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Gorbachev : In Command and in Crisis

May 18, 1986|Roy Medvedev | Roy Medvedev, a Soviet citizen, writes about Soviet history and current affairs

MOSCOW — As the Soviet administration led by Mikhail S. Gorbachev begins its second year, the shadow of Chernobyl imposes great challenges upon the new leadership.

Before the incident at the atomic power station, Gorbachev's administration, sometimes called a "coalition of renovation" in the press, or a "revolutionary turning point," "new course" or "strategy of acceleration," had indeed carried out some important reforms. Its political base has been essentially strengthened and expanded after the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Special "brain centers" for formulating problems of security and external policy, ideological problems, economic and social problems have quickly been formed in the Kremlin.

But we have seen more changes in the Kremlin itself than outside of it. Not long ago I spent about a month in a little city in the northern Caucasus. The main change was the long lines for vodka, which is more difficult to buy now than meat or butter.

It would be wrong to underestimate the work done during the past year. But it would be an even bigger mistake to consider that the main difficulties, even aside from Chernobyl, are behind us. At a recent meeting of newspaper editors in Moscow, Alexander Yakovlev of the party secretariat frankly admitted that the course of the 27th congress is encountering strong resistance in economic and party organizations as well as at the grass roots. While talking with a group of theater workers, Politburo member Yegor K. Ligachev recently declared: "We are not so afraid of the workers who openly resist the course of renovation, and such people exist. We are not so afraid of those who resist secretly, and such people also exist. But most dangerous are those who support all the new measures with their words and in practice leave everything unchanged."

The new leader of the Moscow party organization, Boris N. Yeltsin, who has energetically fought corruption, recently admitted that even mass arrests among retail trade workers did not cut down abuses and plunder very much. "We didn't reach the bottom yet," Yeltsin declared.

Politburo member Lev N. Zaikov acknowledged there are not enough people in the party for assignment to the most responsible government positions. This leads to the assignment of "temporary" leaders who must often be removed when they do not justify the confidence placed in them. In the regional committees of the party and in the Central Committee, a "reserve for promotion"--training of people who are intended to be promoted in a year or two--is being created.

Moreover, the course of active diplomacy undertaken by Gorbachev and his new style did not lead to any notable successes in foreign policy, especially in relations with the United States. President Reagan turned out to be a more difficult partner than it seemed last year at Geneva. Yet the solutions for many problems must be found precisely with Reagan's Administration.

Then came the unexpected accident at the Chernobyl Atomic Power Station. On the political level, during the first days after the accident, one could detect an obvious uncertainty. This was the reason for the almost instinctive reaction by the leadership, producing maximum limitation on almost all information about the reasons for and the consequences of the catastrophe.

Now we are no longer suffering from lack of information, but it still remains very one-sided. In the press the theme of heroism prevails over the theme of responsibility; the theme of courage is present but not the theme of negligence. However, the topic is not about the eruption of a volcano or an earthquake, but about the consequences of the poor work of certain people and organizations. Why, then, did our press put forward the general questions of international security and not raise the concrete problems of strengthening all the safety systems on the numerous Soviet atomic stations?

There is no doubt about the courage and self-sacrifice of the firemen, who, perhaps at the price of their lives, prevented the spread of the fire in the fourth reactor over the entire station and thus blocked the destruction of controls for the whole plant. But why were several superpowerful reactors placed on one floor and under one roof? Why were the cable channels for the entire station and the roof of the station made of such flammable materials? What could have happened had (chief firefighter) Maj. Telyatnikov been less prompt and less skillful and the roof had collapsed on the firemen? In that case, we would have had to deal with an accident involving not one but four reactors that contained more radioactive substances than several large atomic bombs.

There is no doubt about the courage of the builders and the soldiers who worked for 16 days under the burning reactor to bolster its foundation. Yet a question arises: Why, during the construction of the plant, wasn't a foundation laid that was strong enough to withstand any possible accident?

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