Serhii Plokhy talks about his experiences researching and writing 'Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy', winner of the 2019 Pushkin House Prize.
Why did you want to write about Chernobyl?
It was a mixture of my personal interest and the availability of new materials. Chernobyl is the story of my own life. It was very emotional and personal for me and my family. I grew up in Ukraine, 500km down the Dnieper River from where it all happened. I remember this complete lack of information, and then gathering little pieces of advice on what to do from the BBC. So in summer 1986, I kept my children in our apartment, not allowing them outside. My friends and some of my students were summoned to the army and sent to Chernobyl. Then I realised there were new archives I could use from the Communist party headquarters and the KGB, in Kyiv, including documents of the commission in charge of evacuation.
How important was Chernobyl in the collapse of the Soviet Union?
Once I started working on the book, I realised I was able to make a relatively strong case that it was a major factor in the dissolution of the USSR. Quite a few people say Afghanistan was a major factor but I don’t see that: the war was fought in secrecy and there was never a major mobilization of population against it. Chernobyl produced all of that. Look at the rise of the pro-independence movements in the two crucial republics in the collapse of the USSR – the first in Lithuania and the last in Ukraine. The mobilisation of mass movements first happened around anti-nuclear protests; then the newly formed organisations put independence on their banners.
Was it also the beginning of ecological activism?
In Ukraine, and the post-Soviet space in general, you see the ecological movement and mobilisation around 1988-89. The first political party created in Ukraine apart from the Communists was called Green World. But by 1992-93, you see the death of the environment as an issue. It was overtaken by the really terrible economic condition and never came back. The same parliament in Ukraine that voted to go nuclear-free, stop construction and shut down existing reactors reversed its decisions. It took major pressure from the west to convince the government to shut down Chernobyl in December 1999.
What is new in your book?
Despite the abundance of publications both in the West and even more in the region, I think mine turned out to be the first really comprehensive history of the accident from the start. There have been oral histories, personal experiences, some very good, very moving emotionally, sometimes very technical works, but nothing that covered the whole story. My book establishes the chronology, following what happened before, during and for years after the accident, and the political impact it had.
What surprised you during your research?
I was really surprised at the degree to which the people working in the industry were not prepared for the reactor meltdown. It was not part of their thinking that reactors explode. For the first 24 hours, denial was the first reaction. That explains a lot about how people reacted and why evacuation took a long time. Also, the city of Prypyat - a ghost town, a nuclear Pompeii – was evacuated not because the radiation was considered dangerous but because the authorities were expecting a second and third explosion which would be much bigger.
How is it viewed now in the region?
Chernobyl is commemorated in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia every year. Every April 26, the journalists find someone who has not yet been interviewed. The idea is that we mourn what happened, that there was a tragedy, honour, heroism. But I don’t see any reflection as part of these discussions that Ukraine still gets more than 50 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, Belarus wants to build a nuclear reactor and Russian builds them not only at home but also abroad. We need a public discussion on whether we are safe today and what have we learned. I don’t think that has happened.
What are the broader lessons today?
There was a very lax general safety culture, with pressure from government and party officials to fulfil quotas. But we can’t say it was just about an evil Communist system. Chernobyl was about business. The most horrible thing operators could imagine if they shut down the reactor was that the quotas would not be met and they they would be fired. You can look at what is happening today around the world with the nuclear industry going through financially difficult times, and realise these same concerns and the implications for safety are as important today as 33 years ago. The decisions to build nuclear power plants are made by sovereign states and the beneficiaries are those states. But when something goes wrong, it’s the international community that is affected, and which picks up the multi-billion dollar bill. It would make sense to increase their role and institutions in regional decision making, and to be sure the safety culture and procedures are there and implemented.
What’s your next book?
It’s coming out in October. During the second world war, the US had three airbases on Soviet territory. It was flying from Britain and Italy, but refuelling in Ukraine. Now from the KGB archives, I am exploring the surveillance of the Americans and the contact of the local population with them. I also use the American military archives. It’s really fascinating when you can look at both sides.