The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe


By Serhii Plokhy

Formats and Prices




$16.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 15, 2018. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

A Chernobyl survivor and the New York Times bestselling author of The Gates of Europe "mercilessly chronicles the absurdities of the Soviet system" in this "vividly empathetic" account of the worst nuclear accident in history (Wall Street Journal).

On the morning of April 26, 1986, Europe witnessed the worst nuclear disaster in history: the explosion of a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine. Dozens died of radiation poisoning, fallout contaminated half the continent, and thousands fell ill.

In Chernobyl, Serhii Plokhy draws on new sources to tell the dramatic stories of the firefighters, scientists, and soldiers who heroically extinguished the nuclear inferno. He lays bare the flaws of the Soviet nuclear industry, tracing the disaster to the authoritarian character of the Communist party rule, the regime's control over scientific information, and its emphasis on economic development over all else.

Today, the risk of another Chernobyl looms in the mismanagement of nuclear power in the developing world. A moving and definitive account, Chernobyl is also an urgent call to action.


* Shown over contemporary borders for reference.


THERE ARE eight of us on the trip to Chernobyl, marked on my Ukrainian map as “Chornobyl.” Besides me, there are three science and engineering students from Hong Kong who are on a tour of Russia and Eastern Europe. Then, as far as I can tell from their accent, there are four Brits—three men and one woman, all in their twenties. I soon learn that the men are indeed British, while the woman, whose name is Amanda, is proudly Irish. They are getting along quite well.

A few weeks earlier, when Amanda asked her British husband, Stuart, what he wanted to do on their forthcoming vacation, he said he wanted to go to Chernobyl. So they came, accompanied by Stuart’s brother and a family friend. Two computer games had provided the inspiration for the trip. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, a shooter-survival horror game, the action takes place in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone after a fictional second nuclear explosion. In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the main action figure, Captain Jon Price, goes to the abandoned city of Prypiat to hunt down the leader of the Russian ultranationalists. Stuart and his team decided to see the place for themselves.

Vita, our animated young Ukrainian guide, first takes us to the 30-kilometer exclusion zone and then to the more restricted 10-kilometer one—two circles, one inside the other, with the former nuclear power plant at their center and a radius of 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) and 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), respectively. We get to see the Soviet radar called Duga, or Arch—a response to Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative—by today’s standards a low-tech system. It was designed to detect a possible nuclear attack from the East Coast of the United States. From there we proceeded to the city of Chernobyl, its nuclear power station, and the neighboring city of Prypiat, a ghost town that once housed close to 50,000 construction workers and operators of the destroyed plant. Vita gives us radiation counters that beep when levels exceed the established norm. In some areas, including those close to the damaged reactor, they beep nonstop. Vita then takes the dosimeters away and shuts them off, just as Soviet workers sent to deal with the consequences of the disaster did back in 1986. They had to do their work, and the dosimeters showed unacceptable levels of radiation. Vita has her own job to do. She tells us that in our whole day in the zone, we will get the same amount of radiation as an airplane passenger absorbs in an hour. We trust her assurance that the radiation levels are not too crazy.

Altogether, 50 million curies of radiation were released by the Chernobyl explosion, the equivalent of 500 Hiroshima bombs. All that was required for such catastrophic fallout was the escape of less than 5 percent of the reactor’s nuclear fuel. Originally it had contained more than 250 pounds of enriched uranium—enough to pollute and devastate most of Europe. And if the other three reactors of the Chernobyl power plant had been damaged by the explosion of the first, then hardly any living and breathing organisms would have remained on the planet. For weeks after the accident, scientists and engineers did not know whether the explosion of the radioactive Chernobyl volcano would be followed by even deadlier ones. It was not, but the damage done by the first explosion will last for centuries. The half-life of the plutonium-239 that was released by the Chernobyl explosion—and carried by winds all the way to Sweden—is 24,000 years.

Prypiat is sometimes referred to as the modern-day Pompeii. There are clear parallels between the two sites, but there are differences as well, if only because the Ukrainian city, its walls, ceilings, and even the occasional windowpane, are still basically intact. It was not the heat or magma of a volcano that claimed and stopped life there, but invisible particles of radiation, which drove out the inhabitants but spared most of the vegetation, allowing wild animals to come back and claim the space once built and inhabited by humans. There are numerous marks of the long-gone communist past on the streets of the city. Communist-era slogans are still there, and inside the abandoned movie theater, a portrait of a communist leader. Vita, our guide, says that no one can now tell who is depicted there, but I recognize a familiar face from my days as a young university professor in Ukraine at the time of the catastrophe—the painting is of Viktor Chebrikov, the head of the KGB from 1982 to 1988. It has miraculously survived the past thirty years, undamaged except for a tiny hole near Chebrikov’s nose. Otherwise, the image is perfectly fine. We move on.

It is strange, I think to myself, that Vita, an excellent tour guide, cannot identify Chebrikov. She also seems at a loss to explain the signs saying “meat,” “milk,” and “cheese” hanging from what was once the ceiling of an abandoned Soviet-era supermarket. “How come,” she asks, “they write that in the Soviet Union there were shortages of almost everything?” I explain that Prypiat was in many ways a privileged place because of the nuclear power plant, and that the workers were better supplied with agricultural produce and consumer goods than the general population. Besides, the fact that there were signs saying “meat” or “cheese” did not mean that those products were actually available. It was the Soviet Union, after all, where the gap between the image projected by government propaganda and reality was bridged only by jokes. I retell one of them: “If you want to fill your fridge with food, plug the fridge into the radio outlet.” The radio was telling the story of ever-improving living standards; the empty fridge had its own story to tell.

IT WAS on my trip to Prypiat that I decided I had to tell the saga of Chernobyl: it would be for the sake of those who were not around at the time but who wanted to know and understand what had happened on that fateful night of April 26, 1986, and in the days, months, and years that followed. Despite the Soviet government’s initial efforts to conceal the Chernobyl disaster and downplay its consequences, it became well known in the Soviet Union and in the West and received a great deal of public attention, starting with journalistic reports filed in the first days after the explosion and ending with documentary films, feature movies, nonfiction investigations, and novels. Although the key to understanding the causes, consequences, and lessons of the disaster is historical contextualization and interpretation, few historians have addressed the subject to date.

This book is a work of history—in fact, it is the first comprehensive history of the Chernobyl disaster from the explosion of the nuclear reactor to the closing of the plant in December 2000 and the final stages in the completion of the new shelter over the damaged reactor in May 2018. As I embarked on my research of the history of Chernobyl, I was helped enormously by the recent opening of previously closed archival collections dealing with the disaster. Many government archives opened their doors more widely than before, making it easier to consult documents issued by the Communist Party and government agencies at the time and in the aftermath of the disaster. The Maidan uprising and the Revolution of Dignity of 2014 in Ukraine also produced an archival revolution that allowed unprecedented access to previously closed KGB files.

I was writing this book both as a historian and as a contemporary of the events being discussed. At the time of the explosion I lived in Ukraine less than 500 kilometers downstream Dnieper of the damaged reactor. My family and I were not directly affected by the ordeal. But a few years later, doctors in Canada, where I was a visiting professor at the time, told me that at some point my thyroid had been inflamed—a worrisome sign of radiation exposure. Fortunately, my wife and children were fine. But radiation acts in unpredictable ways: One of my former university classmates was sent to Chernobyl as a policeman a few days after the accident; he still spends at least a month in the hospital every year. Another university colleague who spent time near the station after the explosion seems to be fine—he now teaches Soviet history in the United States. Talking with them and with other participants in the events and recollecting my own memories of the disaster helped me re-create the thoughts and motives of those who had sacrificed their health, or even their lives, to minimize the consequences of the Chernobyl meltdown.

The further we move in time from the disaster, the more it seems like a myth—and the more difficult it becomes to grasp its real-life roots and consequences. By putting the disaster in historical context, I attempt to provide better understanding of the world’s worst nuclear accident. My use of newly available archival materials and recently published government documents, as well as interviews with eyewitnesses and accounts of other writers, such as Svetlana Alexievich and Yurii Shcherbak, has allowed me to present a long-term perspective on the disaster and its political, social, and cultural effects. In my narrative, I move from the control room of the damaged reactor to the abandoned villages of the exclusion zone and to the offices of those in power in Kyiv (Kiev), Moscow, and Washington. Placing the Chernobyl accident in the context of international history makes it possible to draw lessons of global significance.

Chernobyl as history is the story of a technological disaster that helped bring down not only the Soviet nuclear industry but the Soviet system as a whole. The accident marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union: a little more than five years later, the world superpower would fall apart, doomed not only by the albatross of its communist ideology but also by its dysfunctional managerial and economic systems.

The explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant had challenged and changed the old Soviet order. The policy of glasnost, or openness, which gave the media and citizens the right to discuss political and social problems and criticize the authorities, had its origins in the post-Chernobyl days. As the population demanded more and more information from the government, the official culture of secrecy slowly yielded. The Chernobyl disaster made the government recognize ecological concerns as a legitimate reason for Soviet citizens to create their own organizations, which broke the monopoly of the Communist Party on political activity. The first Soviet-era mass organizations and political parties began in the ecological movement, which engulfed the heavily polluted industrial centers of the Soviet Union.

Because radiation affected everyone, from party leaders to ordinary citizens, the Chernobyl accident also sharply increased discontent with Moscow and its policies across ethnic and social lines. Nowhere was the political impact more profound than in Ukraine, the republic that was home to the failed reactor. Two conflicting political actors in Ukraine—the Ukrainian communist establishment and the nascent democratic opposition—discovered a common interest in opposing Moscow, and especially Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In December 1991, when Ukrainians voted for their country’s independence, they also consigned the mighty Soviet Union to the dustbin of history—it was officially dissolved a few weeks after the Ukrainian referendum. While it would be wrong to attribute the development of glasnost in the Soviet Union, or the rise of the national movement in Ukraine and other republics, to the Chernobyl accident alone, the disaster’s impact on those interrelated processes can hardly be overstated.

It would be easy to blame the Chernobyl accident on the failed communist system and the design flaws of Chernobyl-type reactors, implying that those problems belong to the past. But this confidence would be misplaced. The causes of the Chernobyl meltdown are very much in evidence today. Authoritarian rulers pursuing enhanced or great-power status—and eager to accelerate economic development and overcome energy and demographic crises, while paying lip service to ecological concerns—are more in evidence now than they were in 1986. Could the nuclear Armageddon called Chernobyl repeat itself? No one knows the answer to this question. But there is no doubt that a new Chernobyl-type disaster is more likely to happen if we do not learn the lessons of the one that has already occurred.





IT WAS a big day—many in Moscow and throughout the Soviet Union believed that it signaled the dawn of a new era. On the cold winter morning of February 25, 1986—the temperature during the previous night had fallen to minus two degrees Fahrenheit—close to 5,000 warmly dressed men and women, including senior Communist Party and state officials, military officers, scientists, directors of the large state companies, and representatives of workers and collective farmers (the “toiling masses”), descended on Red Square in downtown Moscow, which was decorated with a huge portrait of Vladimir Lenin. They were delegates to the Communist Party Congress, the twenty-seventh since the founding of the party by a handful of idealistic social democrats in the late nineteenth century. Their mission was to chart a new course for the country for the next five years.1

Once they reached the Kremlin, the crowds moved toward the Palace of Congresses, a modern glass-and-concrete building decorated with white marble plates. It had been erected in 1961 on the site of buildings belonging to the sixteenth-century tsar Boris Godunov. The Soviet premier at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, wanted to rival the Great Hall of the People that Mao Zedong had opened in Beijing in 1959. The Chinese palace could seat 10,000 people. The envious Soviets increased the seating capacity of their palace from 4,000 to 6,000 by putting almost half the building underground, where most of the seats of the meeting hall are located—only the balcony seats with boxes are above ground level. When it came to party congresses, which convened every five years, the Soviet leaders imposed a limit of 5,000 participants no matter how large the membership of the Communist Party became—and it was growing quickly—since filling the hall to capacity would have meant sacrificing the comfort of those in attendance. There was no venue in the Soviet Union, short of sports arenas, that could have seated more.2

Khrushchev inaugurated the new Palace of Congresses in October 1961, in time for the Twenty-second Party Congress. The congress decided to remove the corpse of Joseph Stalin from the mausoleum it then shared with that of Lenin, and it adopted a new program for building a communist society, with its foundations to be in place by the early 1980s. Now, in 1986, the delegates to the Twenty-seventh Congress had to take stock of what had been accomplished. The record was dismal, to say the least. As the population had increased, the economy had slowed, and the possibility of a complete breakdown was becoming ever more likely. The growth of national income, which Soviet economists had estimated at 10 percent in the 1950s, had fallen to barely 4 percent in 1985. The Central Intelligence Agency in the United States had made even grimmer estimates, putting the growth rate at 2 to 3 percent, and later reducing even that estimate to approximately 1 percent.3

With its goals for communism nowhere in sight, the economy in a tailspin, the Chinese launching their economic reforms by introducing market mechanisms, and the Americans rushing ahead not only in economic development but also in the arms race, under the leadership of the unfailingly optimistic Ronald Reagan, the Soviet leadership had lost its way. The people, ever more disillusioned with the communist experiment, had become despondent. And yet, with the communist religion in crisis, it suddenly appeared to have found a new messiah in a relatively young, energetic, and charismatic leader: Mikhail Gorbachev.

This was to be the fifty-four-year-old Gorbachev’s first congress as general secretary of the party, and he was well aware that the eyes of the party leadership, of Soviet citizens—and indeed, of the entire world—were on him. The previous three years had become known as the era of Kremlin funerals. Leonid Brezhnev, who had ruled the Soviet Union since 1964, died a sick man in November 1982; the former head of the KGB, Yurii Andropov, who had inherited his position, spent half his brief tenure in a hospital bed and died in February 1984; his sickly successor, Konstantin Chernenko, followed suit in March 1985. It looked as if the leaders were about to take the country to the grave with them. Economic difficulties aside, they kept sending young boys to Afghanistan, where the Soviet Army had been bogged down since 1979, and preparing for nuclear confrontation with the West. KGB stations abroad were instructed to drop everything and look for signs of imminent nuclear attack.

Now hopes ran high, in both party and society, that Gorbachev, who was full of ideas, would be able to reverse the deadly trend. Hopes of rapprochement were rising in the West as well. In the United States, Reagan, tired of Soviet leaders dying on him, was looking for someone with whom he could do business. His close ally Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain told him that Gorbachev was such a man. Reagan’s first meeting with Gorbachev, in Geneva in December 1985, was not without tension, but it opened the door to more productive subsequent dialogue, which was conducted not only by personal meetings and diplomatic channels but also by public pronouncements. In January 1986, Gorbachev surprised Reagan by putting forward a Soviet program for nuclear disarmament. It was expected that he would further challenge the American president on disarmament in his forthcoming speech to the party congress.4

Gorbachev, preoccupied with finding solutions to the multiple Soviet crises, put considerable thought and effort into his report to the congress. In the late fall of 1985, he summoned his two closest advisers—his chief assistant, Valerii Boldin, and Aleksandr Yakovlev, the former Soviet ambassador to Canada—to the state resort near Sochi on the Black Sea Coast. Perestroika—the radical restructuring of the Soviet political and economic system—still lay ahead; eventually, Yakovlev would become known as the grandfather of the movement. The key concept at the time was uskorenie, or acceleration. It was believed that the system was basically sound and simply needed a boost by means of “scientific and technical progress,” the Soviet term for technological innovation.

In the days leading up to the congress, Gorbachev shut himself up at home, reading his long speech aloud and timing it. Read without a break or interruptions, it would be more than six hours in length. As Gorbachev practiced his oratorical skills, the delegates to the congress kept themselves busy visiting the stores of Moscow rather than galleries and museums. “Having come from all over the country, they were preoccupied with their own affairs,” wrote Gorbachev’s aide, Boldin, who had coauthored the speech. “They had to buy many things for themselves, their family members, and acquaintances, who had ordered so much that it would be hard to transport even by train.”5

Most of the delegates came from the provinces, which were dogged by the shortages of agricultural products and consumer goods that had become a constant feature of Soviet life in the 1980s. The party leadership, unable to alleviate the shortages for the general population, did its best to supply the party elite. In hotels designated for congress delegates, party officials opened special branches of grocery and department stores, to which hard-to-get products were brought from all parts of the Soviet Union. There were stylish suits and dresses, shoes, caviar, cured meat, sausages, and, last but not least, bananas—all items desired by average Soviet citizens not only in the provinces but also in the much better supplied metropolitan centers such as Moscow, Leningrad, and Kyiv. The post office administration opened a special branch to handle all the merchandise that the delegates shipped back from Moscow.

For high-ranking party officials from the provinces and directors of large enterprises who had access to scarce goods at home because of their political power and connections, participation in the congress offered a different kind of opportunity. They used the time to lobby Moscow’s potentates and ministers, asking for money and resources for their regions and firms. They also worked hard to maintain old networks of friends and acquaintances and make useful new connections. Networking meant drinking, often to excess—a hallmark and curse of the Soviet managerial style. The previous year, Gorbachev, alarmed by the level of alcoholism among the general population, had launched an anti-alcohol campaign. Party and state officials, in particular, were liable to prosecution for drunkenness.

