Friday, April 29, 2011

Chernobyl and the End of Gorbachev's Honeymoon

When the members of the Soviet Politburo met in the spring of 1985 to choose a new General Secretary to succeed Constantine Chernenko, the advantage seemed to lie with Chernenko's close protegee, Viktor Grishin, an old Communist who had headed the Moscow branch of the party since 1967. But when the eldest member of the Politburo, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, who had been appointed to his position by Nikita Khrushchev in 1967, nominated Mikhail Gorbachev to be the party's new leader, it was obvious that the fight would be a very close one.

In rising to speak, Gromyko reminded the other Politburo members that Gorbachev had, in effect, been the second in command during much of the year and a half Chernenko had spent in office. Indeed, during the last months of Chernenko's illness, Gorbachev had ably chaired the meetings of the Secretariat and the entire Politburo. "He proved that he is brilliant, without any exaggeration," Gromyko continued. "This is a man of principles, of strong convictions... He has a great skill for organizing people, and for finding a common language with them." Then, as though to both to emphasize Gorbachev's strength of will and to disarm critics who claimed that Gorbachev was too soft, the old Communist is said to have concluded, "Comrades, this man has a nice smile, but he's got iron teeth." Based largely on Gromyko's support, Gorbachav was chosen General Secretary of the party.

On assuming the top position, Gorbachev learned for the first time just how severe the problems in the USSR were. There could be no continuation of business as usual, he told his fellow Communists. There was a need for everyone, especially those in leadership positions, to work harder. There was a need to modernize Soviet industry. If the country were to keep its position in the world economy, a scientific and technological revolution must be launched as well. Only then could a higher standard of living be guaranteed for all the Soviet people.

General Secretary Gorbachev wasted no time in bringing his ideas to the general public. He stunned the citizens of Moscow by arriving unannounced for a visit to the Proletarskii section of the city. This was the first of many walkabouts among common Soviet citizens that Gorbachev would make. He visited several factories and discussed conditions with the workers. He visited a supermarket, joked with schoolchildren, and dropped by to visit the apartment of a young family. Soviet citizens viewing scenes of the most recent walkabout on the evening news could hardly believe their eyes.

In May, Gorbachev traveled to Leningrad, the second largest city in the Soviet Union. His visit marked the first time in more than two years that a Soviet leader had been well enough to travel beyond Moscow. Gorbachev soon made it clear that this visit would not be like those that had taken place in the past. He told the Leningrad party chief, Lev Zaikov, that he was not interested in visiting a few carefully chosen factories. Rather, he wanted to see places where the "real" people of Leningrad worked and shopped and lived, just as he had on his walkabouts in Moscow. The people of Leningrad greeted Gorbachev warmly. They were excited about his plans for change and felt gratified that one of their leaders was concerned enough to ask their opinions on matters of importance.

On his first night in Leningrad, Gorbachev spoke before a gathering of members of the city's Communist Party. The Soviet Union required nothing less than complete perestroika-- "restructuring"-- Gorbachev declared. This restructuring would require an "immense mobilization" of the whole society, he continued. It would be a task as demanding as the war against Hitler's Germany had been.

Gorbachev obviously meant business, and wherever he went, the Soviet public responded with a great outpouring of support. In June, he visited that large Ukrainian cities of Kiev and Dnepropetrovsk. The next month, he traveled to the Byelorussian Republic and spoke before several large gatherings. Trips were also planned to Siberia and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All along the way, the Soviet press gave extensive coverage to the energetic general secretary. When Gorbachev was in Leningrad, the nightly news program Vremya dedicated much of its broadcast to his visit. One hundred million Soviet citizens watched as a woman shouted at Gorbachev, "You should be closer to the people!" "How can I be any closer?" the general secretary responded, barely visible amid the throng of Leningraders. The crowd on screen roared its approval, and across the USSR, people shook their heads in amazement at the humor and zest of their new leader and his polished, intelligent wife, Raisa, who accompanied him on all of his journeys.

