The Chernobyl disaster became one of the biggest challenges for the Soviet Union – a challenge that it could not overcome. The specificity of the Chernobyl disaster, which distinguishes it from such artificially created disasters as, for example, the Holodomor, was its global nature. Information about it could not be localized on one specifically defined territory, completely clogging up all possible leaks, censoring the media and blocking access to foreign media.
Rumors of an accident circulated around the world like radioactive particles spread by the wind. The Soviet system, straining its rusted wheels, entered the global battle for information about Chernobyl, which it lost, which ultimately became the beginning of the end of authoritarianism.
Last year, the Institute of National Memory for the first time managed to synchronize and put together all the documents of the State Security Committee of the Soviet Union of the period 1986-1991, which cover the “Chernobyl life” – public moods, everyday life, intelligence facts, measures to eliminate the consequences of the Chernobyl accident. Numerous previously classified documents, the most complete information about what happened in the then “before and after the Chernobyl USSR”, appeared openly for readers.
If Soviet media were turned into an instrument for promoting propaganda among the masses, then the KGB reports and summaries, addressed to a narrow layer of state security and party nomenclature leaders, provided the most complete information, even if it was ideologically distorted. In fact, we got a whole section of the era that was carefully conveyed to us by informants, snitches, tipsters, “tethered goats” and state security workers.
Information vacuum – “talkers are under control”
In terms of the presentation of information, the time after the Chernobyl disaster can be divided into several periods. The first period occurred immediately after the onset of the disaster and was characterized by an almost complete absence of any information about the tragedy. In fact, there was a complete informational vacuum in the country.
And this was nothing new: the system traditionally decided to play according to its old rules – if a problem arose, you just need to shut it up. The Soviet Union almost never talked about technological disasters. In the Soviet press, it was not possible to read, for example, about the tragic explosion in a mine, which killed people. Therefore, everyone also began to work according to the old scheme in the case of Chernobyl.
However, the scale of the disaster, the proximity of such a large city as Kiev, made silence on the disaster impossible. After the city of Pripyat was evacuated, which is about 45 thousand people, it became almost impossible to hide the disaster. Rumors and panic spread throughout Ukraine, and especially in Kiev, the peak of which occurred on May 7-8, when residents of the capital in droves began to take their children out of the city. In fact, at that time, rumors performed about the same function as social networks now.
Of course, the KGB took this very seriously. The April 27 intelligence report speaks of the fight against rumors and methods of influence on people who disseminate some kind of unverified, according to the security services, information. They were given nicknames – “talkers” – in documentary summaries, and state security representatives were obliged to report on preventive work with them twice (!) a day. The regional departments had to report every day till 11 a.m. and 17 p.m. to the duty officer of the KGB: how many “talkers” were identified, how many preventive conversations were conducted, how many people were warned, what is the situation in the districts, enterprises, and institutions.
“Talkers” – who are they?
Mostly these were ordinary people, those whom we would call “couch experts” today, Instagram or Facebook users who picked up something in an information vacuum or simply expressed their opinion. Fortunately, the system somewhat lost its bloodlust in 1986, and in the vast majority of cases for them it all ended with “preventive” conversations with representatives of the state security. Another tool in the fight against unauthorized dissemination of information was the mass wiretapping and the disconnection of phones in case interlocutors raised “forbidden” topics. However, there have been cases of more open resistance. In particular, the intelligence information dated April 30 reports on the recorded fact of putting up home-made postcards in the booths of pay phones on the streets of Kiev with “biased fabrications about the consequences of the Chernobyl accident and slanderous attacks against the Soviet leadership”. However, such cases were more likely an exception.
Educational work of the authorities among the population began only in mid-May.
“… Already after the evacuation of the inhabitants of the Chernobyl zone, indirectly, various structures and organizations had people begun to learn how to behave under radiation conditions – they talked about the need to wipe their feet, wash their hands, and even drink red wine. Also it was secretly begun to catch radiation spots on the territory of Kiev. When they say that the top party leadership did not know about radiation, then this is not true. The documents clearly show that they were given information on radioactive control several times a day.
At the same time, a significant amount of information continued to be hidden from the population. They hid how many people fell ill with radiation sickness, the scale of the disaster, which radionuclides and how far they were spread by the wind, the direction of movement of the air masses contaminated with radiation, the methods of decontamination works and on what territory they were carried out, ”ahistorian O.Bazhan says. According to him, there were more than 26 points characterizing the intelligence information coming to the KGB as “top secret”.
It is worth adding that the KGB identified several groups of the population, which were much more thoroughly involved than the rest. We are talking about Ukrainian dissidents, Jews and representatives of individual religious communities. Regarding the latter, one of the intelligence summaries reports on the expectations of the Jehovah’s Witnesses of a new disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, a breakthrough of the Kiev reservoir and flooding of part of Kiev. As a result, members of the Baptist community decided to raise funds to help their co-religionists.