Vitalii Vrublevsky, a close aide to the all-powerful party boss of Ukraine, Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, head of the Ukrainian delegation, recalled an episode in which KGB guards charged with checking passes to the congress smelled alcohol on one of the delegates and reported him to senior officials. The case, which involved a regional secretary in Ukraine’s mining area of Luhansk, was reported all the way to the top of the party apparatus. “The secretary was expelled from the party on the spot,” recalled Vrublevsky, who had barely avoided detection himself after spending a night drinking with some of the first cosmonauts—the Soviet equivalent of rock stars. “Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, sitting at the head table, kept glancing at his delegation,” recalled Vrublevsky. “And, as ill luck would have it, my head kept drooping.” He was saved by a friend who would squeeze his knee from time to time to wake him up in the middle of the speeches.6

VIKTOR BRIUKHANOV, the fifty-year-old director of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in Ukraine, was a member of the 1986 Ukrainian delegation. It was the first congress that Briukhanov was attending after many years as a loyal party member and high-ranking manager. Three-quarters of the other delegates were also there for the first time, but managers such as Briukhanov accounted for slightly more than 350 of the party delegates, roughly 7 percent of the total. Below average in height, slim and erect, with curly black hair that he combed back and a somewhat awkward smile, Briukhanov made the impression of a kind and fair man. His subordinates valued him as a good engineer and effective manager. He was hardly a drinker. If anything, Briukhanov was a workaholic. He put in long hours, spoke little, and was known as one of a rare breed: a Soviet manager who got things done while showing consideration to his subordinates.7

The privilege of becoming a delegate was recognition for the work Briukhanov had done at the helm of the third most powerful nuclear power station in the world. He had built it from scratch, and now it had four nuclear reactors running, each producing 1 million megawatts of electrical energy (MWe). Two more reactors were under construction, and the station had overfulfilled its plan targets for 1985, producing 29 billion MWe. Briukhanov had received two high Soviet awards for his work, and many believed that he was poised to receive an even higher distinction, the Order of Lenin, as well as the gold star of a Hero of Socialist Labor. In late November 1985, the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet in Kyiv had marked his fiftieth birthday with a commendation. His selection as a delegate, with the corresponding lapel pin, was a distinction in its own right, equal if not superior to most government awards.

When on the eve of Briukhanov’s birthday a reporter came from Kyiv to Prypiat, where the Chernobyl plant was located, to interview him about his accomplishments and plans for the future, Briukhanov, usually a man of few words, suddenly opened up to the visitor. He recalled a cold winter day in 1970 when he had come to Chernobyl and rented a room in the local hotel. Only thirty-five years old at the time, he had been appointed director of a power plant that was yet to be built. “To be frank, it was scary at first,” Briukhanov told the reporter. That was then. Now Briukhanov was running an enterprise with thousands of highly qualified managers, engineers, and workers. He also bore de facto responsibility for running the company town of Prypiat, which housed close to 50,000 construction workers and plant personnel. He even complained to the reporter about the need to divert people and resources from the nuclear station to ensure the smooth running of the city’s infrastructure. But there were also payoffs from the “father of the city” status that had been thrust upon him. Before and during the congress, photographs and profiles of Briukhanov were published in local and regional newspapers, including the one in Chernobyl.8

Photos of the Kyiv regional delegation taken in Red Square during the congress and then upon the group’s return to Ukraine show Briukhanov dressed in a fancy muskrat fur hat and short sheepskin coat with a mohair scarf around his neck—all expensive and hard to get in the Soviet Union at the time, tokens of the prestige and power of their owner. Briukhanov did not need the shops set up for rank-and-file congress delegates, but time in Moscow gave him the opportunity to meet with colleagues in the industry and lobby the party’s Central Committee and the Ministry of Energy and Electrification, which supervised his plant. The task was relatively easy, given that many officials in both places had once worked at the Chernobyl plant that Briukhanov ran.9

ON THE morning of February 25, 1986, Viktor Briukhanov and his fellow deputies took their seats in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses in the center of the hall before the podium. For those like Briukhanov who were attending their first party congress, the ritual opening presented an interesting spectacle whose main features went back to Stalin’s times.

