonstrations only on the condition that they would be held exclusively in an “ecological” vein. The KGB closely monitored their activities, fearing that dissidents would use “environmental” rallies to announce the creation of the People’s Movement of Ukraine.
The statistics on the consequences of Chernobyl are as follows: 38,000 km2 were affected by radiation in Ukraine, which is 5% of the territory and 5% of the population; 44 thousand km2 were infected in Belarus, which is 23% of the territory and 19% of the population, in Russia – 1% of the population. According to the UN report, 4 thousand people died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Greenpeace publishes an even more shocking figure – 90 000 deaths.
In the epilogue, the American researcher identifies two main reasons that, in his opinion, led to a terrible tragedy in Chernobyl: along with the violation of safety precautions by the station personnel, S. Plochy notes that “the Chernobyl type of reactor was built more to create an atomic bomb than peaceful atom.”