Top Secret Chernobyl: The Nuclear Disaster through the Eyes of the Soviet Politburo, KGB, and U.S. Intelligence
Edited by Svetlana Savranskaya, Sarah Dunn, Brooke Lennox with Alla Yaroshinskaya
Declassified documents detail highest-level reactions, cover-ups, critiques
Sources include Politburo notes, diaries, protocols never before translated into English
Part One of a Two-Volume Publication
Washington, D.C., August 15, 2019 – Documents from the highest levels of the Soviet Union, including notes, protocols and diaries of Politburo sessions in the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, detail a sequence of cover-up, revelation, shock, mobilization, individual bravery, and bureaucratic turf battles in the Soviet reaction, according to the “Top Secret Chernobyl” e-book published today by the National Security Archive.
Key sources include protocols of the Politburo Operational Group on Chernobyl that were published in Russian by the journalist and former Supreme Soviet deputy Alla Yaroshinskaya in 1992. The posting today begins with Yaroshinskaya’s essay (written exclusively for this publication) reviewing the Chernobyl story and her own efforts dating back to 1986 to document and expose the lies and the secrecy that surrounded the disaster.
Also included are excerpts from the diary of Politburo member Vitaly Vorotnikov, notes on Politburo sessions by Anatoly Chernyaev, and excerpts from rare “official working copies” of Politburo sessions that were published in Russian by former Rosarchiv director Rudolf Pikhoia in 2000. Today’s publication also contains declassified reactions from the U.S. State Department’s intelligence bureau, the CIA, and the National Security Council’s Jack Matlock, as well as reporting from the Ukrainian KGB.
“Top Secret Chernobyl” is the first part of a two-volume documentary publication, taking the Chernobyl story through July 1986. The second part will include Soviet military reporting on the radiation contamination, the process of “liquidation” of the consequences, and more foreign reactions to the disaster.
The documents published today complement a number of other important accounts of Chernobyl. The author Adam Higginbotham, whose book Midnight in Chernobyl (2019) illuminates the tragedy with quotations from his hundreds of interviews, also relied on a trove of Soviet-era documents collected by the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum in Kiev. In April 2019, Higginbotham published an extremely useful selection of these documents on the “Sources and Methods” blog of the History and Public Policy Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Higginbotham documents particularly detail the reaction of the Kiev authorities, ranging from the Council of Ministers to the Ukrainian Communist Party Central Committee to the Ministry of Health to the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences.
Another richly documented account that begins with the trial of the Chernobyl plant operators in 1987 and analyzes the entire rise of the Soviet nuclear power industry is Sonja D. Schmid’s Producing Power (2015). Schmid dissects the various competing explanations for the Chernobyl disaster, including operator error, reactor design, and deficiencies in the Soviet system overall, and cites to more than 100 pages of notes on sources. A more popularized and novelistic treatment may be found in Serhii Plokhy’s account, Chernobyl: A History of a Nuclear Catastrophe (2018).
Deception on the Scale of Chernobyl
By Alla Yaroshinskaya
In my journalistic archive are stored pounds of secret Chernobyl documents from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CC CPSU) and the Soviet government. The tens of thousands of deaths of liquidators and victims of the catastrophe and the loss of health and quality of life for the nine million people who still survive in the affected areas paid for them.
It is known that from the very beginning of everything, the nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP) was completely classified, and the communist regime repeated its deceitful mantra: “Nothing threatens peoples’ health.” (I write about this in detail in my nonfiction books.) I managed to fight my way to the most secret Kremlin documents only in 1991, when I was elected a People’s Deputy of the USSR from the city of Zhytomyr, which is 86 miles from Chernobyl. After the military coup in the USSR in August of 1991 and the ban of the Communist Party, the transfer of its archives began and the deputies finally received the secret protocols of the operative group of the Politburo of the CC CPSU on the accident at the Chernobyl NPS.
