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.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.)


Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
Sept. 23 2014 12:43 PM Occupy Wall Street How can Hillary Clinton be both a limousine liberal and a Saul Alinsky radical?
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Head of Security Had a Legacy of Sabotage
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 3:29 PM Tracking Down the Mysterious Typeface of Savannah, Georgia
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 1:50 PM Oh, the Futility! Frogs Try to Catch Worms off of an iPhone Video.
  Health & Science
Sept. 23 2014 1:38 PM Why Is Fall Red in America but Yellow in Europe? A possible explanation, 35 million years in the making.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.