It was not all back-slapping and smiles, however. Gorbachev moved quickly to reinstitute several of the reform programs of his protegee, Yuri Andropov, which his successor, Chernenko, had let lapse. With great fanfare, he announced an extensive new program to fight alcohol abuse. One Soviet official estimated that drunkenness was a factor in more than two thirds of the crimes committed in the USSR, as well as 98 percent of all murders, 40 percent of all divorces, 50 percent of all accidents, and 63 percent of all drownings. Approximately 90 percent of the inmates of juvenile correction colonies had been sentenced for crimes committed while intoxicated. Between 1964 and 1985, the Soviet Union's death rate had risen from 6.9 per thousand to 10.8. Authorities believed that the chief factor in this huge jump was the increased consumption of alcohol during this same period.

While previous Soviet leaders had chosen to ignore the problem, Gorbachev decided to attack it head-on. In May, 1985, the legal drinking age in the Soviet Union was raised from 18 to 21. Two thirds of all state liquor stores were closed, and many of the state-owned distilleries were converted to plants for manufacturing soft drinks. Alcoholic beverages were removed from the shelves of ordinary food stores. Liquor stores and restaurants were banned from selling alcohol until two o'clock in the afternoon, and bartenders and waitresses were ordered not to serve more than two drinks per customer. The fine for public drunkenness was increased by 1000 percent.

At first, Gorbachev's antialcohol campaign was greeted hopefully. People across the country vowed to keep their communities alcohol-free. Farmers in the wine producing regions in the south ripped out their vineyards and planted other crops to replace them. Many Soviet citizens were impressed when Gorbachev banned the serving of alcohol at official banquets and receptions. Because of his personal preference for mineral water rather than vodka, General Secretary Gorbachev became known as Mineral Secretary Gorbachev.

But it was not long before this nickname-- originally intended as a sign of affection-- became a moniker of disdain instead. As the availability of vodka was restricted, long lines-- which became known as "Gorbachev's nooses"-- soon formed outside the few state liquor stores that remained opened.

People searched out other means of satisfying their need for alcohol. Many bought huge quantities of sugar in order to make their own homemade vodka. When the supply of sugar in state-owned grocery stores was almost depleted, the government was forced to impose strict rationing. Desperate alcoholics unable to buy legal vodka or make their own soon even began drinking cologne, paint thinner, industrial solvent, even brake fluid-- anything that contained alcohol.

The antialcohol campaign brought the honeymoon between Gorbachev and the Soviet people to a grinding halt. But the General Secretary pushed on. On February 25, 1986, he convened the Twenty-seventh Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and following a time honored tradition, made a marathon speech (five hours long) outlining his plans for restructuring Soviet society. Not only did the Soviet economy have to change, Gorbachev stressed, but there was also a need to encourage integrity and honesty at all levels of society. Only through glasnost--  "openness"-- could the Soviet people face the mistakes of the past honestly and meet the challenges of the future with confidence.

Gorbachev's promises of glasnost were soon to be put to the most severe of tests. Just after one o'clock in the morning on April 26, 1986, there was an explosion in one of the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, 50 miles north of the Ukrainian capital Kiev, near Ukraine's border with Byelorussia. Huge amounts of nuclear radiation were released into the atmosphere. Farmland and drinking water in vast areas of the Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Lithuanian, and Latvian Soviet republics were contaminated. Thousands of people would eventually die from the effects of the accident.

For all his talk of a new openness, Gorbachev's first response to Chernobyl was to do nothing. The Soviet government waited three days before admitting that an accident had even occurred, and it did so only when monitors in Finland and Sweden reported abnormally high levels of radiation in the atmosphere. Authorities also waited three full days before evacuating the towns in the immediate vicinity of the power plant. Ten days passed before the government offered any detailed explanation of what had happened, and even then many questions were left unanswered. Finally, on May 14-- nearly three weeks after the catastrophe-- Mikhail Gorbachev addressed the nation-- and the world-- about the disaster.

