This week in history: Chernobyl nuclear reactor explodes in USSR

From Chases Calendar of Events (2012, slightly edited): “Thirty years ago, on April 26, 1986, at 1:23 a.m., an explosion occurred at the Chernobyl atomic power station at Pripyat, Ukrainian SSR, 78 miles north as the crow flies from the capital city of Kiev. The resulting fire burned for days, sending radioactive material into the atmosphere. More than 100,000 persons were evacuated from a 300 square-mile area around the plant. Three months later 31 people were reported to have died and thousands exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Estimates projected an additional 1,000 cancer cases in nations downwind of the radioactive discharge. The plant was encased in a concrete tomb in an effort to prevent the still-hot reactor from overheating again and to minimize further release of radiation.”

In the summer of 1980, after the Moscow Olympics had concluded, I had the good fortune of participating in an American peace mission to the USSR, organized by a Connecticut-based group called Promoting Enduring Peace. We visited five major cities and their environs, and in each place met with representatives of the Soviet Peace Committee for an exchange of views. My memories of the trip are especially clear because I shortly published an extensive account of it in the New England chain of Advocate newspapers, from which I offer the following excerpt adapted for publication here:

“At our meeting in Odessa we are faced by a panel of five or six men and one woman, most of them from the University. Someone from our group asks: Might there be some kind of common economic order that is neither capitalism nor communism? Some kind of convergence of the two systems? ‘We don’t depend on this evolution,’ we are answered. ‘Each system believes it’s forever. But the important thing is to avoid war. In the last fifty years some U.S. theorists have come to see some good things here in the Soviet Union, so there’s some hope. Your economist Galbraith recommends state ownership of industries but without ideological underpinnings.’

“In answer to our question about the dangers of nuclear power and particularly nuclear wastes, we are assured that research is going on in solar, water and thermal energy, but that so far it is only theoretical. New methods of re-using nuclear wastes are being developed, but in any case there is no problem because the Soviet Union has strict laws about radioactive materials. After several of these responses, the woman on the panel, who has not addressed any of our questions, leans over to her colleagues and makes remarks in Russian, as if to correct or amplify their comments, but her additions are not translated. When the formal part of the session is concluded, I and several of the women in our group surround her to ask more questions.

“In absolutely fluent English she criticizes what she calls the ‘lyricism’ of the Soviet responses, in other words their needless defensiveness, and appreciates the Americans’ need to hear more candid, balanced statements….

“Afterwards I feel somewhat chagrined with myself, for I am feeling that here, finally, is a Soviet citizen speaking with us on a private level, but also within a semi-official context, whose ability to examine issues objectively and to acknowledge continuing problem areas in Soviet life is unfettered by tight ideological restraints. Am I so conditioned by my own values that I only half accept what I hear in the more customary self-confident, unquestioning tones of Soviet pronouncements? That I believe critical statements are somehow more ‘true’ than other assertions? That I have come all this way here only to confirm my own ideas?”

When I wrote that long article, which I mailed to every participant in our group, I did not include mention of a further exchange on that panel because I figured my report might well find its way back to the USSR, courtesy of some very ardent Communist Party members on our tour, and I did not wish to cause any problem for that panelist who differed in her view of things.

At that session where I raised the problem of storage of nuclear waste, our panelists assured us that from our point of view this was a reasonable question, for in a capitalist society private contractors took advantage of every loophole and cut every corner to maximize profits, so no wonder our nuclear plants were not safe. But in the Soviet Union, a socialist country, they go the extra mile to ensure that every precaution is put into place, every safeguard secure, because the government and the nuclear industry and the people are all one and share the same interests. I said, Fine, but how long is the radioactive half-life of nuclear waste – 25,000 years? – and how can you know that this country will still be socialist at that time? Some of our own group – Party members, I was sure – rose to object to my “hostile” questions. And then afterward, that woman from the panel, who had not spoken for her side except privately to her colleagues, approached me over refreshments, saying that the answers I had been offered were too over-confident, and that in fact some scientists there were asking the same questions.

Six years later Chernobyl blew, and the way the government handled that incident, minimizing and denying risks, discouraging accurate reportage and access, helped to destroy the Soviets’ basic trust in their system. And by that time Mikhail Gorbachev was already in power, the great reformer and liberalizer. Within five years the USSR was no more.

I’m so glad I had the opportunity to experience three weeks in the life of the Soviet Union at its height, and I should not fail to add, I saw a great deal that was healthy and positive. I left there with a profound sense that it was extremely difficult in such an authoritarian state to effect real and substantive change, with isolation, silence and punishment your only reward for speaking what you knew to be true, or even for asking the wrong questions. I was a socialist going there, and a socialist coming home, but my ideas about what socialism meant not only on a policy level, but in the quality of our day-to-day exchanges, became inextricably wedded to the norms of free speech and democratic rights that we knew – at least some of the time – in the West. And I do not believe our capitalist system, or any system, is forever.

Photo: AP


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.