“Chernobyl Accident Became Element of Our National Identity”, Serhii Plohii

We can talk a lot about Serhii Plohii. He is a Ukrainian and American historian, professor at Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, one of the leading experts in Eastern European history, author of several books on the history of Ukraine and Eastern Europe, winner of the Taras Shevchenko National Prize of Ukraine and a member of the Ukrainian PEN Club.

The main area of scientific interest is study of early modern and modern history of Ukraine and Eastern Europe; in addition, Serhii Plohii is one of the few who study political and cultural history of the Cold War.

Recently, Mr. Serhii was awarded the prestigious British Baillie Gifford Prize in Documentation for his book Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe. New York: Basic Books, 2018.

It is very important to never forget that everything in science, energy, and even development of the defense sphere as paradoxical as it sounds are engaged in is focused at making people’s life better and safer. However, this is not always the case: sometimes technologies are out of control, or those who are responsible for others forget their main mission or overrate their strength. Then the world is again on the brink of a catastrophe.

The historian’s view of Ukraine and world nuclear safety is a panoramic view in time and space, because, no matter how much we want to get rid of it, we still have the so-called “syndrome of a man in a foxhole”: a person who sees industry issues from inside and, unfortunately, from a very narrow perspective. The conversation with Serhii Plohii is intended to overcome this syndrome.

Serhii Plohii
Director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute
photo: UINM

– Tell about your book Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe. What became the material for writing it?

The book contains a number of new archival records, mainly from the Ukrainian Kyiv archives: archives of the Security Service of Ukraine and other state institutions of Ukraine, protocols of the commission of the Emergency Response Group Head, Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers Oleksandr Liashko, which was formed by the Ukrainian political bureau, where reports to the Committee for State Security were also considered. However, I consider that the main thing in the book is not the publication of new materials as much as the combination of archival records with the oral story, which started in our country from Yurii Shcherbak, was continued by Svetlana Aleksiievych, and every year, to the commemoration of the Chernobyl accident, journalists go and question people… Currently, there is a large array of verbal messages, and I have tried to combine this oral story with archival history, history of documents, so that these records work together and complement each other. In fact, what I have obtained is perhaps the only complete enough political, social and a little technological history of Chernobyl today, which covers the period from NPP construction up to the NSC, whose construction was completed or is under completion by the Novarka.

I also consider the Chernobyl accident as an extremely important factor in the mobilization of the Ukrainian society, which has become a key aspect in the USSR Dissolution. I try, also with the help of the KGB records, to see how this mobilization first took place regarding ecology, because the People’s Movement of Ukraine was caused by this “Chernobyl” movement. If you look at the People’s Movement Program, there is a significant emphasis on the environmental component. The same happened regarding the protests against nuclear energy in Lithuania, the republic that first declared independence, i.e. there was also a very clear trace of the specific and close connection between independence and the Chernobyl accident. One of the authors maid a good point that the Cold War ended with Chernobyl, because suddenly the iron curtain lost all its significance due to radiation spread.

– You have almost answered another question. However, how the Chernobyl accident influenced the politics and political situation of the world. Culture? Was it influenced and is this influence noticeable now?

A particular paper of Tamara Gundorova is devoted to Chernobyl accident influence on literature. Key personalities in the Ukrainian literature and politics of the late 80s and 90s, who initially admired and welcomed the Chernobyl peaceful atom, such as Ivan Drach, Volodymyr Yavorivskyi, later became extremely active in its criticism. At the time, these people were setting the tone in literature and society, and in that sense, Chernobyl accident influence was extremely significant.

I am closer to the question of what political influence Chernobyl caused. In my book, I write that Chernobyl, besides being at the origins of the Independence Movement in Ukraine, at the beginning of 1991, was a weapon for people in the attempt to push the establishment out of power, including through criminal investigations regarding responsibilities of former Politbureau members, Oleksandr Liashko, Valentyna Shevchenko and others. Although this attempt failed, after all Ukraine adopted the most liberal laws compared to Russia or Belarus regarding who should be considered Chernobyl accident victims. It was also a reflection of a particular political moment. These payments from the state budget were an opportunity to survive and somehow exist in the 1990s, although it was a very heavy burden for the state. Therefore, the political and economic influence of the Chernobyl accident on Ukraine is very significant.

Chernobyl also become a nation-building moment in our minds, i.e. each anniversary of the tragedy is commemorated in Ukraine as it is not commemorated in Belarus, although proportionally, Belarus has suffered more. The Chernobyl accident has become an element of our national identity. Two major national countrywide commemorations are related to Chernobyl and Holodomor. These are elements of our historical memory and culture that show our victimity and role of Chernobyl in our self-concept. I do not have any comment on this and do not put any “pluses” or “minuses”, but it is an important characteristic of our society. We are the people marked by Chernobyl, we are the victims of nuclear energy, but this somehow exists completely in parallel to the reality, where nuclear power plants generates more than 50 percent of electricity in Ukraine, exists separately from completion of KhNPP units, for example. Therefore, we go for the cheapest option we can find. It seems like these two Chernobyls exist in parallel realities: one Chernobyl as a memory, national myth, trauma, and another: nuclear energy in the imagination of society exists in itself and is not related to ChNPP. These two discourses do not meet anywhere and anyhow.