One of the December days in 1991, when the USSR was already in the process of self-destruction and the parliament living out its last months, I went over to the building of the Supreme Soviet (the parliament) and saw the deputies’ archives being loaded into cars. And suddenly it dawned on me: now the secret Chernobyl protocols will be carried off, even though we, the deputies, have not even had the time to read them yet! I decided to immediately make copies of them. However, the ‘veto’ in the only deputies’ copy center was imposed by a certain Vladimir Pronin from the secret sector of the Armed Forces of the USSR. This was a shock: the special services were watching all of the deputies’ actions! I dropped in on the head of the special units of the Secretariat of the Armed Forces of the USSR Anatoly Burko, and explained that I had the right. He calmly uttered: in order to get the authorization to copy documents, I must address the organization that classified them. Let me remind you that it was after the August coup of 1991. The President of Russia Boris Yeltsin had already banned the CPSU, and some members of its politburo were contemplating life in KGB cells.
I decided to go to the newspaper ‘Izvestia’, where I found the coveted Xerox. (In 1991 in the USSR, Xerox copying machines were still inaccessible not only to ordinary citizens, but, as one can see, to members of parliament.) On my return to my deputy’s office, I put the originals back in the safe and thought: in this country everything is so unsteady, and if the communists end up in power again tomorrow, what will become of my family? I opened the safe again, took out the first protocol from there—the original—and put the copy in its place.
When I began to read the secret documents, I saw that the deception around the catastrophe turned out to be just as vast as the catastrophe itself. And the main deadly isotope leaking out the Chernobyl reactor was not Cesium-37, but ‘Deception-86.’ As it follows from the documents, the first meeting of the Politburo group was held on April 29, 1986. A flood of reports on the hospitalization of the public comes, starting on May 4th.
“Secret. Protocol No. 7. May 6, 1986. Present: members of the Politburo of the CC CPSU Comrades N.I. Ryzhkov, E.K. Ligachev, V.I. Vorotnikov, V.L. Chebrikov, the Secretary of the CC CPSU A.N. Yakovlev… (…) as of 09:00 hours on May 6th, the total number of the hospitalized amounted to 3,454 people…the number stricken with radiation sickness amounted to 367 people.” According to the protocols, the number of the sick is growing every day. The count is already in the thousands.
“Secret. Protocol No. 12. May 12, 1986. (…) There are 10,198 people under in-patient examination and treatment, of which 345 people have symptoms of radiation sickness.”
After more than ten thousand of the radiation-exposed turned up in hospital beds their general discharge suddenly began. It seems the worse the radiation spread, the healthier the Soviet people grew.
And here is the solution of sudden, miraculous ‘healing.’
“Secret. Protocol No. 9. May 8, 1986. (…) The Ministry of Health of the USSR approved new standards of permissible levels of exposure of the population to radioactive irradiation, surpassing the former by 10 times. In special cases, it is possible to increase these standards to levels exceeding the previous by 50 times. [Author’s Note- !]”
The Kremlin went to great lengths to hide the scale of the radiation debacle. Not two months after the evacuation of people from the ‘black’ zone—as the 30—kilometer zone was termed in the secret letters of the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine Vladimir Shcherbitsky—the authorities hastily began the reverse process: re-evacuation! “Secret. Protocol No. 29. (…) June 23, 1986. The conclusion about the possibility of the return of children and pregnant women to the areas where the radiation levels fall within the limits of 2 to 5 mR/hr. 1. Allow the re-evacuation (return) of children and pregnant women to all residential areas where the combined calculated dose will not exceed 10 rem for the first year (237 residential areas in total)”, and there “where the calculated doses of radiation exposure (without the restriction of the consumption of contaminated foods) surpasses 10 rem,—from October 1, 1986…(174 residential areas)… Israel, Burenkov, Aleksandrov.” This is despite the fact that a month earlier the head of the State Committee for Hydrometeorology Yuri Israel reported: “Areas with radiation levels higher than 5 mR/hr (…) are recognized as dangerous for people to live in. In areas with radiation levels of less than 5 mR/hr it is critical to introduce strict control for radioactive food, especially milk.”
