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Chernobyl’s Effects Go Far Beyond What You’re Seeing on HBO. It Shook Up Geopolitics for Years.

| July 15, 2019

From the Soviet Union’s fall to Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament, the disaster changed the region.

With HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl, the 1986 nuclear power plant accident in Soviet Ukraine has become a cultural phenomenon, with the entombed reactor now a tourist destination. HBO’s meticulous reconstruction of human folly and the Soviet system’s dysfunction aims to document what happened and why.

The extent of Chernobyl’s geopolitical fallout is less well known. Chernobyl’s effects went well beyond radiation, rippling through the social and political fabric of a deteriorating society. Chernobyl helped to bring down the Soviet Union and constrained independent Ukraine’s nuclear options. It still reverberates today on the front lines of the war in eastern Ukraine and in Moscow’s denials that it is involved in undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Chernobyl’s fallout contributed to the Soviet Union’s fall.

Chernobyl profoundly shook newly ascended Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. As he wrote in his memoirs, learning about the faulty reactor design led Gorbachev to more deeply distrust the secretive Soviet military-industrial complex, including its much-touted technological prowess and its ability to sustain an arms race with the United States. Chernobyl helped solidify his commitment to arms control — ultimately yielding the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987 that eliminated an entire class of nuclear-armed missiles and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 1991 that cut superpower nuclear forces by nearly half.

But these disarmament policies pitched Gorbachev against the conservatives in Soviet defense establishment. They would stage a coup in August 1991, triggering the Soviet Union’s precipitous unraveling.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Budjeryn, Mariana.“Chernobyl’s Effects Go Far Beyond What You’re Seeing on HBO. It Shook Up Geopolitics for Years..” The Washington Post, July 15, 2019.

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