Revisiting Chernobyl, 30 Years Later

The David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies hosted a special symposium about Chernobyl’s effect on the global community.

BrownPROVO, Utah (Mar. 25, 2016)—This April marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. Though the event initially claimed 49 lives, the radioactive fallout went on to impact thousands of civilians and the landscape of Europe and Asia.

To commemorate this event, the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies hosted a special symposium, “Nuclear Energy and Proliferation in the Twenty-First Century.” The symposium’s second session, “The Sociopolitical Aftermath of Chernobyl,” explored Chernobyl’s cultural impact.

Professor of Russian Tony Brown was first to speak, focusing his remarks on Chernobyl’s impact on the Belarusian national identity. Belarus, situated on the path from Germany to Russia, bore the brunt of German aggression during World War II and shielded Moscow from invasion. Likewise, when the plant in Chernobyl (located in Ukraine near the Belarus border) exploded, Belarus shielded Russia from the worst of the radioactive fallout.

The day of the disaster saw prevailing northerly winds that pushed a heavy cloud of radioactive dust into Belarus, 70 percent of the initial fallout. The cloud contaminated 23 percent of the country’s total territory, inhabited by 2.2 million people (the same number of Belarusian casualties claimed by WWII).

But the Soviet government was slow to acknowledge the accident, and evacuations were delayed, prolonging the people’s exposure to fallout. The USSR’s negligence and attempts at cover-up strained its relationship with the satellite state, and Belarusian writing of the time reflects the people’s disillusionment, especially on behalf of their children.

As one parent wrote, “Our daughter doesn’t understand yet, but someday she’ll ask us: why isn’t she like everyone else? Why can’t she love a man? Why can’t she have babies? . . . I wanted to get papers so that she’d know when she grew up that it wasn’t our fault. . . . [The doctors] refused me for four years, they kept telling me: ‘Your child is a victim of a congenital handicap.’ What congenital handicap? She’s a victim of Chernobyl!”


Ukraine underwent that same disillusionment. Five days after Chernobyl, the city of Kiev held its May Day parade, with thousands of men, women and children filling the streets, all under Communist Party supervision. It wasn’t until five days after the parade that the Soviet government publicly acknowledged that the disaster had taken place and began warning people of the fallout.

The backlash was immediate. Scott Cooper, associate professor of political science, explained, “The people become . . . outraged about the disaster because it suggested a failure of the Soviet industrial capacity. The Soviet Union presented itself as infallible. . . . More important, though, was the cover up.”

The fateful May Day parade became a symbol to nationalists of Soviet deception. In a situation that called for immediate action and repair, government officials allowed the people to expose themselves to fallout, all in the name of protecting the Soviet image. “The government tried to hide its own mistake at the expense of its own people’s lives.”

Though it is a stretch to credit Chernobyl for the USSR’s collapse, Cooper did credit it with uniting Ukrainians against the Soviet government in Moscow. As nationalist groups began to grow in popularity, they pointed to Chernobyl as evidence that Ukraine needed to decide its own future. It was an idea that even the more Russified regions of eastern and central Ukraine could support, and the push for Ukrainian independence intensified.

“That’s remarkable,” Cooper said. “Ukrainian unity is very hard to come by. But Chernobyl and the attempted cover-up of Chernobyl unified Ukraine like nothing before or since then.”

OscarsonBut Chernobyl’s memory still lingers outside of former satellite states. Sweden was the first country to recognize that a nuclear disaster had taken place and received more fallout than any other country outside of the USSR.

“The accident highlights the deep connection between the local and the global,” said Chip Oscarson, associate professor of interdisciplinary humanities and Scandinavian studies. On a map, Sweden and the surrounding countries look to be far away from Chernobyl and therefore from harm. But “the spread of fallout from Chernobyl changed the perceived map of the Nordic region, and indeed all of Europe, as the wind carried radiation invisibly through the atmosphere.”

That new understanding of global effect contributed to Paul Crutzen’s theory of the Anthropocene, the period of history marked by mankind’s ability to affect the planet. But before Crutzen could put a name to it in 2002, others were already catching on. In 1987, the Swedish documentary Uhkkadus/Hotet (The Threat) by Stefan Jarl showed how the fallout affected the region’s wildlife, forcing the indigenous hunters to adapt.

Oscarson said, “Chernobyl forces us to recognize . . . that nature is not separate from us.” He added, “It forces us to be aware of the way that humans and nature are actually and always have been interdependent, and recognizing that . . . maybe we can make more productive decisions about what this relationship is going to look like going into the future.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.

Photos and cover image courtesy of the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies