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The Meaning of Chernobyl

KYIV – It began as a grey and muddy spring day, like so many others in my homeland. It ended in dread and mourning.

Of course, none of us knew the precise moment when catastrophe struck at Chernobyl 25 years ago. Back then, we lived under a system that denied ordinary people any right whatsoever to know about even essential facts and events. So we were kept in the dark about the radiation leaking from the shattered reactor at Chernobyl – and blowing in the winds over northern Europe.

But the more bizarre fact about the Chernobyl disaster, we now know, is that Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was also kept in the dark about the magnitude of the disaster. Indeed, it may be this very fact that finally condemned the old system to the dustbin of history a mere five years later. No regime built on limitless self-delusion is capable of retaining a shred of legitimacy once the scale of its self-deception is exposed.

Because only fragments of reliable information reached ordinary Ukrainians at the time, my memories of Chernobyl are necessarily sketchy. I recall now only the first hushed, frightened whispers of disaster from a family friend. I remember the abject fear I felt for my young daughter. A virtual torrent of near hysterical hearsay and trickledown stories about the disaster soon followed.