9 min read

"A thousand years of suffering in our veins"

In Five Billion Vodka Bottles to the Moon: Tales of a Soviet Scientist a one-time Soviet chief space official, Iosif Shkolovsky, recounts the story of his role in the Soviet moonshot. Essentially, when you view the exercise, the Soviets were forced into a position, after winning a war on the lives of their youth who valiantly volunteered to die so Nazism could lose, of needing to justify their sphere of influence. They had to go to Space, and so they did.

The Soviet space program, as a result of the same improvisational spirit that won the revolution, and then decades later, the second world war, led the space race the same way: it took bold moves, that in objective technical jargon, was probably overkill, so the early victories that kept them competitive with the American program (staffed by ex-Nazi rocketeers, POWs they rehabilitated into national heroes) in making it to space. They built more and more powerful rockets, with little precision or expertise, which got them to orbiting the moon, but never quite landing, because their chief engineer was not a rocket scientist, but a committed comrade of the CPSU, a worker. This is who beat the Americans to space and kept them on the run until the moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. They lost, but really by how much.

This anecdote is valuable in understanding the faction of Soviet ideology that sought to co-exist with the west (something the west would never allow).

In the US, meanwhile, a curious paradigm developed politically that persists into the present day. Consider the example of mass transit: You have cities like Houston where mass transit is passably efficient, but they want go no further at the level of who gets taxed for the capital to fund mass transit that would hit first and foremost at the profit of those who stand to gain from the failure of mass transit. So, a popular initiative to build mass transit succeeds as statute, in execution, those unfavorable create a means to make it fail as an efficient means of transit– the effect is two-fold:  conservatives say this proves the failure is inherent, liberals say this proves mass transit is possible because they did it.

I say to keep this paradigm in mind as you read the following, apply it conceptually, as metaphor for how the West will perceive it, accept it, and reaffirm their own way of living as a result.

The narrative surrounding Chernobyl is an interesting one, and ultimately, the Soviet Union is, obviously, not blameless, but the apportioning of that blame belongs within certain state elements, and those who imbued the culture that created the conditions for its handling. This wouldn't have happened under even Khrushchev let alone Brezhnev. Stalin would've done a Chernobyl to the US before he got bullied into pretending Soviet nuclear engineering was ready for or obligated to try this level of infrastructure while still recovering economically from the imperial era while committing socioeconomically to the post war obligations to the extent that programs like Atoms for Peace tried to make mutually assured destruction seem like it was equally aggressive or offensive on either side when it was all but what it seemed during the Cuban Missle Crisis when it was ultimately Khruschev who de-escalated and began to normalize discussions. The west could afford this effort, however, because they didn't pay in their own blood to end the war and free Europe of fascism– they expected an equal showing of contempt in the Soviet performance, and an equal amount of deference shown.

I say this effort on behalf of the USSR was naive because I believe participation in Atoms for Peace was a good faith gesture by a de-Stalinized Soviet Union to coexist with the west, but it was a west that Stalin would've seen for what it was; an attempt to get the USSR to disarm and re-appropriate while the US rearmed exponentially in the subsequent decades. So, when this disaster occurs, the issues that manifest politically are: how to react responsibly to the people, and how to avoid an opportunity for the West to capitalize on it. Well, the response from the Soviets, a function of this dynamic, this bad faith on the part of the west that kept the Soviets needing to be competitive, and defensively so, failed on both counts because they had to get in front of the latter at the expense of the former– it's a factor in their negligence that this wasn't geopolitics as normal, it was a barrage, the same sort they'd experienced from other global superpowers since the beginning of the century.

It's made clear in many testimonials that even those on site at the time were in disagreement about the nature of the disaster, and even if they hadn't, help from abroad would not have been forthcoming without devastating conditions attached, but the obvious answer is that to decline to evacuate Priypat was negligent, and not even in hindsight– the reasoning? Well, nationalism, and not patriotism but reflexive in-growth of nationalism and isolation from the rest of the world while the state takes action to satisfy the demands of the insatiable; they had generations of conflict and struggle and emerge victorious, individual sacrifices in the name of the whole, and they come out stronger. The problem, of course, becomes what happens with this sentiment when you have dual-messaging that peace is possible if you acquiesce (as Gorbachev did more than any of his post-Stalin predecessors, rather than remain consistent and adversarial as Khruschev, for example, did) but that all but total marginalization of your state into a nonexistent sphere of influence will never satisfy those with whom you'd like to be diplomatic with. The Soviet response to Chernobyl is prototypical of that circumstances, and the results were disastrous.

The substance of this analysis, if I had to reduce it down to a single idea: this inadequate response to Chernobyl was caused by the years of de-Stalinization, and reorienting away from real conflict and discourse (even by the time of Khruschev, Stalinism had waned, but the USSR was not about to compromise at the demand of the west saying this was the only way to achieve peace) and holding the interests of the people at the core of its actions, and towards citing the public's interest as a need to present a facade of strength while capitulating almost completely to the optics of a subordinate power, rather than the optics of a competitive one (i.e. the space race, where Soviet expertise was lacking, but consistently matching the bar through sheer force of will as Iosif Shkolovsky's memoir makes clear). The decline of the Soviet Union, in many other ways beyond Chernobyl, was preceptitated by state responses like this with the optics of western acceptance in mind prominently, to the satisfaction of no one who rememebers what things were like before.

