Dnipro Transregional Academy: Serhii Plokhy’s lecture on the Chernobyl disaster

Tobias Wals, Dutch journalist, author of “Kiev op de bodem van een glas”

On Thursday, June 13, a fiercely airconditioned room of the Menorah Centre in Dnipro was packed with people for a special lecture by prof. Serhii Plokhy. The topic of his talk: Chernobyl. It was a public event, and participants of the Transregional Academy made up just about half of the audience, which was complemented by local students and other interested residents of Dnipro. The language of communication was English.

As prof. Andrii Portnov pointed out in his introduction, Plokhy, the highly regarded director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and author of a dozen or so books, happens to have a special connection with the city of Dnipro. Like Portnov, he started his academic career at the university of Dnipro, back when the city was still called Dnepropetrovsk and Ukraine was a Soviet republic. Plokhy expressed his joy over visiting his former hometown and having the opportunity to present his newly-published monograph on the Chernobyl disaster.

Serhii Plokhy, Andrii Portnov and Denys Shatalov. Photo by Viktoria Serhiienko

He started off with a personal observation. Having published books on the Cossacks and the origins of the Slavic nations, writing about the recent past was an unusual experience for him—“humbling in many ways.” One the one hand, there was an abundance of sources available for his research; one the other, many of the people concerned are still alive and might contest his conclusions. Plokhy then went on to show the covers of both the American and British edition of his new book, the first a grim image of left-behind gasmasks, the latter a lighter, almost absurd picture of a technician in a control room, smoking a cigarette. Two pictures that reflect, in Plokhy’s view, two sides of the book: the drama and tragedy of the disaster, but also the banality of it. In what followed, it was mostly the banality that came to the fore.

Instead of going through the events leading up to the disaster and its aftermath chronologically, as in the book, Plokhy decided to share with the audience his thoughts on three recurrent themes: nuclear energy in relation to nuclear weapons; in relation to the Soviet economy; and in relation to the Soviet political regime.

Nuclear energy, as Plokhy put it, was “an afterthought to the atomic bomb.” It was first developed in the United States, as way to “sell” developments in nuclear technology to the public as an economic asset. The USSR followed in the early 1960s, under Khrushchev, and immediately took a turn left when the creators of the first Soviet reactor, Yefim Slavskii and Anatolii Aleksandrov, chose to build a cheap and powerful, but also highly volatile, water-graphite-type reactor—which would become the Soviet standard. Already in 1975, a reactor similar to that of Chernobyl got very close to a meltdown, however, because of the militarization of the nuclear sector, the incident was not studied to prevent future mistakes, but instead swept under the carpet. Plokhy remarked that this trajectory—from military to civil use of nuclear technology—has recently been turned around: nowadays, states usually try to develop nuclear power plants first, so as to build up expertise and capacity for a bomb…

The audience during the talk. Photo by Viktoria Serhiienko

Another major factor in the lead-up to the Chernobyl disaster was the economy. Just two months earlier, the 27th Congress of the Communist Party had decided to “speed up” the stagnant Soviet economy by “tapping into unused resources” (perestroika was not a thing yet). Expectations were especially high when it came to the nuclear-industrial complex, which, it was decided, would have to build twice as much reactors as in the previous five years. The way to meet this grotesque target was cutting costs, which were already being cut wherever possible. Two examples mentioned by Plokhy: reactors No. 3 and 4 of the Chernobyl plant were constructed in one and the same building, the roof of which was covered with highly inflammable bitumen. When No. 4 finally blew, it was thanks to the heroic and often fatal work of the first firemen on the scene that the fire didn’t spread to the other reactors. Only five percent of the nuclear fuel escaped during the disaster.

