Thirty years later.

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Ignoring the Lessons of Chernobyl

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The presidents of Ukraine and Belarus, the two countries most affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, used the meltdown's 30-year anniversary on Tuesday to make political statements. It looks like neither of them -- nor Russian President Vladimir Putin -- has drawn the right conclusions from the tragedy, which probably hastened the Soviet Union's demise.

Unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant blew up on April 26, 1986, as its operators were testing a new generator. The explosion itself only killed one person, but its consequences were momentous: 116,000 people had to be resettled, 49 people died trying to mop up the fallout and the World Health Organization estimated the number of premature deaths at 4,000. The fallout made huge swaths of land in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia unsuitable for agriculture and rendered bodies of water too dangerous for swimming. Radiation levels are still higher than normal in many of these places, children are still born with deformities and cancer incidence is higher than in neighboring regions.

An area within a 30-kilometer (19-mile) radius from the plant is still cordoned off in Ukraine, and only a few hundred people live in it at their own risk. I visited in 2012 and found an eerie, gloomy land in which trees and wild animals had taken over a thoroughly Soviet realm abandoned by its inhabitants. There was also a thriving illicit scrap-metal business, which provided an unofficial income to many of the people working in the "zone," as it is locally known. Judging by more recent reports, nothing much has changed since the Ukrainian revolution of 2014. 

That didn't stop President Petro Poroshenko from using the occasion to speak on his favorite subject: How Ukraine is a victim of Russia that needs help from the rest of the world. The Chernobyl reactor, after all, was designed in Moscow. 

"On the historical path the Ukrainian people are traveling, the Chernobyl tragedy lies about halfway between the Nazi occupation and the Russian aggression," he said in a speech at the nuclear plant on Tuesday. "At a time when colossal resources are still needed to overcome the consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe, when a lot of funding is needed for the victims' social support, we must spend almost a fifth of our budget on defense and security."

Alexander Lukashenko, who has been president of neighboring Belarus since 1994, also complained of a lack of funding. The disaster has cost his country's economy $235 billion, he said without explaining how this astronomical amount was calculated. 

"The international community's aid has always been and remains quite insignificant," Lukashenko said. "It's disappointing, of course, that the West pressured us with sanctions for many years instead of helping us in any significant way. That would have been in the spirit of the humanistic values that it claims to defend so fervently, especially since Belarussians are hostages to a catastrophe that was not their fault."

Putin refrained from apportioning blame and complaining about money. He commemorated the disaster by signing a message to survivors that called the accident "a serious lesson for all humanity."

It's hard to say exactly what lesson he meant. Nuclear power can be dangerous, and Chernobyl drew attention to that. Many governments are wary of nuclear plants close to their borders. Just last week, Germany and Luxembourg asked Belgium to shut two reactors that had been reopened after a hiatus because they couldn't independently confirm their safety. Yet it was Japan's Fukushima disaster in 2011, not Chernobyl, that made Germany resolve to shut down its nuclear power program. And Russia never learned that particular lesson: Its plants are still running, and nuclear fuel and technology are among the country's biggest exports.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the disaster wasn't for the rest of the world but for the former Soviet Union. The Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged the catastrophe two days after it took place under international pressure to come clean. The official statement was the 21st item on the evening news broadcast on state television. Communist authorities in Ukraine and Belarus were no better than their Moscow bosses: They took part in a coverup, too.

Gorbachev didn't address the nation about Chernobyl until May 14. He later explained that Soviet scientists and bureaucrats didn't understand right away how bad the accident had been.

Be that as it may, the Soviet authorities' slowness in admitting what had happened dramatically undermined people's faith in the government. People had been allowed to hold May Day celebrations nearby as winds carried radioactive clouds over them; when that became clear, people found that hard to countenance. The Chernobyl coverup was a major charge against the Communists as citizens dismantled the Soviet empire in 1990 and 1991.

Post-Soviet governments have ignored this Chernobyl lesson. Lukashenko's Belarus was the first of the three affected countries to get rid of its free press. Ukraine still has one, but it also has a record of not reporting military defeats until they are impossible to conceal. Putin has gradually acquired control over his country's media, and his propaganda machine has dropped any pretense of trying to report the truth.

"The reaction to the catastrophe demonstrated, on the one hand, human solidarity and selflessness, and on the other, the mendacious and inhuman essence of the state," liberal Russian politician Grigory Yavlinsky wrote in a blog post on Tuesday. "Thirty years after those events, our country is quickly and decisively returning to the same standards: Society is being consistently deprived of free media and the truth about events."

The presidents should have assured their nations that another coverup would be impossible. But I'm not certain they could have done it convincingly. Even now, an accident on the scale of Chernobyl might not be immediately reported in any of the three countries -- or at least, the coverage might not be initiated by the governments. Ordinary people's interests are still not the primary concern of post-Soviet rulers. The first reaction to unpleasantness or danger is to suppress information, not to confront problems openly.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net