During my travels in the Soviet Union, the outright arrogance of the Soviet leadership occasionally caught me totally off-guard. One of the favorite sayings leveled at me 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, an ingenious cover-up was promoted, but never an admission of a mistake That historic attitude spawned an international catastrophe in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986.

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. The majority of the heavy fallout landed directly in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia; the rest was spread throughout the USSR and Europe.

Some reports indicate that the Soviet authorities in control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant tried to cover up the whole episode. They apparently failed to warn plant workers of what was happening. Military personnel and emergency workers who were sent in to control and clean up the mess weren’t informed of the risks, and government officials delayed evacuating thousands of residents in Pripyat and other contaminated areas surrounding the reactor. The Soviet government was also slow to admit to the world that an accident had occurred. 

More than one hundred emergency workers died from radiation exposure following the Chernobyl disaster, but the long-term health impact and future death toll is impossible to calculate. The World Health Organization has estimated that an additional four thousand people from the highest-risk groups of emergency workers and civilians could eventually die from the lifelong effects of radiation. Long-term studies have also shown that survivors have an increased risk of certain types of cancer, particularly those who were children or teenagers at the time of the accident.

In June of 1996, I had a meeting in Minsk, Belarus, with a military commander named Peter Ivanovitsch. He had been a Soviet army commander 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 it was impossible that their sickness had anything to do with Chernobyl, and officials dismissed their concerns. Soon, many of Peter’s men began to die. They organized themselves not only to try to help the invalids left alive after the disaster but also 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 weren’t 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 I met 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 he knew he had only 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 Pripyat was taking place, a number of pastors had accepted the challenge to go into the nuclear plant area and minister to the victims. These pastors 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 these brave pastors traveled into the areas of heaviest radioactive fallout and ministered to the hurting people. Even though all of the pastors died, they were the ones who displayed true strength of character in the midst of crisis.

Common logic would have us believe that character is developed in times of crisis. I doubt that. Very little character was being developed by the Soviet leadership during the Chernobyl disaster. We may also be tempted to say that in a time of crisis, we’ll rise to the occasion. . . . Probably not, unless we’ve been consistently developing strength of character before a crisis happens.

Pressure proves the product . . . Crisis simply reveals the character.