I think the popular framing of the response from the Soviet Union is more or less solidified along lines similar to this in most depictions of the Chernobyl disaster, but what is missing is the distinction between the USSR by that time, and the USSR at the time they presented the biggest challenge to American hegemonic influence in the 1940s-60s– this was not how it always had been, it was what it became, and what it had been was what was responsible for much of what is attributed to American valor in WWII. Auschwitz had been liberated by the Red Army by time a single American soldier was on the continent, by D-Day, Hitler was already retreating to the bunker. Even under Stalin there were limits to the success of the ideology and these were largely a failure to synthesize Stalinism to meet the needs of the post-war material reality, and rather than do so, his successors rejected it altogether in favor of something more palatable, but would never be acceptable, to the west.

Ultimately, what the USSR became was not the suffering of a thousand years yielded, it was what happens when those who were unprepared to do the necessary, and those that lived there tolerated it even as they became less and less able to see the point in state, or victory, merely survival, albeit one rooted in an ideal. In the HBO series of Chernobyl, I believe it makes a good depiction of this principle, and a rather fair one that makes this distinction. Early in the series, they establish that to struggle in the face of being bullshit about why you're embarking on a struggle is not necessarily mutually exclusive, and it's a theme that comes again and again, first in the meeting between the local committee and the plant engineers, before an elder member of the committee invokes Lenin as a reason for them to persist in trusting the state to ultimately want the same desirable outcome even if their means and justifications are not in the public interest.

Again, this comes up when the Minister of Coal approaches the miners at Tula, who are tasked with building a heat exchanger beneath the plant– they are willing to do the work at extreme personal risk, but it's made clear they're willing for the sake of the people rather than the behest of the state, a minister who has never seen the inside of a coal mine, scientists who know they won't be digging 12 meters down, 150 meters out, and hollowing out a 30 x 30 meter space for the exchanger, and they will do it knowing it will likely result in their death. This is a depiction of the will of the people, a state owned and run by the people, distinct from a state that by this point became more concerned with appeasing the global community and satisfying their sensibilities than the satisfaction and provisions of its people. The miners agree, but the foreman hands back a respirator in recognition of the fact that he's serving the state, but for its people not because he buys the lie that he and his workers may survive: "If these worked, you'd be wearing them."

Whatever creative liberties were taken, the narrative at least conceptually mirrors the sentiment of countless late-Soviet accounts of how the state was regarded; whatever the reason, materially, things were harder, things were scarcer, the demands greater, and while the state fought valiantly in the press against the ongoing decades' old siege by the west, it was ordinary citizens who fought for each other, much like the revolution itself– the series depicts an important element in what kind of vulnerabilities made the collapse of the USSR less than a decade later nearer a certainty by the time of the US intervention in the Yeltsin coup when faith was at an all time minimum; those who sought to hold the bureaucracy to the standards of the revolution were dismissed or marginalized, the state confusing protective selectiveness of what they choose to make public in service of protecting the public from aural assault with out and out lies and secrecy about its state of affairs until there's nothing left to defend.

Gorbachev himself upon reflection attributes the collapse of the USSR to the disaster and its handling, and this is certainly true, but as I've contended here, the lies of state coupled with the peddling and trafficking of disinformation about the disaster and its impacts (wildly varying, seemingly verifying one another death counts, for example) led to a condition where for whatever legitimacy the state could have been said to have, it laid with the people, and it was people neither the state nor its enemies were willing to listen to. Ultimately, it can be said that there were those in the bureaucracy who worked, as I said, in the interest of the people, and testified to as much such as Valery Legasov, whose memoirs have been the subject of a large translation project, and his actions dramatized (with decent amount of detail) in the HBO series, and many others who the narrative of the negligent Soviet state often seeks to exclude unless they can be spun to be somehow apart from the party, or not representative of what the Soviet Union was, ideologically, meant to be all about.

Perhaps vaguely flip, but those who were there and remember this arc of changing state attitudes from saving the world to being on the receiving end of its reproach, would testify to that ideological necessity in their role as patriots rather than nationalists, and absent the strong central leadership that Russian political culture, and that of the former Eastern Bloc, typifies, a leader that can be seen as weak and weaselly, rather than strong and decisive, the moral value of the action aside just in analysis of who thrives as a leader, will yield the result we saw here.  In the end, the people who served valiantly to respond to Chernobyl were not the people in power, but the people for whom that power was meant to be malleable in totality to their will, and it was, and like the Great War that was won through the sacrifice of millions of Soviet teenagers in battle, this was truly a thankless task that tragically ended with the loss of their way of life. In this way, Gorbachev is correct; this was the beginning of the end, and it was the end of history, the imperialists would win and nothing even approaching material reality would be consistent with media narrative ever again.

If you want to wind this back to the very beginning, we're really talking about the post-war period where Eisenhower was the original brain-mush war criminal president, his VP the original opportunist "most qualified" cynic, and his advisors, the absolute biggest sickos on the planet. All in all, taken on balance, the Atoms for Peace speech? Well...

Consider the implications of how an interpersonal response to this might scale when acted out as geopolitics, does this seem like a good faith summons to a debate of global peace?