Chernobyl. History of a Nuclear Tragedy

Plokhy, Serhii
New York 2018: Basic Books
Anzahl Seiten
432 S.
£ 9.99
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Timm Schönfelder, Leibniz-Institut für Geschichte und Kultur des östlichen Europa, Leipzig

With Russian forces taking control of Zaporizhzhia Atomic Power Plant in March 2022 and blowing up the Kakhovka dam paramount for its cooling system in June 2023, another human-made nuclear disaster is looming. The drama brought to television screens through miniseries like “Chernobyl” (2019) has returned as a possibility in Eastern Europe almost forty years later. Historians are now called upon not only to weigh in on the ways past catastrophes are remembered, but also to remind policymakers and the public of the dangers of a technology once considered “idiot-proof” (p. 85) by its proponents. Fortunately, recent studies have increasingly focused on nuclear science politics and envirotechnical entanglements, seriously questioning the ideologemes at hand.[1]

Serhii Plokhy’s book, dedicated to “the Children of the Nuclear Age”, is a riveting read. This, of course, is facilitated by the author’s distance to original archival sources as he relies heavily on well-known literature like Grigori Medvedev’s “The Truth About Chernobyl” (1991), often paraphrasing published memoirs of the people involved which gives his accounts an apocryphal taint. Overall, Plokhy serves as a talented compiler and translator of these Ukrainian and Russian voices with an acute sense for suspenseful narrative arcs, presenting well-worded vignettes ranging from the early local history of Chornobyl (first documented as a settlement already in 1193) to the Atomic Age. His storyline follows the protagonists closely, smartly contextualizing their actions within the idiosyncratic logics of the Soviet system. Born in 1957 and living “in Ukraine less than 500 kilometers downstream Dnieper of the damaged reactor” (p. xiv) at the time, Plokhy experienced first-hand the fallout of a catastrophe that sent a ripple through the USSR which ultimately contributed to the state’s disintegration.

The book’s main story begins with the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February of 1986. Plokhy uses this event to contextualize the problems the new leadership around Gorbachev faced. This included an ineffective administrative command system, rampant alcoholism, an ongoing war in Afghanistan, and a possibly intensifying arms race with the USA under Reagan that was impossible to be financed by the flailing Soviet economy. High hopes were put in “scientific and technical progress” with regards to the military-industrial complex and the atomic sector. Yet the realities on the ground, i.e., in the former swamps of Prypiat, were challenging; hardly any structure was finished on schedule. What is more, the times of military primacy over nuclear power exercised through the Ministry of Medium Machine Building – “a virtual empire, a state within a state with its own manufacturing plants capable of producing most of the equipment needed for the nuclear industry” – were largely over in the 1980s, according to Plokhy (p. 47). Construction projects like the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station had become the responsibility of the Ministry of Energy and Electrification, which was lagging both in high-tech manufacturing and political influence. On site, this resulted in bad workmanship with subpar materials under ever-tighter deadlines. KGB-reports about these issues reached the Central Committee in Moscow. This, however, did not stop the director of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, Viktor Briukhanov, from being awarded the prestigious Order of the October Revolution in 1983, followed by an invitation to the capital for the 27th Communist Party Congress as a member of the Ukrainian delegation. Meanwhile, important lessons learned from accidents at other nuclear stations were withheld from professionals in the industry. Such secrecy, along with a non-compliance with safety protocols, proved to be fatal.

Consequently, Plokhy tells a story of hindered communication, not least by the KGB, and widespread avoidance of responsibility which showed strong negligence for human well-being in the wake of the reactor’s explosion in the wee hours of April 26, 1986. As the wind first took the radiation west and north across the border to Belarus, then east and south towards the capital Kyiv, the local population was not warned. Until today, there is a notable gap of knowledge in some regions, especially when talking about the radioactive fallout in Belarus, as it has been addressed in the works of Kate Brown and others.[2] Seemingly, the half-life of this “information blockade” (p. 195) has not yet been reached everywhere. This extends to the fate of ca. 600.000 “liquidators” sent to Chernobyl for clean-up duty: “Inept at ensuring the safety of the nuclear power industry, the authoritarian Soviet regime proved exceptionally good at mobilizing resources to deal with the consequences of the disaster” (p. 218) – mainly human resources, that is, often from non-Russian communities in Central Asia and elsewhere.

In the years that followed the meltdown of reactor 4, critical intellectuals did not cease to question the official party line that the danger of the atom was successfully being contained. Soon, republican political leaders and local popular movements demanded an end to nuclear power in their vicinity. Ecological concerns merged with cries for liberation in what scholars have termed “eco-nationalism” (Jane I. Dawson). Only on February 23, 1989 did Gorbachev finally visit Chernobyl. By then, the USSR was in dire straits: “the Soviet economy was in free fall, accelerated by declining oil prices on world markets – the main source of hard-currency earnings for the state budget” (p. 302). With time, the Party’s information monopoly disintegrated, only accelerating the dissolution of the Union. In its wake, Ukraine’s parliament “went for harsh treatment of the former Soviet officials who had dealt with the Chernobyl catastrophe – much harsher than in any other post-Soviet republic affected by the accident” (p. 323). As Plokhy assesses, this anti-colonial trajectory was mainly aimed at the former imperial center of Moscow, framing Ukraine as its victim. Even though attempts to prosecute political leaders failed due to a respective statute of limitations of five years for dereliction of duty (p. 327), they created a lot of public attention. This helped mobilize oppositional forces as a prerequisite for independence and nation-building. Ironically enough, it did not mark the end of nuclear power in Ukraine as the economic hardship of the 1990s called for supposedly cheap energy – paired with comprehensive international aid to secure the Chernobyl site and reform the nuclear sector.

Plokhy delivers a nicely composed account that situates the Chernobyl disaster in the framework of the Soviet system. While people acquainted with the topic will hardly find any surprises (not even in the occasional KGB-report scattered throughout), the book does serve as an apt introduction for the more general reader. With the author’s ear close to well-circulated sources, the voices of the people involved are heard throughout. Yet with little secondary literature cited from environmental history, transformation studies, or the history of science and technology, the book does unfortunately not participate in more complex academic discussions. Nonetheless, it is a recommended read for anyone willing to be drawn into the events – not unlike the 2019 miniseries mentioned above.

[1] See Sara B. Pritchard, An Envirotechnical Disaster: Nature, Technology, and Politics at Fukushima, Environmental History 17,2 (2012), pp. 219–243. Worth mentioning as valuable new perspectives, apart from Plokhy’s recently published sweepingly global overview “Atoms and Ashes. From Bikini Atoll to Fukushima”, London 2022, are Stefan Guth’s epic work on the Atomic City of Shevchenko/Aqtau in Kazakhstan (forthcoming), Melanie Arndt’s book about the “Chernobyl Children” (Tschernobylkinder. Die transnationale Geschichte einer nuklearen Katastrophe, Göttingen 2020) and the project “Nuclear Waters” at KTH Stockholm led by Per Högselius. On the connections of environmental history and the history of technology through the “water lens”, see Per Högselius, Atomic Shocks of the Old. Putting Water at the Center of Nuclear Energy History, Technology and Culture 63,1 (2022), pp. 1–30.
[2] e.g., Kate Brown, Manual for Survival. A Chernobyl Guide to the Future, London 2019.

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