Just as COVID has changed our lives in many ways since 2020, Chernobyl changed the world in 1986. These were two great disasters emanating from two major communist nations. The results and consequences of both will affect us for a very long time, maybe even forever.
As many will know, Chernobyl was instrumental in accelerating the end of the Soviet Union and is critical to our understanding of this period. However, could COVID be the key to understanding, in the future, perhaps, the end of Communist China?
Is Covid China’s Chernobyl?
We can’t predict the future, of course. Nonetheless, we can certainly utilize all the information available to analyze the similarities and differences between these two terrible and devastating events in modern history.
The Chernobyl disaster and the fall of the Soviet Union
In 1970, the city of Pripyat, in northern Ukraine, was founded as one of nine atomgrad, or “atom towns” across the Soviet Union. It was purpose-built to house future employees of the nuclear power plants of Chernobyl. Two years later, discussions took place in Kiev about which type of nuclear plant to build there. Ultimately, authorities opted to construct four RBMK-1000 class reactors (high-power channel-type), a graphite-moderated reactor using light water as the primary coolant.
Anatoly Aleksandrov, a Russian physicist who played a crucial role in the former Soviet nuclear weapons program and one of those responsible for the development of the RBMK as president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences from 1975 until 1986, believed that the RBMK reactors were safe like samovars (a tea recipient used in Russia) and could not possibly explode. It was rumored that he even said his reactors were safe enough to be installed on Moscow’s Red Square. However, Aleksandrov’s confidence proved misplaced as on April 26, 1986, reactor number 4 exploded.
Chernobyl was not the first nuclear accident in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). So why was this one so terrible? And why do we know so much about it? And furthermore: why was this disaster singled out by Gorbachev, the last Soviet head of state, as perhaps the main cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union?
Let’s find out…
The USSR in the 1980s
Some brief historical background
The Russian Revolution in 1917 was the first “great socialist revolution.” When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, they set out to eliminate every last residue of the Russian Empire, even killing the royal Romanov family.
Once his grip on power was firmly cemented, Vladimir Lenin, the primary Bolshevik leader, started the organization of the Soviet government according to the following principles: a planned economy, the end of private property, the strengthening of the state and Communist Party, militarization, severe repression of non-communists, and the formation of a new culture based on Marxist ideals.
Stalin’s government [1924-1953] is arguably the most iconic, repressive, and authoritarian period of Soviet history. However, this totalitarianism and centralization certainly didn’t end with Stalin — it left its marks right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
It is important to remember that much of the Soviet Union’s existence coincided with and was characterized by the Cold War — something which heavily influenced many of the political, economic, and social decisions made by the Soviet government.
The focus on seeking military supremacy contributed to significant failures in the supply of essential consumer goods, social disparities between urban and rural communities, and famines. These problems were present throughout all of Soviet history, but the crisis in supply deepened during the Brezhnev Era [1964–1982], particularly during the 1970s, a period often known as the “Era of Stagnation.”
Brezhnev’s government began with high economic growth and increasing prosperity, but significant economic, social, and political problems gradually accumulated.
Eric Hobsbawm, notably a Marxist historian, stated that:
“In fact, by the 1970s, it was clear that not only economic growth was lagging, but even the basic social indicators such as mortality were ceasing to improve. […] in socialist countries people died who might have been kept alive in capitalist ones.”¹
Around this time, another sign of Soviet decay appeared: the nomenklatura (bureaucracy) became synonymous with incompetence and corruption. As Hobsbawm also said, “[…] it became increasingly evident that the USSR itself operated primarily through a system of patronage, nepotism and payment”. And it was in this context that Mikhail Gorbachev took over the government of the Soviet Union in 1985.
Gorbachev’s government: glasnost and perestroika
In 1987, Gorbachev’s book Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World was translated into several languages and became a world bestseller. It systematized and exposed Gorbachev’s intentions with perestroika and glasnost to the world.
In his book, Gorbachev presents perestroika and glasnost as urgently required to save socialism in the Soviet Union and connect the Leninist revolutionary past with a more democratic position.
On the one hand, Gorbachev’s reforms earned him considerable favor in public opinion internationally. However, internally, within the Soviet system, members of the Party and much of the wider population did not look so favorably on the changes the ruler proposed.
In more concrete terms, glasnost was supposed to translate into a loosening of state censorship of the media — “‘Those who attempt to suppress the fresh voice, the just voice, according to old standards and attitudes, need to get out of the way,’” Gorbachev stated in a July 1986 speech, as reported by TIME magazine.
Perestroika, in turn, was supposed to translate into incorporating some features of a market economy into the Soviet system by loosening price controls, encouraging more entrepreneurism, allowing some private enterprise, and making imported consumer goods easier to purchase.
So, yes, we could say that the Chernobyl disaster contributed to the opening up of the Soviet Union. And, again, yes: the nuclear accident, along with liberalization through perestroika and glasnost were crucial factors in the USSR’s collapse.
