Cleaning up after the USSR


The evening before we left Kiev I took a glass of wine up to the top deck of the Lomonosov and waited for the sun to set. On the masthead above me the Ukrainian flag fluttered and snapped in a brisk north wind and as I watched the lights of the surrounding apartments blink on I wondered how different this city of three million people might look today if the wind had been from the north 24 years ago when Chernobyl's reactor number four, a mere 100 km upstream, blew its top.

On Friday, April 26, 1986 an experiment at the Chernobyl nuclear power station went terribly wrong and before it could be corrected the core of reactor number four was spiraling into an uncontrolled meltdown. The ensuing explosion and fire resulted in the worst nuclear accident of all time. But, in a travesty of lies and denials, Soviet officials did not even acknowledge it until three days later. Even then the risks were played down, resulting in the exposure of hundreds of unsuspecting people to lethal doses of radiation.

In the end it was the Swedes, a thousand kilometres to the northwest, who detected abnormal levels of radiation and sounded the alarm. Although Kiev was initially spared, a switch in the wind and fallout into the river eventually carried radioactive silt into its water supply. No one will ever know how many lives were lost or ruined by the accident or how many of those still unborn will suffer from insidious radiation damage to their genes.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster was a pivotal event in the history of Europe. For Ukraine it triggered a resurgence of the nationalist movement that led directly to independence, and for the Soviets it was the final nail in the coffin of the USSR.

When Ukraine, after 69 years as a Soviet republic, set off on the road to independence in 1991 it inherited a staggering burden of legacies, some good, many bad, from the previous centralized regime. And during our two-week trip down the Dnieper into the Black Sea we got a first hand account of the Soviet years as seen through the lens of Ukrainian nationalism.

A few kilometres south of Kiev, the Dnieper flows into a reservoir behind the first of five hydroelectric dams that were built during the USSR's program of industrialization. When it was completed in 1932 the Dniproges dam at Zaporizhye was the largest of its kind in the world. Provided with access to deep-draft freight boats on the reservoirs and an abundance of cheap electrical power from the dam the tiny settlement of Aleksandrovsk grew into the city of Zaporizhye, one of the largest industrial complexes in Ukraine. But there was also a down side to the taming of the Dnieper.

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