How a Nuclear Catastrophe Undermined an Entire Empire

The future of fusion and fission.
Jan. 25 2013 3:45 PM

Did Chernobyl Cause the Soviet Union To Explode?

The nuclear theory of the fall of the USSR.

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Did Gorbachev realize his visionary reforms were undercutting his regime’s legitimacy? This seems highly unlikely. Kate Brown, a Soviet nuclear historian at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, believes that Gorbachev was a true believer in the Soviet system—and in the ability of free expression to solve the state’s myriad crises.*

“Gorbachev did really imagine an honest discussion of the country’s problems in the press and workplaces,” Brown said. But he also likely saw glasnost as an incremental process. The meltdown in Chernobyl, in contrast, was sensational and uncontainable. It wasn’t a systemic issue to be discussed in editorial pages and offices; it was a terrifying, deadly mistake caused by a poorly built and ineptly run facility and exacerbated by a slow, unsophisticated response.

Chernobyl, then, represented a fundamental shift in the relationship between the Soviet citizenry and the state. Before the explosion, most Soviets were not discontented dissidents; they believed in the Soviet system, forgave its flaws, and hoped for a better future within its confines. But after Chernobyl, the system seemed potentially unredeemable—and actively dangerous. In the early days of glasnost, stories of Stalin’s mass murders decades earlier slowly bubbled to the fore, but those generally receded, so far removed were they from everyday life. After Chernobyl, though, every citizen’s safety was at stake.

The explosion rained radioactive isotopes across the farmlands of northern Ukraine, contaminating crops, grazing areas, and livestock. “You had to ask the question, ‘What’s in my kid’s milk?’ ” Brown noted. “What’s in my food?” For many, the answer was radiation. In an attempt to dilute contaminated meat, the Soviet government mixed small amounts of radiation-tainted cow carcasses with noncontaminated beef then shipped the mix across the country. Horror stories of radiation spread; victims fled the area and then told their stories on street corners and in town halls. Testimonies appeared in books and newspapers, often with a note of criticism toward the regime’s response. The evidence was simply overwhelming: The once-hallowed regime was utterly fallible, and in this moment of crisis, it had failed.

The USSR would limp on for several more years before collapsing. One of history’s largest empires disappeared from the Earth on Christmas Day, 1991.

Though the regime is gone, Chernobyl remains—a ghost town and unintentional wildlife preserve packed with elk, wolves, wild boar, and nuclear hot spots. Its ghost lingers in northern Ukraine: The Ferris wheel from an amusement park set to open one week following the explosion sits frozen in time; children’s dolls haunt dark corners of abandoned houses; a massive indoor swimming pool sits empty, echoing the winds.

The tragedy that occurred here started as a horrible accident and then got worse as the regime first sat on its hands and then flailed them helplessly. It might have been the impetus for the downfall of the entire Soviet project. But the Chernobyl of 2013 does not look like the start of a major political upheaval. If anything, it looks more like a graveyard. Perhaps that’s only fitting. If Gorbachev’s theory is correct, Chernobyl represents the final resting place of the Soviet state, a government undone by the power of free expression. It took only one nuclear explosion to unleash that power.

Update, Jan. 28, 2013: This sentence was revised to clarify what campus of the University of Maryland system Kate Brown works at. (Return to the revised sentence.)

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