The historical backdrop of Chernobyl: 1986-2016

(revised on May 17, 2016)

There are obvious ironies to be seen in world affairs this month as we mark the passing of thirty years since the Chernobyl catastrophe in Ukraine. Chernobyl has been mentioned frequently in recent years in many reports about the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe, and Ukraine has been in the news constantly because it has become the ground zero for Cold War II between Russia and the USA.

Reports on the Chernobyl victims tend to provide little context about the political and social upheaval that Russia, Belarus and Ukraine have been through since 1986, while news reports on the 2014 coup and subsequent troubles in Ukraine tend to overlook the fact that this chaos has occurred on top of the lasting impact of Chernobyl catastrophe. War, political unrest, and economic collapse struck in a country where millions of people still live with the social and radiological fallout of the 1986 disaster.


Contaminated military vehicles abandoned in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

There are undoubtedly causal factors between the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl Reactor 4 and other historical events in the region since then, but they are seldom explored. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, said that Chernobyl was the event that made it impossible for the country to continue its existence, but during the 1990s, amid war, arms dealing, economic collapse and social upheaval, Chernobyl got lost in the background noise, in the same way its very real and widespread health effects got lost in the background statistics of disease and death. One could say that the evacuation of Pripyat was just one more forced migration in the long history of collectivization, purges and conscripted labor, followed by the upheaval that followed the collapse and left an estimated 20 million ethnic Russians stranded and often persecuted in the newly independent republics (no doubt a factor behind Russia’s recent choice to intervene in Ukraine to protect Russian minorities). One of the most surreal segments of Voices from Chernobyl (by Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich) is the chapter that recounts the stories of a few of these exiles whose preferred sanctuary was to live as squatters inside the Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion.

Historians who have looked for causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union focus on such factors as the Reagan-Gorbachev summits, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, internal dissent, excess bureaucracy and economic dysfunction, but the disastrous consequences of the Cold War nuclear project, in both the US and Soviet Union, tend to be overlooked as a significant factors. Then again, there is convincing evidence that the USSR could have survived the crises of the 1980s because it had survived the much worse crises of the 1940s. The historian Stephen F. Cohen argues in Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, as Gorbachev himself knows very well, that it was the deliberate actions of Boris Yeltsin and the leaders or Belarus and Ukraine that dissolved the Soviet Union and opened the doors to the independence of the republics, free market capitalism, and the economic shock doctrine imposed in the 1990s.

Many journals will be publishing articles about Chernobyl this month, so for the sake of avoiding redundancy, this week Dianuke provides an article that places the catastrophe in its broader historical context. We received permission from journalist Patrick L. Smith to republish his interview with American historian Stephen F. Cohen, a specialist in the history of the USSR and Russia. The entire interview is about 10,000 words long. Readers can follow the links below to Part 1 and Part 2 where the interview was originally published on in April 2015.

The New York Times “basically rewrites whatever the Kiev authorities say”: Stephen F. Cohen on the U.S./Russia/Ukraine history the media won’t tell you

There’s an alternative story of Russian relations we’re not hearing. Historian Stephen Cohen tells it here.

by Patrick L. Smith, 2015/04/17

It is one thing to comment in a column as the Ukrainian crisis grinds on and Washington—senselessly, with no idea of what will come next—destroys relations with Moscow. It is quite another, as a long exchange with Stephen F. Cohen makes clear, to watch as an honorable career’s worth of scholarly truths are set aside in favor of unlawful subterfuge, a war fever not much short of Hearst’s and what Cohen ranks among the most extravagant expansion of a sphere of influence—NATO’s—in history.


Credit: AP/Boris Yurchenko/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Cohen is a distinguished Russianist by any measure. While professing at Princeton and New York University, he has written of the revolutionary years (“Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution,” 1973), the Soviet era (“Rethinking the Soviet Experience,” 1985) and, contentiously but movingly and always with a steady eye, the post-Soviet decades (“Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia, 2000; “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives,” 2009). “The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin” (2010) is a singularly humane work, using scholarly method to relate the stories of the former prisoners who walk as ghosts in post-Soviet Russia. “I never actually lost the uneasy feeling of having left work unfinished and obligations unfulfilled,” Cohen explains in the opening chapter, “even though fewer and fewer of the victims I knew were still alive.”

If I had to describe the force and value of Cohen’s work in a single sentence, it would be this: It is a relentless insistence that we must bring history to bear upon what we see. One would think this an admirable project, but it has landed Cohen in the mother of all intellectual disputes since the U.S.-supported coup in Kiev last year. To say he is now “blackballed” or “blacklisted”—terms Cohen does not like—is too much. Let us leave it that a place may await him among America’s many prophets without honor among their own.

It is hardly surprising that the Ministry of Forgetting, otherwise known as the State Department, would eschew Cohen’s perspective on Ukraine and the relationship with Russia: He brings far too much by way of causality and responsibility to the case. But when scholarly colleagues attack him as “Putin’s apologist” one grows queasy at the prospect of a return to the McCarthyist period. By now, obedient ideologues in the academy have turned debate into freak show.

Cohen, who is 76, altogether game and remembers it all, does not think we are back in the 1950s just yet. But he is now enmeshed in a fight with the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, which last autumn rejected a $400,000 grant Cohen proposed with his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, because the fellowships to be funded would bear Cohen’s name. Believe it, readers, this is us in the early 21st century.

The interview that follows took place in Cohen’s Manhattan apartment some weeks after the cease-fire agreement known as Minsk II was signed in mid-February. It sprawled over several absorbing hours. As I worked with the transcript it became clear that Cohen had given me a valuable document, one making available to readers a concise, accessible, historically informed accounting of “where we are today,” as Cohen put it, in Ukraine and in the U.S.-Russia relationship.

Continue reading:

Part 1      2015/04/17

Part 2      2015/04/24

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