– In view of the ChNPP accident, what nuclear and radiation experts should do to avoid this in the future?

I think Chernobyl changed the attitude to nuclear energy in the industry itself. After all, two factors played the key role in the fact happened at ChNPP: unreliable reactor and the operators violated everything that could be violated. They did it because they were absolutely sure that reactors could not explode. Today everyone knows that reactors can explode. I think Chernobyl is a great and tragic lesson, but its effects are generally positive for the industry itself.

Then one more important moment… when the ChNPP operators were interviewed in 1986-87, according to them the worst thing that could happen and cause their dismissal was reactor shutdown without good reason. This would worsen economic performance and lead to large losses. That was the worst, scariest thing they feared. Not reactor explosion.

Nowadays, nuclear power is a business that like any other business should make a profit, and it is very important to avoid a conflict between safety and profit. At present, nuclear energy is going through a very difficult time from the economic viewpoint: the number of regulators and energy operating companies increases, including China, and the time for reactor construction increases, they become more expensive. Today in the U.S., it is cheaper to buy a kilowatt of energy generated by solar or wind power plant than by nuclear one. However, this is an extremely explosive industry with no money. The lack of money is another thing that bothers me, and unfortunately, economic problems with nuclear energy are not limited only to the United States. In Ukraine, as far as I know, nuclear workers have also struck because their salaries were not paid or they are insufficient. By the way, it seems, in the United States, over the past two years, all major nuclear power companies, including Westinghouse, plunged into bankruptcy. This situation is very dangerous and with the development of alternative energy sources, nuclear energy is likely to continue to be in a difficult economic situation. I am not an economist, I do not understand this, but it seems to me that this is a problem requiring attention.

– Has the attitude to nuclear energy of U.S. citizens changed after the Three Mile Island accident? Are there any manifestations of radiophobia in the society and desire to give up nuclear energy in favor of renewable one?

There was such a moment, but it did not last long. The Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents became the main factors in the cooling in relations with nuclear energy in the world. The Three Mile Island accident was not such significant. At present, about 20% of U.S. electricity is generated at NPPs, while in Ukraine, it is over 50%. However, in America, originally, there was a very cautious attitude to nuclear energy. America is the country that dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan, so the Americans initially perceived the atom as something of threat and destruction.

In the United States, nuclear energy started to develop partially in the 1950s as a political support for a project of further nuclear weapons development. President Eisenhower used the peaceful atom idea to quiet down the American and global public and emphasized that nuclear research could also be beneficial. U.S. nuclear energy was developed with significant state funding, but all this was done against the background of understanding that it was a threat.

Nuclear energy development in the Soviet Union, or in developing countries, was quite different. For us, including Ukraine, nuclear energy seemed peaceful, because “bombs are dropped only by imperialists”, “profit is important only in the West”, and due to this “imperialists” can do different terrible things and there are accidents like the Three Mile Island. For us, development of nuclear energy was a sign of progress, joining the Nuclear State Club, and all this was accepted with enthusiasm. Chernobyl really “awoke” us. In 1989-90, the Verkhovna Rada made a decision to stop constructing new reactors and to provide complete denuclearization, but in the 90s, when the life was difficult, economic situation forced us to return to nuclear energy.

– You mentioned the victimity syndrome typical for Ukrainians. If we have it, are we oriented towards win? The issue of a hero image is rather a cultural aspect, but it is very relevant for a warring country…

I think there really should be several different models. I would not like to say that victimity is something absolutely negative. It can be different. For example, let’s consider how the Israelites remember the Holocaust. This is clearly victimity memory, but I think it’s a key memory in present Israel, but it does not prevent them from mobilizing and implementing their own policy. They are mobilized and can withstand a greater threat. Therefore, I would not consider victimity memory as something negative, but we also need examples of victory, mobilization. I think we cannot be a real state where only one type of memory and one type of complexes are developed.

– The threat related to society polarization and increased risk of civil war is now under close attention. How realistic it is and what to do with this?

It seems unlikely to me. External factors are the reality that threatens Ukraine, but it existed even before the elections, and society division observed in social networks does not present great danger: though people have quarreled, but they are still on the same platform. Even the new President has stated that the movement to Europe, NATO, language issues are constitutional, i.e. the split is not the same as in 2014. The degree of voltage is significant, but there is no large regional split. I think, no external intervention in Ukraine means no increase in danger, because it is a conflict is more or less in the same field. However, the thankless thing is to foresee the future.

Uatom.org Editorial Board