The outright arrogance of the Soviet leadership occasionally caught me totally off-guard. One of the favorite sayings leveled at me as I traveled throughout the Soviet Union was Nothing ever goes wrong here, because nothing ever can go wrong here.If one of their Five Year Economic Plans failed miserably, or there was a costly industrial accident, there was an ingenious cover-up promoted, but never an admission of a mistake. That historic attitude spawned an international catastrophe in 1986 in Chernobyl, Ukraine.
The disaster took place during a systems test on April 26 when, due to faulty design and inappropriate and inefficient actions of the nuclear staff, an explosion and fire released immeasurable quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere. Sixty percent of the heavy fallout landed directly in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia; the rest was spread throughout the USSR and Europe over the following four years.
The Soviet Union authorities in control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant tried to cover up the whole episode. They never warned the innocent plant workers of what was happening; the 3,000 military men who were sent in to control and clean up the mess were not informed of the risks; and the leadership simply delayed evacuating the 350,400 residents of the city of Prypiat and effected areas. Only after radiation levels set off alarms in Sweden, did the Soviet Union admit that an accident had occurred.
No one will ever be able to accurately measure the past deaths or predict the future deaths resulting from the Chernobyl disaster. The Chernobyl Forum estimates that the eventual death toll could reach 204,000 emergency workers, 116,000 evacuees, and 270,000 residents of the most contaminated areas. Among the billions of people worldwide who were exposed to the radioactive contamination from the disaster, nearly a million premature cancer deaths occurred in the years following1986.
In June, 1996, I had a meeting in Minsk, Belarus, with a military commander named Peter Ivanovitsch. He had been a commander of the Soviet Army in Afghanistan in 1986. On April 27, 1986, he was ordered to take 2,900 of his men into Chernobyl to help. When he returned from Chernobyl they noticed that they were all getting sick, but the communist government said that it was impossible their sickness had anything to do with Chernobyl, and dismissed their being sick as coincidence. Soon many if his men began to die. They organized themselves to try to help not only the invalids being left as a result of the disaster, but also to try to bring food and aid to the families of the rescuers who had already died.
The communists still refused to help, saying that their claims were not valid even though the men who went in on the rescue attempts were all seriously affected. The majority of the men had died by the time of my meeting with the commander. Peter was enlisting Project C.U.R.E.’s help to supply medical goods for the remaining families. He was forty-three years old, but knew he only had a very short time to live.
My next meeting that day was with the Bishop of the Evangelical Union in Belarus. When the evacuation of Prypiat was taking place, there were a number of pastors who had accepted the challenge to go into the nuclear plant area and minister to the victims. They were pastors who had faced the oppression of the Soviet leaders in the past and had survived. The Bishop had warned them of the high risk involved, but the brave pastors traveled into the areas of heaviest radioactive fallout and ministered to the hurting people. Even though all those pastors died, they were the ones in the story that displayed true strength of character.
Common logic would have us believe that character is developed in the time of crisis. I doubt that. Very little character was being built by the Soviet leadership during the Chernobyl disaster. We are tempted to say that in a time of crises we will rise to the occasion . . . probably not, unless we have been consistently developing strength of character before the crises. Pressure proves the product . . . crisis simply reveals the character.