This brought Plokhy to the most intricate theme of his research: the interrelation between the Chernobyl disaster and the nature of the Soviet regime. By the late 1980s, the USSR, in Plokhy’s view, was not a totalitarian state anymore, but it was authoritarian. As a result, its leaders were able and willing to keep silent about the disaster, even if this meant hundreds of thousands of citizens would risk their lives by attending the May parades in Kyiv. Plokhy admitted to have struggled with the question of why the authorities tried to hide the disaster until the very last; he named their paralyzing fear of losing control over the situation as an approximate answer. Another result of the authoritarian nature of the Soviet regime was its ability to mobilize enormous resources to contain the disaster—resources that modern-day Ukraine, or probably even the USA, would not be able to mobilize. In total, the Soviets deployed some 600 thousand people in the exclusion zone. However, Plokhy noted, many of these people, who were forced to put their lives at risks, might actually have been superfluous.

But the biggest issue of all was the total lack of a safety culture in the Soviet Union. Reactor No. 4 did not only blow because of its inherent flaws, Plokhy explained, but also because the men who were running the safety test that induced the meltdown “violated every rule in the book”. This was not even a form of subversion, rather, they were deeply convinced that Soviet reactors, in fact, could not explode—simply because they were Soviet. A further, related problem (almost all of these problems were related) was the lack of specialized engineers. The huge expansion of the Soviet nuclear industry from the 60s onwards led to the peculiar fact that neither the director nor the chief engineer of the Chernobyl plant had any experience with nuclear energy. The only person on their team who did came from the military and used to work with submarines in the Far East.

Serhii Plokhy. Photo by Viktoria Serhiienko

Although few members of the audience would have doubted the backwardness of the Soviet system and its immanent potential for producing disasters, Plokhy’s lecture offered a very insightful composite image of the Soviet military-nuclear complex and its cataclysmic grip on society.

After this parade of unfortunate banalities, he spent a few words on the other side of the Chernobyl disaster: its impact and legacy. The direct deaths amounted to a mere two people, but the total number of excess deaths in the years following the disaster is estimated anywhere between 4000 and 100.000. Man-made constructions in the exclusion zone have been overgrown by nature, which is often seen as proof that nature is threatened more by people than by radiation—although Plokhy warned us this is too easy of a conclusion. The actual damage might not be visible. Which is also true of the often-overlooked mental impact on people: Ukraine, in terms of self-perception, in the sickest country in Europe—even if this in reality isn’t the case. Plokhy, albeit cautiously, linked this fact to Chernobyl.

In his concluding remarks, Plokhy pointed out the role of Chernobyl in the Ukrainian national mobilization in the late 1980s and the falling apart of the Soviet Union. But he stressed that Chernobyl in Ukraine is too often seen as part of history—“for them it is about victimhood, about suffering, about the evil Soviet regime.” Any discussion about the future of nuclear energy, as in Germany or Japan, is absent; even through more that 50% of Ukraine’s electricity is still produced by nuclear power plants. He was not trying to start a crusade against nuclear energy, Plokhy said, but he does want Ukrainians to reflect on the future. This lecture, he hoped, would be a minor contribution to that discussion.

After the lecture, there was room for a couple of questions from the audience. After some heartfelt words of gratitude and praise from prof. Sergei Zhuk, who actually served as a liquidator in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, Plokhy faced the inevitable question about the popular and highly-acclaimed HBO series. Had he watched it and what was his opinion about it? Plokhy, whose face showed only a hint of annoyance, admitted that he had seen only the first episode, but, on the basis of other people’s judgements, he had gotten the picture. Although he was somewhat discontented about the stereotypical way in which Soviet characters were depicted, he maintained: “They got the big idea right.” That is, the blatant and all-pervasive lying of the Soviet authorities and the detrimental impact of this on people’s lives. He also noted that actual participants of the events who he had spoken to were, to his surprise, very happy about the series. What mattered for them was the fact that after all these years millions of people were watching a series about their work. In other words: they felt recognized.

“There are two kinds of people who will think that HBO’s depiction of Soviet life is realistic,” Plokhy said. “Those who lived outside of the Soviet Union and those who were born after it fell apart. Only people like me, who have lived there and then, will remember what it was actually like.” Words that the author of this blog, who belongs to the first category, has duly taken note of.


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