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.

An engineer working at the Ukrainian nuclear plant of Chernobyl is checked by doctors.
An engineer working at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is checked by doctors on May 15, 1986

STF/AFP/Getty Images.

At 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986, Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, following a disastrously ill-judged systems test by undertrained technicians. As surplus energy surged through the reactor, its core combusted, immediately killing nearby workers and exposing others to deadly levels of radiation. In the nearby town of Prypiat, Ukraine, people woke up to respiratory distress and nausea. Emergency response workers encased the reactor in a concrete sarcophagus and, unprepared for exposure to radioactivity, became stricken with severe symptoms of radiation poisoning. Tens of thousands of Soviet citizens filed into Chernobyl to help, considering it their patriotic duty; all were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation with no warning from the government. It took two days for the explosion to be announced, in vague terms, on the national news; not until Sweden discovered a radiation cloud that had drifted across Europe was the true extent of the Chernobyl explosion revealed.

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

Reactor 4 may not have been the only thing that exploded that day. Fewer than six years elapsed between the meltdown at Chernobyl and the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union—six years marked by suspicion of government, dissatisfaction with public safety, and demands for greater transparency. Could Chernobyl have caused the first, most fundamental crack in the Soviet state and led to its collapse?

That might sound like an audacious proposal, but it’s been advanced by none other than the man who oversaw the dismantling of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev. He states flatly that the Chernobyl explosion was “perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.”  According to Gorbachev, the Chernobyl explosion was a “turning point” that “opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue.” Gorbachev introduced his policy of glasnost, or “openness” of ideas and expression, not long before the Chernobyl explosion. It was his remedy for widespread censorship and government secrecy. To Gorbachev, Chernobyl proved the wisdom and necessity of glasnost. The explosion and attendant tumult, he claims, “made absolutely clear how important it was to continue the policy of glasnost.”

Gorbachev’s laudable dedication to glasnost may have set the state on a path toward destruction. Sovietologists “don’t like monocausal explanations” of the fall of the USSR, said Michael David-Fox, a professor of Russian and Soviet history at Georgetown University. Still, “there’s a case to be made” that Chernobyl occurred early enough in Gorbachev’s first phase of glasnost to hasten the process and eventually drive the state into the ground.

Few Westerners were convinced that the new leader’s reforms would be serious in 1985 and 1986. Yet by 1987, the year following Chernobyl, glasnost had taken hold of Soviet society, with sudden openness dominating the press and the public forum. Outrage over the catastrophe began to spread among even loyal citizens who had never questioned the infallibility of their government. A more authoritarian leader might still have been able to crack down on complaints about Chernobyl at this fairly early date, but Gorbachev, fighting a political battle as a reformer, chose to maintain glasnost while casting censorious conservatives as nemeses of liberty and wooing the intelligentsia. Gorbachev needed this latter group’s support to achieve his reforms and hold back hardliners, so he accepted their barrage of condemnation toward the government. To keep the intelligentsia as allies, in other words, Gorbachev had to accept them as critics.

The intelligentsia’s complaints trickled down through much of the population. This opened the door to comparison with the West, a toxic line of thought in this famously closed society. Soviets had been told for decades they were the best in the world—at everything. Through the mid-1980s, they still believed they were a major superpower, facing only the United States as serious competition. When information about Chernobyl and the public health crisis leaked, though, Soviet citizens realized that their government and industries were startlingly incompetent.

Radioactivity was a novel menace for Soviets. Radiation poisoning was personal and permanent, made all the more frightening by its mysteriousness. (Apprehension over the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl extended beyond the USSR’s borders; across Europe, the anti-nuclear movement boomed in popularity, converting a side issue into a major cause for environmental activists.) A toxin imperceptible to the eye is as unavoidable as it is terrifying, yet Soviets were unable to rely upon their ostensibly dependable government to inform and protect them. As panicked citizens kindled one another’s fright and horror, the regime lost any remaining control over the public discourse. Glasnost had, in a few short months, careened out of control, fueled by frenzied dismay over the perils of radiation.