Indeed, according to the historian Serhii Plokhy (professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University), “The explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant had challenged and changed the old Soviet order. The policy of Glasnost, or openness, which gave the media and citizens the right to discuss political and social problems and criticize the authorities, had its origins in the post-Chernobyl days.”²
The possibility for a free flow of information was essential to the decline of central control. With glasnost, Soviet citizens could finally learn about the magnitude of the Stalin-era atrocities as well as the wide range of social issues affecting the Soviet Union, such as high rates of alcoholism, juvenile delinquency, declining health indices, homelessness, crime, poverty, and indeed the destruction caused by environmental disasters like Chernobyl.
The Chernobyl disaster of 1986: what happened?
There is no doubt that the Chernobyl disaster helped (a lot!) in bringing about the collapse of the USSR. But what really happened? Why did the nuclear plant explode? Furthermore, given that the nuclear accident at Chernobyl was not the world’s first, or even the Soviet Union’s first, why was it so remarkable?
The disaster was caused by a combination of human error and construction flaws.
On April 26, 1986, a safety test began at 1:23.04 a.m.
The goal was to know if the nuclear power plant could recover from a power outage using the internal residual energy of the reactors. This test had already been done before and failed. As such, there was political pressure for the test to be conducted successfully.
During the trial, several security protocols were broken. For example, the reactor was left at too low a power for a long time, which led to the accumulation of xenon (which slowed down the nuclear reaction even more).
Nuclear reactors are usually built to withstand large-scale natural events and operational errors. However, in Chernobyl, there was a construction error: the boron bars, which were used to control the reaction, had graphite (that accelerates the reaction) on the tip. So, when operators tried to control the situation and slow the reaction, they threw the bars of boron into the reactor.
However, before having contact with the boron, the first contact was with the graphite at the tip. This abruptly accelerated the reactor, generating immense instability.
Reactor 4, the one that exploded, was prepared to reach a power of up to 3,200 megawatts. But when power records stopped measuring, they measured the energy of over 33,000 megawatts.
The rapid increase in the reaction due to the graphite in the boron bars raised the temperature inside the reactor and the pressure of the water inside, making the reactor turn into a pressure cooker that ended up exploding. After the explosion, contact with oxygen led to a fire.
50 million curies of radiation were released by the Chernobyl explosion — the equivalent of 500 Hiroshima bombs.
For three days, the Soviet government tried to hide the disaster. It was only obliged to disclose that an accident had taken place once radiation had been identified in Sweden. The spread of radiation across much of Europe meant that the Chernobyl disaster would be widely publicized worldwide.
Communication was a major problem that exacerbated the Chernobyl disaster. As part of a dictatorship, Soviet government officials softened and omitted data about the situation when reporting to their superiors for fear of being held accountable.
After acknowledging the disaster (3 days later and without giving much information), Soviet authorities began the evacuation process. The government sent in scientists to assess the situation.
The Chernobyl disaster opened a space for criticizing the Soviet regime, especially on environmental issues, causing the Gorbachev government to suffer a significant loss of public confidence. Many Ukrainians saw the circumstances around the disaster as evidence of Moscow’s disregard for Ukraine. Furthermore, the economic, environmental, and health impact would be colossal for years to come.
Ultimately, as Gorbachev said in a 2006 memoir, Chernobyl “was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
But, could COVID cause a similar outcome for China?
COVID-19 and its impact on the Chinese regime
Communism in China: some brief historical background
In 1949, Mao Zedong, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), took power in China after years of civil wars and instability. This was the beginning of Communist China.
At first, China and the USSR were allies. But, in the 1950s, tensions between Mao and Nikita Khrushchev emerged, culminating in the Sino-Soviet split. The break with the USSR gave Mao more leeway to develop a distinctly Chinese brand of communism.
Chinese communism developed a nationalistic element. It was believed that the communist revolution would bring back China’s past glory and historical model of civilization. Furthermore, the national element in Chinese communism operated through the intellectuals of the upper and middle classes as well as the Chinese masses.
As such, Chinese communism could be viewed as more of a national ideology than a political ideology. In China, state, country, and party are intertwined. This may be one of the reasons for the duration and resilience of Chinese communism, enabling it to survive even in the face of great crises.
Just like in other communist dictatorships, China has a one-party political system. Since 1949, the CCP has ruled with an iron fist. But, unlike in other communist dictatorships, such as the USSR, Cuba, and North Korea, some level of capitalism has been permitted in the Chinese economy over the past four decades.
After Mao’s death in 1976, the rise of the more pragmatic Deng Xiaoping, a party leader targeted during the Cultural Revolution, brought major economic reforms that eventually resulted in meteoric growth.
Deng Xiaoping re-established diplomatic relations with the United States and created Special Economic Zones as part of his policy of “‘reform and opening.”
Nonetheless, it is essential to remember that, in China, economic liberalization was not accompanied by political or social liberalization. As such, all political matters in China continue to be addressed exclusively within the CCP despite the country’s integration into the global economy.
