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The Lessons of Soviet Catastrophes : UNCOVERING SOVIET DISASTERS Exploring the Limits of Glasnost by James E. Oberg (Random House: $19.95; 315 pp., illustrated)

March 27, 1988|Bennett Ramberg | Ramberg's most recent book is "Global Nuclear Energy Risks: The Search for Preventive Medicine" (Westview, 1986).

James Oberg sets out to uncover the truth about Soviet disasters for its own sake and because it may have implications for us as well as them. Purportedly, he intends "not to gloat but to humanize . . . the victims." I say purportedly because, notwithstanding his denial, Oberg does seem to gloat in language he uses to describe a few--not many--events. In this regard, he diminishes truth-seeking in order to sensationalize and embarrass.

For example, relating a "stupid" 1976 military aircraft crash (are there smart aircraft crashes?) into a bus in Vladivostok, Oberg recounts that the "catastrophe" "horribly mangled" the victims--two men, three women and five children. Why embellish the event with such lurid language? The tone appears designed to incite the reader, not inform. It suggests that the pilot and his Soviet superiors acted with malice--a malice whose consequence was dead children.

As for his choice of disasters, Oberg oddly includes several events that seem out of place. For example, he critiques Soviet devotion of inordinate economic resources to build the world's largest optical telescope. Inappropriately placed on a cloudy mountain, the device became a boondoggle that failed to make any major scientific discovery.

I make these points not to diminish the import of Oberg's revelations but merely to caution the reader to examine them critically. In the end, Oberg's revelations legitimately damn Soviet negligence. Oberg's harsh criticism of Soviet misinformation, disinformation and noninformation in reporting or failing to report disasters is also well deserved. Furthermore, his findings should be of concern to us because in a nuclear-armed world, Soviet incompetence poses a threat to us as well.

Oberg provides a far-reaching sweep of incidents. Presumably, given the fact that he did not have access to the complete record because of Moscow's secretiveness, they represent only the tip of the iceberg. They range from the 1979 accidental release of anthrax in Sverdlovsk resulting in as many as 1,000 fatalities, to the still-not-well-understood 1957 nuclear disaster in the Urals, the consequences of which seem to have been greater than those of Chernobyl.

They include comparatively modest events--not disasters in the catastrophic sense--as the loss of research stations in Antarctica because of fire and ice floes, the downing of foreign aircraft within and outside Soviet airspace well before the 1983 Korean Airline disaster, the loss of Soviet freighters at sea, civil aircraft and train crashes, the deaths of 900 Soviets during a five-year period because of fires from faulty television sets and 39,000 fatalities per year as a result of automobile accidents in a country with one-tenth the number of cars the United States has. Oberg also traces numerous military plane and marine accidents notably involving Soviet submarines. He recounts how in 1982 the Soviets lost hundreds of soldiers in Afghanistan in the 1.7-mile Salang tunnel because of a tanker truck explosion. He traces how other explosions took lives in the space program.

Ofttimes, Oberg provides only a cursory review of these events. As a result, the book frequently reads like text off a wire service. The absence of detailed information, the number of events covered, and space limitations may explain this. At the same time, when Oberg delves deeper into issues, such as the conflicting explanations about the anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk, his research is admirable.

But it is in another regard that Oberg makes a telling point about Soviet disasters and secrecy which is important to the rest of the world. For when a disaster occurs in the Soviet Union, the United States or elsewhere for that matter, there are lessons that can prevent like incidents. Thus the failure of the Soviets to release information about the contribution an oxygen-rich cabin environment made in a fire that killed a cosmonaut in 1961 might have prevented a similar January, 1967, accident that killed three astronauts.

Looking toward the future, Oberg concludes that the arrival of Gorbachev has resulted in "unprecedented levels of 'openness' about various heretofore obscure aspects of Soviet society, including disasters." Such candor already has borne fruit in the United States. A thorough Soviet report of events that led to Chernobyl was released to the international community and contributed to a U.S. decision to take remedial measures at reactors that fuel our nuclear-weapons program and have characteristics similar to the Soviet design. Soviet candor in this regard does not mean that the Soviet Union is on the verge of becoming an open society in any sense that we understand. What it does mean is that a ray of light was cast in this instance. The forthrightness resulted not in embarrassment but in the world's gratitude. It is an object lesson that we can only hope the Soviets will apply with frequency in the future.

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