Secret Chernobyl

In Judgment in Moscow, Vladimir BUKOVSKY writes in passing with irony and scepticism of the Western reaction, in April 1986, to the explosion at the Chernobyl reactor and the behaviour of the Soviet leadership led by the “new Chichikov”, Mikhail Gorbachev. Again and again, he notes disbelievingly, Western commentators urged that the new head of the Communist Party be given “the benefit of the doubt”.

“Glasnost and Perestroika. The Soviet intelligentsia was not only taken in, it was constantly ready to sell itself for glasnost and perestroika. So was the whole world, however.

“How could they resist a ‘young and energetic’ General Secretary, especially one talking of reform, after the succession of despondent, unsmiling old men and their endless State funerals? Gorbachev had appeared after the sudden return of the Cold War in the early 1980s, with its crises, its arms race and the ‘struggle for peace’. How people longed to believe it was now all behind them! … Of the hundreds and thousands of politicians, journalists and academics in the world, only a handful remained sufficiently sober and did not succumb to temptation. … Yet all it took was one good look at Gorbachev, to listen once to his ungrammatical, clumsy and senseless chatter – translation greatly enhanced his words – to dispel any illusions.

“A superficial knowledge of the Soviet system was all it took to dispel such illusions: a liberal reformer could not be promoted within the Party. There are no such miracles. And still everyone longed for a miracle.”

Finally, he and nine other dissident Soviet émigrés living in the West, drafted and sent what became known as “The Letter of The Ten” to leading Western newspapers, demanding that the words of the new CPSU General Secretary be set alongside the reality of his deeds.

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Yesterday the National Security Archive, a non-government body in Washington D.C., published an e-book (Top Secret Chernobyl) documenting the crisis provoked by the Chernobyl catastrophe.

“Documents from the highest levels of the Soviet Union, including notes, protocols and diaries of Politburo sessions in the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, detail a sequence of cover-up, revelation, shock, mobilization, individual bravery, and bureaucratic turf battles in the Soviet reaction.”

Such private and internal discussions — there is also testimony and reminiscence from Ukrainian journalist Alla Yaroshinskaya — demand interpretation.

Just as the selection of classified documents secretly copied and transported westwards in 1992 by Bukovsky must be treated with caution (The Status of these Archives, § 5), so these new revelations demand a critical examination in the wider contemporary and historical context if their true worth is to be accurately assessed.

JC