But instead of taking the opportunity to speak honestly about the situation at Chernobyl, Gorbachev attacked those who had dared to criticize his government's response. "Political figures and the mass media of certain countries, especially the United States... used the Chernobyl accident as a jumping-off point for an unrestrained anti-Soviet campaign," Gorbachev seethed. Many of the reports coming from the West about the extent of the Chernobyl disasters-- about hundreds of thousands of casualties and large-scale ecological devastation-- were, Gorbachev said, "a mountain of lies." (Of course, most later sources would confirm the veracity of many of these "alarmist" reports.)

As one foreign observer later lamented, Gorbachev's address on Chernobyl "could have come from the mouth of any one of [his] predecessors from Stalin to Chernenko... It was one of Gorbachev's worst moments." [Robert G. Kaiser] Many observers-- both inside and outside the Soviet Union-- now realized that there was still a long way to go on the road toward glasnost and perestroika. 

But in the wake of the criticism that followed Chernobyl, the pace of glasnost accelerated. Numerous articles critical of the government's response appeared in the Soviet press. By the summer of 1986, several of the country's leading magazines and newspapers were under the management of reformist editors sympathetic to glasnost and perestroika. 

A new spirit of openness characterized the Soviet film industry as well. Films made years before but repressed by government censors were finally released. Perhaps the most important of these was Repentance, a drama by the Georgian filmmaker Tengiz Abuladze about the Stalinist terror. Gorbachev viewed Repentance privately, and was apparently deeply moved. He remembered how his own grandfather had been arrested by Stalin's agents and sent to a labor camp. As the film ended and Gorbachev rose to leave, he told one of his aides, "Make sure that enough copies are made so that everyone in the country can see it."

But Gorbachev saw the need for an even clearer signal that the floodgates of reform had been opened. Late one night in December 1986, KGB agents arrived at the apartment of Andrei Sakharov in Gorki. They were there, they told Sakharov, to install a telephone-- something the dissident scientist had been forbidden the seven years he had lived in internal exile. The next afternoon, the telephone rang; Gorbachev was on the line. A decision had been made to allow Sakharov to return to Moscow, the general secretary said. "Go back to your patriotic work," Gorbachev told the exiled scientist. By the end of the month, Sakharov was back in Moscow.

Soon, too, works by long-banned authors began to appear in Soviet bookstores. A new Russian translation of the anti-Soviet satire 1984 by George Orwell was an immediate best-seller. A government commission was established to oversee publication of Doctor Zhivago by the Soviet Nobel Prize winner Boris Pasternak. The literary journal Oktyabar published the anti-Stalinist poem "Requiem" by Anna Akmatova. Like Doctor Zhivago, "Requiem" was a work well-known abroad, but it had never been published in the USSR. Similarly the historical novel, Children of the Arbat by Anatoli Rybakov, a frank description of life during Stalinist times, was published in 1987-- 21 years after it had first been banned by government censors.

That same year, Gorbachev published his own book, Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, in which he laid out his vision of openness:

"This world is... one whole. We are all passengers aboard one ship, the Earth, and we must not allow it to be wrecked. There will be no second Noah's Ark... Perestroika is no whim on the part of some ambitious individuals or a group of leaders... Perestroika is an urgent necessity... This society is ripe for change. It has long been yearning for it."

But when change did not arrive quickly enough, the Soviet people grew impatient. Within a year or so, as the Soviet economy sputtered and sank, and political instability threatened chaos, a little ditty was making its way around Russia:

Sausage prices twice as high,
Where's the vodka for us to buy?
All we do is sit at home,
Watching Gorby drone and drone.

But once the genies of reform and openness had been let from their bottles, even Gorbachev could not control the course of events. And the Soviet lands lurched out of a tumultuous past into an even more uncertain future.  

Jeffrey Symynkywicz is the author of six books, including The Soviet Turmoil. Copies are available online from, or directly from the author at

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