As Frank Dikötter, Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong, stated:
“When Deng Xiaoping suggested that land should be leased to attract foreign capital, he put it very succinctly: Foreign Tools in Socialist Hands. As he pointed out, the land belongs to the state, the banks belong to the state, so there is nothing to fear from more foreign investment. It is precisely the ownership of the means of production that has given the party the confidence to attract foreign capital […].”
Dikötter insists that if capitalism is about money, profit, and free markets, then China does not have capitalism and has never had it. For him, “There is no economic freedom without political freedom.” Otherwise, the state continues to dictate economic exchanges.
China and COVID-19
The first official case of COVID-19 was discovered in China in December 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern in January 2020 and later proclaimed COVID-19 to be a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.
But for the Chinese regime, it was challenging to acknowledge that a new disease was emerging within its territory.
Dr. Li Wenliang, an eye doctor in Wuhan, was the first to recognize the coronavirus disease. He sent a message to fellow medical professionals about the outbreak and warned them to wear protective gear while treating patients. A few days later, the police summoned him and seven other people to the Public Security Bureau, accusing them of making false comments about the virus and disturbing the social order.
Wuhan’s Institute of Virology mapped the virus’s genome but didn’t share it with the scientific community for almost nine days. For 17 days, Chinese officials also denied any risk of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus before eventually reversing course. Meanwhile, Dr. Li Wenliang started showing symptoms of COVID-19, and twenty days later, he died in hospital.
Since the onset of the pandemic, China has aimed for zero COVID cases. The Chinese government has used draconian methods to implement lockdowns, quarantines, and compulsory daily PCR testing for workers, among other measures. China’s COVID strategy has consistently stood out as the most repressive on the world stage.
While the rest of the world resumed many aspects of pre-pandemic life in 2022, China remained firmly shut down. Its bureaucrats have even found inventive new ways to describe lockdowns due to their everlasting nature.
Using different expressions to talk about stringent restrictions without actually using the word “lockdown,” is a communication strategy used by the Chinese dictatorship to maintain control of the situation, although this tactic is not unique to the CCP. Softening or controlling the narrative around a crisis is a way to control the population’s reaction.
How has COVID-19 impacted the Chinese regime?
In November 2022, anti-government protests spread throughout China on an unprecedented scale in response to the regime’s continuing zero-COVID policy. In response, the CCP began relenting its COVID-19 policies in the face of this widespread dissent and criticism.
Before November 26, 2022, the prospect of a broad protest movement in China against a central government policy was almost unthinkable. The student-led protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing have been widely described as the most significant since 1989.
On the other hand, with the abrupt end of China’s zero-COVID policy, the number of cases increased sharply. This strategy may be a way for the CCP to make a point to the public that strict control is necessary.
Economically, zero-COVID measures have greatly affected the Chinese economy, now showing lower and moderate indices for the first time in several years.
Why might COVID be China’s Chernobyl?
Some historians claim that China’s economic openness did not erode communism in China because the CCP kept its central command system intact.
Even in the face of economic liberalization, the widespread failure of socialism around the world, and attempts to expand free and democratic thought, the Chinese dictatorship insisted on showing its military strength, power, and unity.
On the other hand, in the declining USSR, perestroika, the attempt at economic liberalization, was accompanied by a political and social opening-up with glasnost.
In light of these circumstances, the two main support bases for Soviet communism were broken simultaneously: political and military authoritarianism and the centralized economy.
Even going back to the 1950s, communist economic reformists had identified the need to make planned economies more rational and flexible. Gorbachev tried to do this with perestroika, but it failed. The political and military weakening of the USSR was already evident in the 1970s, and the evidence of social and international weakening came with glasnost.
China, in turn, managed to make its economy more flexible without affecting its political and military structure. Thus, the dictatorship has been able to remain firmly in control while at the same time integrating China into the global market.
As with COVID in China, the reaction to the Chernobyl disaster involved both not knowing how to properly deal with a situation of that magnitude and trying to maintain control and a sense of government authority. Furthermore, both in China and the Soviet Union, scientific analysis was denied in favor of keeping the established order and the discourse propagated by those in charge.
It is important to remember that the Chernobyl disaster alone did not destroy the USSR. Therefore, it is unlikely that the mishandling of COVID will destroy China single-handedly. However, the coronavirus pandemic could indeed contribute to a political and economic crisis for the Chinese communist dictatorship.
The Chinese regime seems likely to remain strong in the immediate future. However, while it is unlikely, it is not impossible that the fallout from the COVID crisis in China will cause ruptures and result in changes within the CCP’s power structure.
For more content on the parallels between the Chernobyl disaster and COVID-19, be sure to check out our video below.
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¹ E. Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes (1914-1991), 1st ed. (Abacus, London, 1994) – p. 471-472
² S. Plokhy, Chernobyl: History of a tragedy, 1st ed. (Penguin, London, 2019)
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