Gorbachev Openness Goes Up in Smoke

<i> Marshall I. Goldman is the Class of 1919 Professor of Economics at Wellesley College and associate director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University</i>

After Mikhail S. Gorbachev addressed his countrymen on May 14 about the nuclear-plant disaster at Chernobyl, several Western observers commented that while he should be criticized for having taken 18 days to respond, his speech nonetheless seemed to be yet another example of the Soviet leader’s new openness.

Unfortunately, a closer look at Gorbachev’s behavior after the explosion indicates that during the crisis he reverted to the old secretive ways of his predecessors. Despite the fact that he was informed almost immediately about the possible dangers, he and his colleagues unconscionably delayed the relocation of local residents whose health had been put at risk.

Then, in an attempt to rationalize what had happened, he reverted to half-truths and sought to explain away his responsibility by placing the blame for inaction on local officials. This hardly fits Gorbachev’s New Year’s Day call for more candor from Soviet officials.

To be fair, some of what Gorbachev had to say in his Chernobyl speech did meet the issue head on. For example, he described the hydrogen explosion and release of radioactive material and admitted that “the seriousness of the situation was obvious.” But thereafter--in a defense of himself, his party and his country--Gorbachev indulged in a series of distortions, if not outright lies. For this he cannot be forgiven.


Gorbachev stressed that “as soon as we received reliable initial information, it was made available to the Soviet people and sent through diplomatic channels to the governments of foreign countries.”

The facts are very different. According to Soviet scientists, the explosion occurred at 1:23 a.m. on Saturday, April 26. Shortly thereafter, the Council of Ministers office in Moscow was notified. Reflecting how serious they thought the situation was, the officials in Moscow immediately formed a government commission. With pride, Soviet scientists reported that even though “more than one-half of its members were in different parts of the Soviet Union, thousands of kilometers apart, we arrived, then got to work on the same day .” Equally impressive, Gen. Gennady V. Berdov,the deputy minister of internal affairs in the Ukraine, reached the site from Kiev a mere 90 minutes after the Chernobyl explosion. They all obviously knew that they had a serious problem on their hands.

What Gorbachev did not explain, or even acknowledge, was why no one made any effort to immediately evacuate the 40,000 residents of Pripyat, less than six miles downwind of the plant. Not until 36 hours after the explosion, at 2 p.m. Sunday, were they bused out.

The Soviets waited even longer to evacuate others farther out. It was only on Saturday, May 3--a full week after the explosion--that a Moscow delegation consisting of Nikolai I. Ryzhkov, the prime minister, and Yegor K. Ligachev, the second-ranking member of the Politburo, ordered the removal of the 15,000 residents of Chernobyl, 10 miles away, and extended the danger zone from six to 18 miles. By June 5 the number evacuated had risen to more than 100,000.


Those outside the Soviet Union were not treated with any more candor. Gorbachev’s assertions to the contrary, they were not provided with “full information.” Indeed, beginning on Monday morning, April 28, Swedish officials telephoned three Soviet agencies--the Soviet Committee for the Utilization of Atomic Energy, the Ministry of Electric Power and the State Committee for Safety in the Atomic Power Industry--asking for information about the high radioactivity readings occurring all over Scandinavia. Despite international agreements requiring the exchange of information about accidents, all three agencies insisted that there was none to give out. It was 9 p.m. that Monday when the Soviet press issued the first public statement that anything had gone wrong--almost three full days later.

Gorbachev also distorted the truth when he asserted, “For the first time ever, we encountered such a sinister force as nuclear energy that has escaped control.” It was the first time that radioactivity from a Soviet incident had been detected in the West, but the Soviets had a very serious explosion in 1957 at Kyshteyn in the Ural Mountains. Less serious incidents occurred in 1974 at Shevchenko and in 1981 at Rovno.

Gorbachev must also be held to account for his inaccessibility during the crisis. He made a public statement on May Day, and delivered a public speech from the Kremlin on May 6 in which he defended Libya. But it took more than two weeks before he said anything about Chernobyl.

Like those before him, Gorbachev sought to rally his people by blaming outsiders for excessive exaggeration and undue criticism of Soviet ineptitude. His predecessors were also unresponsive to crisis. In a state of panic, it took Josef Stalin 11 days after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union before he finally addressed his people. While the circumstances surrounding Chernobyl were quite different, Gorbachev’s initial leadership and candor were in many ways just as flawed.