How Our Relationship with Chernobyl has Changed in the West

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Within days of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which rocked the Soviet Union and the international nuclear power industry, Western journalists began tackling the story of the Soviet nuclear crisis in full force. News of the disaster in the USSR and its suspected implications inundated Western news outlets, spreading speculative information on the death toll, the environmental and health impact of the disaster, and what this kind of disaster meant for nuclear power not only within but beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. Western voices, particularly in Western Europe and North America, were some of the most vocal in the initial days and weeks following the Chernobyl disaster. Their narrative settled on systemic Soviet secrecy and the conditions that allowed Chernobyl to occur. Western narratives at the time established this hesitant and reassured belief that the Chernobyl disaster was unique to the Soviet Union.

The events of Chernobyl and its broader implications have been a focal point within the West since news of the explosion reached beyond the Iron Curtain on April 28th, 1986. The most vocal voices concerned with Chernobyl, especially in the years immediately following the disaster, were predominantly journalists and documentarians. As the years passed, Western perceptions of the disaster began to shift. The media was instrumental in the changing narratives, with journalistic works laying the foundation of how Chernobyl was perceived. Academic works built upon this foundation, using media accounts to frame their works. Up until recently, academic works on the topic of Chernobyl have been subsumed under the influence of Western journalism. Scholarly works have influenced some perspectives, but the overwhelming source of images and ideas concerning Chernobyl came from media and continue to do so today.

This paper charts the changing representations of Chernobyl among journalists, academics in the thirty-plus years since the initial disaster. Overall, Chernobyl has been variously represented as a product of a dysfunctional Soviet political system, as a warning sign about the dangers of nuclear power, and as a site of an aestheticized post-apocalyptic space.

Chernobyl as Soviet Dysfunction

In the initial years following the disaster until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chernobyl was generally perceived as a nuclear accident brought on by a dysfunctional and incompetent Soviet governmental system. Chernobyl was as much a political crisis as it was a nuclear one. At least to the West, the disaster affirmed that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian and dishonest organization that privileged ideology over the well-being of its people. The narrative of Soviet dysfunction centered on claims of Soviet secrecy, technological inferiority, and emergency mismanagement, all of which inundated Western reports.

In the wake of the Soviet collapse, observers began to shift their focus from the accident itself to the disaster’s health effects. Western journalists started to visit the contaminated areas and to address the health effects that the Soviet government had downplayed. The view was reinforced that the Soviet Union was purposely trying to damage the lands of republics, particularly Ukraine and Belarus, as was the narrative of Chernobyl as a crisis unique to the Soviet Union due to their poor politics and inferior technology. The West framed Chernobyl as a disaster that cannot happen outside of the Soviet Union. It was a product of issues unique to the USSR, and therefore, Chernobyl became a paradoxically reassuring concept in the West as a symptom of a corrupt and inferior system.

A popular Western example of Soviet secrecy concerning Chernobyl was the notable days-long silence that followed the reactor four explosion. The long-standing discussion of Soviet secrecy and censorship concerning Chernobyl drew on enduring tropes about the Soviet Union. At the time of the disaster, the USSR was viewed and depicted by the West as a malicious, secretive, totalitarian, evil empire. Chernobyl, as a result, came to be viewed as a problem greater than nuclear power. It came to be understood as a product of problems inherent to the Soviet Union’s specific mode of government. The USSR’s initial secrecy became an overt example of Soviet failings and malfunction when confronting Chernobyl. It signalled a return to a traditional response, as opposed to glasnost’, which did little to properly tackle or understand the scope of the crisis.

This Western perpetuation of the narrative of Soviet incompetence continued with the widespread discussion of the inferior quality of Soviet reactors compared to those in the West. With the 2014 opening of the Ukrainian KGB archives, Chernobyl’s representation as a product of the failed Soviet system began to take on less of a speculative and opinionated tone. Instead, evidence was presented to confirm systemic problems within the Soviet Union, particularly concerning nuclear power, which made Chernobyl more likely.

