Chernobyl – History of a Tragedy (Serhii Plokhy, 2018) – Review of the World’s Greatest Energy Disaster

I had the chance to read Serhii Plokhy’s new book on the history of Chernobyl, a professional historian who was born and raised in a city located 250 miles away from Chernobyl, in Ukraine.

The point he makes is that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster has contributed to the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was not the only reason per se, but it has definately played a significant part in it. Chernobyl matters as a historical reminder, because it symbolized the management style by the Soviet politburo and inability of technicians to make the necessary operational decisions in such a rigid environment.

The scale of the problem forced Mikhail Gorbachev to address this issue, eventually, the crisis that led him to release secret information regarding the events that have taken place in the Soviet Union at that time. It is important to remember that there was no precedent for this in the Soviet Union. In that way, it led to a shift of management style of the Communist Party itself.

Serhii Plokhy points out that this disaster can be seen as a stepping stone into post-Soviet Russia, a period commonly known under the name Glasnost and Perestroika, and leading to the economic restructuring of post-Soviet Russia.  I believe its real significance is that it exposes the ineffectiveness of complex structures and hierarchies which more often then not do not align with the day-to-day decision-making.

Managing large-scale technical operations requires much more flexibility, and these decisions have to be made on site, which is why Chernobyl is an important reminder for what happens when management decisions override operational management concerns.

Content of Chernobyl – its implications for the Soviet Union

Shortly after the destruction that took place in Chernobyl, increased levels of radioactivity were detected in Northern Europe (particularily in Sweden) coming from Northern Ukraine. It didn’t take a long time for Western European media find out that a nuclear accident has happened in the Soviet Union. In fact, the information was released in Western Europe even before the information became known in the Soviet Union. The truth is that the population was not informed, even days after the radioactive clouds have spread across Ukraine.

And although the politburo tried hardily to keep the incidence secret, Mikhail Goverbachev later found himself in no position to hide the incidence due to its magnitude, and also because of the Western media’s insistence that such an event has taken place within the territory of the Soviet Union. No longer being able to keep a Soviet tradition alive that was characterized, to some extent, by secrecy and rigid hierarchies, Mikhail Gorbachev eventually released some information, piece by piece.

During the aftermath, he had lost some of his credibility, and his standing suffered as well to some extend, which further undermined the good-will of the Populus, which he had been able to maintain. He received it in part because he was from a younger cohort of politicians and because he appeared a less gerontocratic candidate for leadership of the politburo in the Soviet Union.


I highly recommend this book for your bookshelves in case you are interested in the ramifications of the nuclear fallout in Chernobyl, but especially if you have a general interest in nuclear energy. I recommend it to anyone interested to learn more about the risks posed by nuclear technology, if managed carelessly by human hands. The book is also extremely useful to readers interested in Russian energy politics.


Plokhy S 2018, Chernobyl History of A Tragedy, Penguin Random House.

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