It is interesting to compare with the secret “Report of the head of the Chemical Corps of the Ministry Defense of the USSR V. Pikalov at a meeting of the CC CPSU on June 15, 1987.”: “…in the ‘red’ forest, because of the turn-down and the conservation of the forest, the radiation levels are lowered from 5 Roentgen/hr to 7.5 mR/hr, which surpasses admissible values by 15 times.” ‘Red’ was the name of the forest close to the NPP, which had been killed by a nuclear blast. It turns out that pregnant women and children were re-evacuated nearly to the ‘red’ forest! Isn’t this criminal? (One of the authors of the idea of returning children and pregnant women to the danger zone—Yuri Israel—was subsequently awarded the Order of Lenin “for Chernobyl.”)
Secret recipes from the Politburo on the use of radioactive meat and milk are undoubtedly one of the strongest parts of the Kremlin-Chernobyl bestseller. “Secret. Protocol No. 32. August 22, 1986. (…) Paragraph 10: “Consider it expedient to store meat with an elevated level of radioactive contaminant in the government reserve, in storage, as well as subject for purchase in the current year.”
“Top Secret. Resolution of the Politburo of the CC CPSU on May 8, 1986. Comrade V.S. Murakhovsky’s report. (…) Secretary of the CC CPSU M.S. Gorbachev. (…) In the course of slaughtering large cattle and pigs, it is established that washing the animals with water and also the removal of their lymph nodes results in obtaining meat suitable for consumption.” It is interesting, what did they do with the ‘removed lymph nodes’? Indeed, they also could have been put on Soviet schoolchildren’s doughnuts!
“Secret. Attachment to paragraph 10 of Protocol No. 32. (…) At present, there are around 10 thousand tons of meat with contamination levels of radioactive materials from 1.1*10-7 Ci/kg to 1.0*10-g Ci/kg in storage in fridges of the meat industry in a number of regions, in August to December of this year it is expected that another 30 thousand tons of such meat will enter into production.” And then comes the recommendation: “…disperse the meat contaminated with radioactive material around the country as much as possible, and use it for the production of sausage products, canned goods, and manufactured meat products at a ratio of one to 10 with normal meat.”
The following is how the Deputy Prosecutor-General of the USSR V.I. Andreyev answered my official inquiry 5 years after the accident: “…in the period of 1986 to 1989, in the specified zones 47,500 tons of meat and 2 million tons of milk over the limit of the level of contamination were produced….These circumstances put around 75 million people in dangerous living conditions (Author’s Note- !)… and created the conditions for increased mortality, the increase in the number of malignant tumors, the increase of the number of deformities, hereditary and somatic medical problems, and a change in the population’s capacity for work.
… Only 1.5 million people (as well as 160,000 children under the age of 7 ) at the time of the accident were living in the zone of the largest contamination with iodine-131, those with irradiation exposure of the thyroid gland at 30 rem composed 87% of adults and 48% of children, at 11% and 35%, respectively, at 30 to 100 rem, and 2% of adults and 17% of children were at upwards of 100 rem.” An exposure to radiation of 100 rem guarantees cancer.
The Union collapsed. Even in Bulgaria criminal proceedings took place for those who had lied to the people about the radiation. And we did not have those who were guilty in the Chernobyl outrages under the party bosses, who called “to intensify propaganda efforts aimed at the exposure of false fabrications of the bourgeois information and intelligence agencies about the events at the Chernobyl NPP,” nor under democracies—sovereign public prosecutors still keep a deathlike silence.
Writer, author of nonfiction books about Chernobyl
Former Peoples’ Deputy of the USSR
Former Adviser to the President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin
Translated by Sarah Dunn for the National Security Archive.