226. Telegram From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State1

7552. Subject: Chernobyl: Domestic Fallout.

1. C—Entire text.


2. The domestic political consequences of the Chernobyl accident are likely to be less severe than either the foreign political or ecological consequences. However, they cannot be excluded. Ligachev’s visit to Chernobyl underscored the Party’s political concern, and may hint at personnel moves against those held responsible. Gorbachev’s new spirit of “openness” has been proved somewhat hollow. The disaster could be used as a wedge to drive Ukrainian party boss Shcherbitskiy out of office if Gorbachev wants him moved aside. Moscow party chief Yel’tsin’s remarks to journalists in West Germany go farther than the apparent official line, and raise the question of whether he has overstepped his bounds. End summary.

3. The domestic political consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster are—by Western standards—almost inconsequential. Tight control of the media, and the instinctive reaction of the Soviet population to swallow the party line combine to limit the damage an event such as Chernobyl might otherwise cause. However, there are some significant domestic considerations.

The Site Visit

4. CPSU Secretary and Politburo member Ligachev, Premier Ryzhkov and Ukrainian First Secretary Shcherbitskiy visited the disaster “area” May 2. Gorbachev pointedly did not participate in the tour, probably because this would have underscored the seriousness of the situation more than the Soviets would like, and because he undoubtedly wants as little personal involvement as possible. Ryzhkov, as head of the government, and Shcherbitskiy, as Ukrainian Party boss, were understandable inclusions in the party. The choice of Ligachev, rather than Zaykov as ranking central Party representative was a vivid demonstration that the Party’s concern with the disaster is more political than technical. Also, as cadre supervisor, Ligachev’s presence may [Page 944] foreshadow the axe that may soon fall on those held “responsible” for the incident.


5. Gorbachev’s concept of Glasnost has been dealt a blow by the knee-jerk cover up reaction of the authorities to the disaster. January 5, “Sovetskaya Rossiya” printed a letter decrying the practice of hushing up domestic disasters, while covering foreign ones. This view obviously did not prevail this time around, and the news that has come out has been slow and not very convincing.


6. Shcherbitskiy may bear little responsibility for operation of the plant and the disaster itself. However, the next few months will provide many opportunities for things to go wrong as the local authorities deal with the consequences of the accident. The high-level site visit stressed (according to press accounts) aid for the victims, provision of services to evacuated populations, and arrangements to put them to work. If Gorbachev wants to get rid of Shcherbitskiy (and that is a major if), the accident and its consequences may very well provide a perfect opportunity.


7. Boris Yel’tsin, in Hamburg for the German Communist Party Congress, has provided far more details about the disaster than any other public Soviet source. Only time will tell whether this is a course that Gorbachev will applaud, or whether Yel’tsin has overstepped his leash. We suspect the former, but cannot exclude the latter.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D860346–0183. Confidential; Priority. Sent for information to the Moscow Political Collective.