Russia Is Still Keeping Us In The Dark

Russia Is Still Keeping Us In The Dark

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The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine is seen after the explosion on April 26, 1986. (SHONE/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: Lev Golinkin writes on refugee and immigrant identity, as well as Ukraine, Russia and the far right. He is the author of the memoir “A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.””>“A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion”>more opinion on CNN.

The placards were upbeat. But then again, it was the Soviet Union, where the placards were always upbeat. They boasted of industrial and harvest quotas being met, tractors and tanks produced ahead of schedule, of glory to communism and to Vladimir Lenin, the founder of Soviet Russia.

I was 6 years old and out with my parents watching the placards and flags in Kharkov (now called Kharkiv), the second largest city in Ukraine. We were almost back at our apartment block when I heard my grandma yell from the balcony, telling my mother to get me inside. She had heard a rumor that there was an accident at the nuclear plant in Chernobyl, a little less than 300 miles from Kharkiv.

It was May 1, 1986, and one of the biggest holidays in the Soviet year — a celebration of workers and peasants. And the Kremlin never passed up an opportunity to hold a parade, even in the middle of the worst nuclear disaster in history.

The Chernobyl explosion happened on April 26, 1986 — five days before the May Day parade. But Moscow had remained silent, refusing to admit anything had occurred until the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl was detected in Scandinavia on April 28, making it impossible to hide the catastrophe any longer. Even after the Kremlin was forced to acknowledge an incident at its nuclear plant, it grossly downplayed the issue.

Now, 36 years later, Russia is still keeping its citizens in the dark — this time, about the true picture of its war in Ukraine.

Crowds gather for May Day celebrations in the Ukraine capital Kyiv on May 1, 1986, five days after a deadly explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant some 94 kilometers away. (AP) On April 29, three days after the Chernobyl disaster, Moscow issued a terse television announcement informing citizens that a reactor was damaged and aid was being provided to those who required it. The announcement was less than 20 seconds long. The Kremlin didn’t cancel the May Day parades held in countless cities across the region. And so out we went, with placards, red banners, optimism — and radiation.

Kyiv residents line up for forms as part of radiation checks on people potentially exposed to the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl on May 9, 1986. (Boris Yurchenko/AP) The days and weeks that followed were filled with a torrent of rumors and innuendo swirling around living rooms across the USSR while Moscow continued to pile over the explosion with secrecy and obfuscation. The Politburo began to loosen up restrictions on freedom of speech, but the confusion remained. No one knew the truth, but everyone knew the Kremlin was lying — and that was about the only certainty around.

People can justify most anything, especially when living under a dictatorship. You could blame famines on bad winters, wars on external aggression, economic hardship on sabotage by capitalists, even the old Soviet purges on the paranoid madness of Joseph Stalin.

But there was no rationalizing away the radiation. Moscow’s refusal to cancel May Day festivities exposed the hollow horror of the Soviet Union — even the most faithful believers in communism realized they lived in a country that thrust millions of people into danger just so it could hold a parade.

A portrait of Vladimir Lenin sits atop a truck during May Day celebrations in Red Square, Moscow, on May 1, 1986. Images of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, founders of modern communism, can also be seen in the crowd. (AFP/Getty Images)

Then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev waves from atop the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square, Moscow, during May Day celebrations in 1986. The parade appeared unaffected by news of an incident at Chernobyl. (Boris Yurchenko/AP)

Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev himself admitted Chernobyl — which eroded faith in the Soviet system, poisoned vast tracts of land and cost billions to clean up — contributed to the collapse of the USSR more than any other factor. Decades of Moscow’s secrecy around the disaster makes it impossible to arrive at an accurate estimate of casualties, and to this day, experts continue to guess and reassess the true impact of Chernobyl.

The Politburo’s decision to push ahead with the parade fits firmly into the history of a dictatorship founded on lies. Lenin rose to power by promising people “peace, land and bread,” and instead ushered in a totalitarian regime that murdered millions, often by starvation.

Dead and dying horses near a Belgorod farm during the man-made Holodomor famine in Ukraine in 1934. (Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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