For the Soviet Union, Chernobyl was a catalyst that forced the government into an unprecedented show of openness that paved the way for reforms leading to the Soviet collapse.
But 20 years after the nuclear disaster, many fear Russia is slipping back into its old, secretive ways.
The Kremlin didn’t publicly admit the accident until two days after the April 26, 1986, explosion and then only in vague terms and after officials in Sweden, some 700 miles away, raised worldwide alarm about sharply increased levels of radiation apparently coming from the Soviet Union.
Accusations of cover-up
Soviet authorities had long failed to acknowledge domestic catastrophes such as airplane crashes. But this time, as winds carried the fallout across much of Europe, their delay angered the international community and exposed their pathological secretiveness even as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was pushing for new engagement with the West.
Gorbachev himself waited some three weeks before publicly commenting. He denies a cover up, insisting authorities simply didn’t know what was happening.
“We spent the first days trying to get the picture,” Gorbachev told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “I can’t agree that we were trying to conduct a sly policy and hide something.”
“We realized the entire drama only later,” he said.
Pushed greater openness
Facing a wave of Western criticism, Gorbachev ordered authorities to open up in unprecedented manner. “Journalists suddenly were given access to nuclear officials and doctors treating radiation diseases — people from another world,” said Viktor Loshak, the editor of Ogonyok weekly magazine who was one of a team of Soviet journalists who wrote on the aftermath of the disaster. “That was a powerful push toward greater openness.”
The emboldened Soviet media began probing other areas, exposing Stalinist crimes, economic inefficiency and other troubles.
It became known as “glasnost” or openness, and exposed officialdom to widespread contempt from its own people.
“It was glasnost that destroyed the Soviet Union,” said Gennady Gerasimov, Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman under Gorbachev. “People opened their eyes and saw what kind of a country they were living in, and they looked at the nation’s horrible history.”
Return to Soviet-era news
Media freedoms expanded under Russian President Boris Yeltsin, but began receding after Vladimir Putin became president in 2000.
In August 2000, attempts to cover up the government’s botched handling of the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine that killed its entire crew of 118 closely resembled the initial Soviet response to Chernobyl.
The Kremlin responded to this and other controversies by gaining control of all nationwide channels, and critical reporting eroded sharply. Today many critics say the blanket positive coverage of Putin and his government differs little from Soviet-era news.
“The government views the media as a tool to deliver information about its decisions, like it was in the Soviet times,” said political commentator Alexander Golts. “It only gives the information it wants to give.”
While print media enjoy considerably more freedom than broadcasters, top national newspapers feel the pressure from owners fearful for their business interests.
New laws sharply restrict media coverage of terrorist attacks, and nationwide television stations toe the government line in reporting on catastrophes and accidents, usually focusing blame on midlevel bureaucrats. Broadcasters are regularly summoned to the Kremlin to receive instructions.
“There isn’t a single television station doing genuine reporting here,” said Alexei Simonov, the head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a leading Russian media rights watchdog. “Media freedom has shrunk in Russia.”