No Reason to Exist

Fred Weir

The steam explo­sion that tore the roof from Chernobyl’s fourth unit in the pre-dawn hours of April 26, 1986, spew­ing fall­out across much of Europe, seemed a Hol­ly­wood tech­no-dis­as­ter flick become chill­ing­ly real. Though the dra­ma and ter­ror of those spring days have fad­ed, we are still pon­der­ing the lessons that, like mil­lions of latent can­cers plant­ed by the strick­en reactor’s radi­a­tion plume, have yet to ful­ly man­i­fest them­selves. Cher­nobyl was a glob­al wake-up call on the frag­ile lim­its of tech­nol­o­gy, one that silenced — hope­ful­ly for good — both sides’ offi­cial Cold War enthu­si­asm for the peace­ful atom.”

A good deal has been writ­ten about the acci­dent and the mas­sive clean-up effort that fol­lowed. The 600,000 liq­uida­tors” dis­patched to put out the burn­ing graphite reac­tor, con­tain the spread of con­t­a­m­i­nants, evac­u­ate local pop­u­la­tions and bury moun­tains of radioac­tive debris — many of whom absorbed dan­ger­ous­ly high dos­es of radi­a­tion — remain a vexed polit­i­cal issue in the for­mer USSR. Only this year, Moscow declared it would no longer com­pen­sate vic­tims from non-Russ­ian republics, argu­ing that it should not have to pay cit­i­zens of one coun­try for dam­ages that occurred in anoth­er country.”

The dis­as­ter struck just as Mikhail Gor­bachev was begin­ning his ill-fat­ed per­e­stroi­ka cam­paign to mod­ern­ize and reform the Sovi­et sys­tem. Gor­bachev won short-term polit­i­cal advan­tage by pub­licly ham­mer­ing his bureau­crat­ic ene­mies who, true to form, had clammed up and for 10 days refused to tell the world what was hap­pen­ing at Cher­nobyl. But the acci­dent can now be seen as the USSR’s death knell. The Sovi­et mod­el of eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment was exposed as waste­ful, haz­ard-rid­den and out-of-con­trol. Mil­lions of peo­ple, brought up to believe in the sys­tem, irre­versibly lost faith as they floun­dered in that ter­ri­fy­ing 10-day infor­ma­tion vac­u­um, won­der­ing whether they and their chil­dren were being slow­ly poi­soned by invis­i­ble clouds of radiation.

A key social response to Cher­nobyl was the birth of a vibrant and youth­ful envi­ron­men­tal move­ment, encour­aged by Gor­bachev at first to expose the evils of Sovi­et indus­tri­al­ism and take the bureau­crats to task. While many of those per­e­stroi­ka-era gains, such as free­dom of the press, have since with­ered under fero­cious attack from the Krem­lin, Russia’s envi­ron­men­tal­ists remain a strong and defi­ant force to this day. That is large­ly a lega­cy of Chernobyl.

As Svet­lana Alex­ievich relates in Voic­es from Cher­nobyl, an oral his­to­ry of those tur­bu­lent few days, it was the USSR’s west­ern­most Slav­ic repub­lic, Belarus, that bore the brunt of the cat­a­clysm. The tiny country’s con­t­a­m­i­na­tion zone still encom­pass­es 20 per­cent of its ter­ri­to­ry, hous­es 2 mil­lion peo­ple and pro­duces much of the food con­sumed by Belarus­sians. A few decades ear­li­er, the Nazis rolled over Belarus, destroy­ing some 600 vil­lages. Cher­nobyl emp­tied out anoth­er 500, as their pop­u­la­tions fled the invis­i­ble death cloud, often per­ma­nent­ly. Post-Sovi­et Belarus has mor­phed into a pater­nal­is­tic dic­ta­tor­ship, run like a giant col­lec­tive farm by Pres­i­dent Alexan­der Lukashenko, and many Belarus­sians appear to pre­fer it that way. This, too, can be viewed as a lega­cy of the tragedy.

Only 31 peo­ple were actu­al­ly killed in the Cher­nobyl blast and its imme­di­ate after­math, which makes it a pret­ty minor dis­as­ter in terms of human life. But glob­al health offi­cials, who have tracked a huge spike in thy­roid can­cers, birth defects and oth­er dis­or­ders in the most affect­ed areas, warn that the final bill, in the form of leukemia and oth­er seri­ous can­cers, won’t be in for anoth­er decade or two.

Alexievich’s focus is the nar­row­est pos­si­ble, a series of mono­logues by an aston­ish­ing­ly wide vari­ety of peo­ple who found them­selves caught up in the dis­as­ter. In the process, a remark­able por­trait emerges of Sovi­et soci­ety shat­ter­ing under ten­sion. Emo­tion­al­ly, it’s incred­i­bly raw stuff, but the approach also evokes rich, human detail. Among Alexievich’s sub­jects are peas­ants, awed by the waves of heli­copters and heavy equip­ment storm­ing across their land, who assumed that war must have bro­ken out with the Chi­nese or the Amer­i­cans.” A sol­dier, ordered into the still-burn­ing reac­tor area, relates with pride how he and his mates per­formed tasks that caused robots to break down. The wid­ow of a liq­uida­tor tells in har­row­ing detail how her radi­a­tion-poi­soned husband’s skin dis­in­te­grat­ed and his veins popped. A local Com­mu­nist Par­ty leader recalls wor­ry­ing that the acci­dent might dis­rupt the May Day cel­e­bra­tion. And then there’s the Sovi­et nuclear physi­cist who mourns a wave of heart attacks and sui­cides among his col­leagues in the wake of Cher­nobyl. When you lose faith, you’re no longer a par­tic­i­pant,” he says. You’re an also-ran, you have no rea­son to exist.”

Fred Weir is a Moscow cor­re­spon­dent for In These Times and reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, the Lon­don Inde­pen­dent, Cana­di­an Press and the South Chi­na Morn­ing Post. He is the co-author of Rev­o­lu­tion from Above: The Demise of the Sovi­et System.
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