There are also a number of documents that give reason to believe that total internal surveillance was conducted, in particular for scientists and their families, statesmen and public figures. Thanks to the huge number of snitches, special services had the opportunity to receive information, so to speak, from the inside.
For example, there is a report in the KGB summaries that, during a conversation between her daughter and mother, the latter expressed some “special opinion” about the Chernobyl disaster. If we exclude the recording of such a conversation on technical means, it can be assumed that the source of information was a close person.
Strict censorship for Soviet media
Oddly, this would not sound, but it is almost impossible to find references to Soviet media in the KGB reports for 1986. All this is explained quite simply: the press and television were actually another component of the huge propaganda machine. At the very beginning, there was a steady information vacuum around the Chernobyl tragedy.
Perhaps today someone remembers that they showed a photograph of the whole and intact Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the information program “Time”, which appeared on several national channels at once. The first materials about Chernobyl began to appear only after May 7, in which the main theme was the heroism of the Soviet people.
Such a narrow presentation of information could not, but cause concern for citizens. One KGB report noted:
“The greatest concern of the population is the situation in the accident zone, the lack of information about the level of radioactive contamination in Kiev, as well as the inconsistency of information in the press.
So, the workers of the varnish and paint plant note that an article was published in the newspaper “News” about the situation in the Byelorussian SSR, where a significant number of prohibited regulations were noted, while at the same time an article was published in the newspaper “Sovetskaya Ukraina” that everything can be eaten”.
Over time, more and more materials about the Chernobyl disaster began to appear in the Soviet press and on television. At the same time, it is the Ukrainian media, both print and television, that were starting to show the situation from the scene of the disaster and its consequences more fully and systematically than the central Soviet ones. However, it is obvious that journalists continue to have problems with censorship.
The intensity of visits to the zone by Ukrainian television correspondents has fallen markedly since the beginning of 1987. Perhaps two factors have become decisive here. The first is stabilization of the situation in the Chernobyl region. The second is difficulties on the way of reporting to the screen.
According to reports, it is even more difficult for correspondents of the USSR State Television and Radio to obtain permission to broadcast materials. Not all frames get on the screen, for which the completeness and quality of information suffer. Viewers do not see many interesting reports at all.
Deceptive contacts for Western media
If the situation with Soviet media was more or less predictable and controlled, then things were the opposite with Western media. Immediately after the explosion, they actively tried to obtain information about the Chernobyl disaster.
According to the KGB reports, as early as April 27, France Press correspondents and Swedish journalists tried to call Chernobyl from their hotel rooms in order to get comprehensive information about what had happened. “They were given appropriate explanations in an avaricious form during the conversation,” the KGB summaries reported on the result of such communication.
The crew of the American television station CBS, which on May 23-25, 1986, collected material in Kiev about the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster, was under the round-the-clock control of the special services. Here, security officials applied the “deceptive contact” method.
“Journalists walk along the street and try to ask the people of Kiev and guests of the capital about the situation at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and in the Kiev region. They are sent a man as if he were an accidental passer-by, but in fact – “a tethered goat” who broadcasts the necessary information to foreigners”.
Using this method, state security officials achieved the desired result: “Foreigners agreed with the facts of publication in the USA of biased materials about the Chernobyl accident …”
Forced openness and the beginning of the end of authoritarianism
However, it was becoming increasingly difficult to solve the problem of blocking inconvenient information with “relevant explanations” and “deceptive contacts” every day. The dark shadow of Chernobyl was spreading across the planet, it was becoming increasingly difficult to localize its information.
In 1987, the Soviet government initiated a series of events that should demonstrate the openness of the USSR to the world on the issue of the Chernobyl disaster. A press conference is being held, ten foreign journalists are admitted to the final part of the trial of the leadership of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
In parallel, the KGB listens and analyzes all telephone conversations of foreign journalists who come to the Soviet Union. In fact, state security workers receive all the necessary information at the moment when the editorial staff receives it.
The conclusions of the special services are optimistic: the vast majority of foreign journalists are impressed by their access to the site of the tragedy, positive reviews prevail over negative ones. They paid close attention to Radio Liberty and the Voice of America, which were considered hostile to the Soviet regime – they were effectively suppressed.
In general, a fairly optimistic picture is visible from the KGB reports already a year after the accident: the first acute phase of the accident is supposedly localized, the discourse is conducted around the consequences of the disaster, voices of “optimists” are already heard, saying about the completion of the complete deactivation of the exclusion zone and an early possibility of returning to their home evacuated people.
In parallel with the “extinguishing of information fires”, Chernobyl sprouts into the cultural environment, then Soviet Ukraine. Documentary films begin to be shot about the tragedy, however, not all of them at that time reached the audience because of censorship, writers and poets began to write literary works.
Gradually, from the next tragedy, which had every chance of being “buried by officialdom”, the Chernobyl disaster turns into a momentous event for an entire nation, which will soon make its historical choice in favor of independence and renunciation of authoritarianism.