Western historians of Chernobyl agree that one of the most significant points of government mismanagement of the disaster, and the overall negligence by the Soviet system, is that they did not warn of the design faults of the RBMK reactor. As Edward Geist explains, the benefit of the RBMK reactor for the Soviet government and its purposes was that it was cheaper to run:

Designers were aware of the RBMK reactor’s risks, but the compromise was made because it was more effective for their purposes.

From 1986 onwards, Chernobyl, a product of and representing Soviet malfunction, dominated reports and academic work on the disaster. They consistently show the Soviet Union in a bad light, whether in the USSR’s attempts to conceal the disaster initially, downplay the medical crisis sweeping contaminated regions, or simply when information came out that the Soviet government knew about the hazards of Chernobyl-like reactors well before the explosion occurred. For many in the West, Chernobyl has been seen as a uniquely Soviet crisis because it has been reported as such. The narrative has been propagated when political aspects of the disaster are discussed. Chernobyl has started to become a metaphor for broader systemic political inadequacies, but it all stems from Chernobyl’s long-standing framework as a product of Soviet dysfunction. The only aspects of the narrative that have changed over the 34 years are what Western reporters have focused on to make their point — whether it be the assumed malicious intent in concealing the initial explosion or the revelation of long-term problems within the Soviet governmental system or atomic industry.

Chernobyl as Nuclear Disaster

What followed the Western representation of Chernobyl as a product of Soviet dysfunction was a very real concern about nuclear power safety. Despite the West finding reassurance in the argument of Soviet technological and nuclear inferiority, there were still concerns of safety and reliability that lingered under the surface. These concerns returned after the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster, which served to thrust Chernobyl back into the discussion. Even as commentators focused on the uniquely Soviet origins and handling of Chernobyl, the accident raised concerns about nuclear power from the outset. Following the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster, the narrative of Chernobyl as a uniquely Soviet crisis began to feel reductive, as Japan had proven that a disaster similar to Chernobyl could happen outside of the USSR. The concern of nuclear safety was no longer shielded by Chernobyl’s Soviet peculiarities but became a focal point in the media following the Japanese nuclear meltdown.

The Western framing of Chernobyl as uniquely Soviet due to their inferior technology and lack of safety culture was a narrative that served to make Westerners, particularly Americans and Europeans, more comfortable with nuclear power. The Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster served as a reckoning for the West and its relation to nuclear technology and Chernobyl, especially in Germany.

A 2011 Der Spiegel article entitled “Japan’s Chernobyl: Fukushima Marks End of Nuclear Era”, looks back at the Western response to the Chernobyl crisis, particularly writing it off as a Soviet issue, as arrogant.

Previous articles served to isolate Chernobyl not as an international nuclear failure but as a failure of the Soviet approach to technology and nuclear power. As the article describes, there was a sense of Western arrogance and self-assurance that whatever had happened in the Soviet Union could not happen in the West. Chernobyl instead had to be a product of backward Soviet technology, their inferior reactors, and poorly managed and trained operators. This framework, however, only served to separate Chernobyl from legitimate concerns of nuclear safety with the idea of Soviet technological incompetence. Fukushima had proven that a disaster similar to Chernobyl could occur outside of the Soviet Union and had reinforced the image of nuclear power as dangerous and unreliable.

Chernobyl as Apocalypse

Paired with the Western focal points of Soviet dysfunction and nuclear power was the perception of Chernobyl as the site of the apocalypse. This narrative has lingered since 1986 and has only become more popular over the years, especially with the opening of the Exclusion Zone in 2011. As a result, writers focus on the aesthetic idea of Chernobyl and what it portends for the future. Commentators on the subject focused on the environment and personal stories within their discussion of Chernobyl and the seemingly exploitative nature of tourism within the Exclusion Zone.

Even as Chernobyl emerged as a metaphor for tragedy, it also came to symbolize something more universal — apocalypse. Apocalyptic representations of Chernobyl evoked terror, but at the same time, paradoxically, they served to romanticize the disaster, as nature was portrayed as resurgent. Chernobyl’s apocalyptic quality’s romanticization is in direct tension with the more frightening aspect of the disaster. There is tension in the representation of Chernobyl and its legacy; it is simultaneously terrifying and comforting. This dual tension is what Siobhan Lyons defines as Ruin Porn in her book Ruin Porn and the Obsession with Decay.

