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Public Communication of Science and Technology


Chernobyl, Perestroika and the Soviet Press

Gert-Rüdiger Wegmarshaus   Fakultät für Kulturwissenschaften

The paper deals with the effects the Chernobyl Nuclear Power accident had on the Soviet Press and on the political process of Glasnost and Perestroika.

It is well known that in the Soviet Union the military and civil use of nuclear power was one of the corner stones of the Communist state. For the ruling Communist Party nuclear power appeared to be the appropriate means for achieving military security and economic prosperity. Therefore the Chernobyl accident was not only a major political ambarrassment for theUSSR, but it also undermined the Soviet technocratic approach toward science and technology, and it shadowed effectively the Communist utopia of finally achieving an affluent society. Despite Gorbachevs new policy of Glasnost (openness), the news coverage of Chernobyl proved that in the beginning of Perestroika the Soviet press still remained under strict Party control.

This explains why in the immediate aftermath of the reactor melt-down the Soviet press failed to inform the public about the immediate danger of the radioactive fallout. Nevertheless, in the month and years following the accident the policy of Glasnost gradually showed positive effects on the ways the Soviet media delt with Chernobyl. These effects may be traced in the newspapers as well as in the popular literary and scientific journals. Reform- minded journalist, scientists and free-lance writers proved to be the forerunnes of an unbiased, open and honest discussion of the causes and the effects of the Chernobyl power plant being blown off.

The Soviet public debate on Chernobyl in the years 1988/1989 soon took its own course freeing itself from the Communist party's influence and the tight grip of the state censorship. Reporting increasingly on the true technical causes of the Chernobyl accident the newspapers and journals triggered a debate of the scientific and atomic culture of the Soviet Union. The Chernobyl-case turned into a general nuclear power issue of the Soviet Union. The increasingly critical look at the the entire Soviet nuclear complex contributed heavily to the effective delegitimization of the Power of the Communist Party and to the ultimately quick, but peaceful dissolution of the Soviet state in 1990/91.

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