A policeman checks radioactivity levels on vehicles leaving the 30km forbidden area around Chernobyl after the nuclear plant explosion in 1986
A policeman checks radioactivity levels on vehicles leaving the 30km forbidden area around Chernobyl after the nuclear plant explosion in 1986 © Getty

I wish I had known Serhii Plokhy was writing this book. I would have told him why the Chernobyl disaster is an indelible part of my life. When the nuclear plant’s fourth reactor exploded in the early hours of Saturday, April 26 1986, I was 130km away in Kiev. A Moscow-based reporter for Reuters news agency, I was spending the weekend in the Ukrainian capital with a friend who taught at Kiev university under a British Council programme.

Like almost all the city’s 2.5m residents, we knew nothing about the accident, the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Until the evening of Monday April 28, the Kremlin held to its unforgivable decision to keep Soviet citizens and the world in complete darkness. All that time, radiation was spreading far beyond the stricken reactor.

For the first few days, the strongest winds blew to the north-west, so anyone in Kiev — which is south of Chernobyl — got off relatively lightly. However, when I returned to Moscow and underwent a radiation check at the US embassy, the Geiger counter went beep-beep-beep, registering abnormal levels on my clothes. Before my eyes an embassy official tossed my jeans into an incinerator.

Plokhy, a Harvard professor of Ukrainian background, is ideally placed to tell the harrowing story of Chernobyl. He is the first western-based historian to make extensive use of Chernobyl-related material in Communist party, government and, especially, KGB security police archives that became available after Ukraine’s 2014 pro-democracy revolution.

Plokhy has an immense knowledge of Russian and Ukrainian history and is a prolific writer who maintains the highest standards of scholarship. It seems only the other day that I read his Lost Kingdom (2017), a survey of Russian nationalism since the 15th century; The Gates of Europe (2015), a general history of Ukraine; and The Last Empire (2014), a narrative of the Soviet Union’s final days.

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy is a lucid account of how the Soviet mania for nuclear power combined with endemic shoddiness in the industrial sector and near-paranoid habits of state secrecy led to the 1986 disaster. Two months before the accident, Soviet Life — an English-language magazine filled with propaganda for foreigners — quoted Chernobyl’s chief engineer as boasting that the plant’s cooling pond was used to breed fish.

CHERNOBYL, UKRAINE- APRIL 29: View of the Chernobyl Nuclear power plant three days after the explosion on April 29, 1986 in Chernobyl:,Ukraine. (Photo by SHONE/GAMMA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
View of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant three days after the explosion on April 29, 1986 © SHONE/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Close-up of a compromising letter dated June 27, 1986 and signed by Mr Chouljenko, director of the Russian Ministry of Health. Entitled "Secret information regarding liquidation work being carried out in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster," point 4 aims to keep information regarding the accident secret. Point 8 aims to keep information regarding medical treatment secret. Point 9 aims to keep information regarding radiation exposure levels of personnel carrying out liquidation work secret. The letter was made public in August 1989 during a protest rally in Kiev. (Photo by Igor Kostin/Sygma via Getty Images)
Close-up of a compromising letter dated June 27, 1986, entitled 'Secret information regarding liquidation work being carried out in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster' © Sygma/Getty Images

Lyubov Kovalevskaya, a determined reporter for the local newspaper in Pripyat, the company town for Chernobyl employees, wrote two articles in March 1986 that told the real story about the plant — defective equipment, shortages and mismanagement. She is a rare hero of Plokhy’s book. Others include the firefighters who fought the blaze after the reactor’s explosion, soon realising that they were sacrificing their lives; Valery Legasov, the scientist who grasped the accident’s appalling dimensions better and faster than anyone in the Soviet system; and, to an extent, Viktor Bryukhanov, the plant’s director, whom the Kremlin and Moscow scientific establishment made a scapegoat for the disaster because honesty mattered less to them than the Soviet system’s survival.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist Soviet leader, does not come well out of Plokhy’s book. In his memoirs Gorbachev rejected accusations that the Soviet leadership had intentionally withheld the truth about Chernobyl. But Plokhy’s verdict is blunt: “In fact, they knew much more than they admitted.”

In public Gorbachev said nothing about Chernobyl until May 14, more than two weeks after the explosion — a silence resembling that of Joseph Stalin after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. When Gorbachev finally spoke on television, he lashed out at the west rather than giving a full account of events to agitated Soviet citizens. Pavel Palazchenko, his interpreter, recalled: “I think it [Gorbachev’s speech] caused a rift between the people and the government that never closed.”

Eventually, the Chernobyl accident pushed the Kremlin towards glasnost, or openness, but Plokhy demonstrates that glasnost always had limits, at least until 1989-90. This applied particularly to the question of responsibility for the disaster. “Blaming local authorities for corruption and shortcomings was part of Gorbachev’s attack on the conservative party apparatus, but telling the truth about the Chernobyl plant, for which the central government was responsible, was an entirely different matter,” writes Plokhy.

“That would have required an admission of guilt on the part of the central authorities, including Gorbachev himself, for hiding the truth from the people and then spending tens of billions of roubles to rehabilitate the affected areas and inhabitants.”

The evacuation of 47,000 inhabitants of Pripiat in 1200 buses and 200 lorries, only took a few hours as local people were told to take few personal belongings and identity papers, as it was thought they would be returning several days later - which was not the case. | Location: Pripiat, Ukraine, USSR. (Photo by Igor Kostin/Sygma via Getty Images)
The evacuation of 47,000 inhabitants of Pripyat © Sygma/Getty Images

The disaster stimulated an ecological nationalism in Ukraine and other republics that spiralled into demands for independence, contributing to the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991. Plokhy concentrates on the political fallout of Chernobyl in Ukraine, leaving little space for Russia and Belarus. This is a pity, because the political repercussions in Russia were far-reaching, while Belarus was by far the hardest-hit republic in terms of radioactive damage. But these do not detract from what is the most comprehensive, convincing history of Chernobyl yet to appear in English.

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, by Serhii Plokhy, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 432 pages

Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor

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