Ruin Porn is best described as finding pleasure through engaging with sites of destruction and decay. Chernobyl has come to represent this tension in media, taking on this paradoxical symbolism of the apocalypse as frightening but also as reassuring because it reveals that despite everything, nature can survive the apocalypse — it outlives us. Chernobyl thus serves as a glimpse into a world without humanity, with nature reclaiming its space. These narratives are comforting, as they ignore Chernobyl’s darker aspects. Chernobyl thus stands as a symbol of the costs of progress, and as a symbol of nature’s resilience.

Disaster tourism and its pornographic relationship with disaster and the apocalypse is an outcome of the Western framing of Chernobyl as a post-apocalyptic future. There is a gap between the tragedy of Chernobyl and the tourists visiting the site, which is a product of the universal aesthetic framing of the Chernobyl disaster. Chernobyl, in many ways, comes to represent the failures of modern Progress, and serves as a warning primarily when personal narratives and environmental concerns are addressed. However, the tourism aspect of Chernobyl, the fascination with ruin and the abandoned site’s glamorization, creates a notable gap between Western perceptions and the experiences of those who live close to and have been most affected by Chernobyl.

Chernobyl has, in many ways, become a metaphor for the apocalyptic, a possible glimpse at a possible future where humanity ceases to be, and nature is allowed to take over. As Kate Brown suggests in her writing, these narratives serve to nullify and comfort. Chernobyl presents a glimpse of what an apocalypse could look like with the reassurance that it had not occurred on a large scale. It is reassuring and a representation that serves to conceal more than reveal the disaster’s true nature. Chernobyl has become apocalyptic in the aesthetic sense. Although personal narratives are present and popular, they are overwhelmed by these reports of environmental resurgence and pornographic obsession with decay and ruin.

Chernobyl today represents a failure to recognize and a failure to act in times of crisis. For Valery Legasov, Chernobyl showed that humanity was unprepared for nuclear power or did not value safety enough to run a nuclear reactor effectively. For the West, Chernobyl has become a metaphor of sorts, a symbol of political and technological failures and corruption. Over the 34 years since the initial disaster, Chernobyl’s perceptions have shifted, confronting issues of Soviet secrecy and cover-up, the perceived technological inferiorities, and the Soviet mismanagement of the disaster. These shifting perceptions run parallel to the more consistent narrative of Chernobyl as an aestheticized apocalypse by Western media. The framework of Chernobyl as a metaphor for political failings does not negate the representation of an aesthetic Chernobyl, but instead, they serve as parallel narratives, not directly touching but influencing each other nonetheless. These multidimensional narratives have worked in such a way that today, Chernobyl is a metaphor of political and nuclear dysfunction as much as it was a product of one.

References:

Lyons, Siobhan. Ruin Porn and the Obsession with Decay. 1st ed. 2018. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018.

Geist, E. “Political Fallout: The Failure of Emergency Management at Chernobyl (vol 74, Pg 104, 2015).” Slavic Review 74, no. 2 (2015): 438–438.

Brown, Kate (Kathryn L.). Manual for Survival: a Chernobyl Guide to the Future First edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.

Brown, Kate (Kathryn L.). Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters Oxford ;: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Anon. “Japan’s Chernobyl: Fukushima Marks End of Nuclear Era.” Der Spiegel, March 14, 2011.

Anon. “Mayday! and May Day.” The New York Times, May 1, 1986. https://www.nytimes.com/1986/05/01/opinion/mayday-and-may- day.html?searchResultPosition=1.

Higginbotham, Adam. Midnight in Chernobyl: the Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster First Simon & Schuster trade paperback edition. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2020.

Jones, Ellen, and Benjamin Woodbury. “Chernobyl’ and ‘Glasnost.’” Problems of Communism 35, no. 6 (November 1, 1986): 28. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1301284608/.

Based in K’jipuktuk/Halifax, NS. Scholar and freelance writer. Contributing writer and critical editor at Ecology and Action magazine. Hoping to make my mark.