At ten in the morning, the party’s Politburo members, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, marched to the podium. Like most people, Briukhanov knew them from their portraits, which were displayed on public buildings all over the Soviet Union. Among them was the head of the KGB, Viktor Chebrikov, whose portrait would survive for decades in the Prypiat palace of culture. Like everyone else, Briukhanov rose to his feet to welcome the leaders with applause. Once it subsided, Gorbachev made his way to the podium. “Comrade delegates,” declared the general secretary, his voice betraying his excitement. “At Communist Party congresses of Union republics and territorial and oblast party conferences, 5,000 delegates were chosen to attend the 27th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [CPSU]. There are 4,993 delegates attending the congress. Seven people are absent for valid reasons. This gives us a basis to commence the work of the congress.” There were no objections. The congress began its proceedings.10

Request Desk/Exam Copy


  • "A masterful account of how the USSR's bureaucratic dysfunction, censorship, and impossible economic targets produced the disaster and hindered the response."—New York Review of Books
  • "Gripping, meticulously researched...[Mr. Plokhy] mercilessly chronicles the absurdities of the Soviet system and the arrogance of its apparatchiks. But the fact that he grew up fewer than 500 kilometers south of Chernobyl probably accounts for his vividly empathetic descriptions of the people on the ground -- the plant managers and employees, the firefighters, soldiers and others -- who risked their lives to contain the damage."—Wall Street Journal
  • "The bare outline of the Chernobyl fire and the Soviet silence have been well covered...Mr. Plokhy, who directs the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard, adds much detail to that caused the failure, and the false assignment of blame to operating engineers...[His] most telling disclosures deal with how the Soviet subterfuges played a major role in Ukraine's decision to become an independent nation once the Soviet Union disintegrated."—Washington Times
  • "A lucid account of how the Soviet mania for nuclear power combined with endemic shoddiness in the industrial sector and near-paranoid habits of state secrecy led to the 1986 disaster...The most comprehensive and convincing history of Chernobyl yet to appear in English."—Financial Times
  • "The first comprehensive history of the Chernobyl at last is the monumental history the disaster deserves."—Julie McDowall, Times
  • "A work of deep scholarship and powerful stroytelling. Plokhy is the master of the telling detail."—Victory Sebestyen, Sunday Times
  • "Compelling...Plokhy's well-paced narrative plunges the reader into the sweaty, nervous tension of the Chernobyl control room on the fateful night when human frailty and design flaws combined to such devastating effect."—Guardian
  • "Plokhy's book...sustains a tone of thoughtful observation that is neither too detached nor heavily invested in a particular agenda... [He] delves deeper into the political fallout of Chernobyl, which played a significant role in the break-up of the Soviet Union."—New Statesman
  • "Haunting...Plokhy's...voice is humane and inflected with nostalgia. His Chernobyl and Prypiat emerge vividly -- as perhaps all disaster -- afflicted cities must-as shattered idylls."—Spectator
  • "Plokhy recounts the circumstances of the accident and its aftermath in painstaking detail...He tells the story with great assurance and style...A fierce and at times personal indictment of the ideology, bureaucracy and overconfidence of the Soviet system, as well as a strident condemnation of all modern states that continue to pursue military or economic objectives to the detriment of their populations and the environment."—Literary Review
  • "A history of the nuclear disaster that set precedents -- and standards -- for future mishaps of the kind...Plokhy...concludes that even in the wake of Chernobyl, we have not gotten much better at containing meltdowns...A thoughtful study of catastrophe, unintended consequences, and, likely, nuclear calamities to come."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "The most comprehensive exploration of the events that led to the Chernobyl disaster.... Engrossing."—Library Journal
  • " a brilliant interpreter not only of the events themselves but of their long-term historical significance...As moving as it is painstakingly researched, this book is a tour de force and a cracking read."—Observer
  • "Historian Serhii Plokhy's deft, richly detailed account draws on newly opened archives and weaves in stories of players such as Chernobyl director Viktor Briukhanov."—Nature
  • "[Plokhy] casts his lyrical eye on a vast amount of detail, giving readers a sense of dramatic urgency that makes his account difficult to put down.... The further Chernobyl recedes in time, Plokhy writes, the more it fades into myth. His book, however, should help bring us back to reality."—Kristen Iversen, American Scholar
  • "Serhii Plokhy provides the definitive story of the Chernobyl crisis and its aftermath, skillfully covering all angles from the scientific story, the humanitarian and economic costs of the clean-up, the manner in which the explosion forced Gorbachev to jump-start his perestroika reforms, and the igniting of Ukrainian nationalism." —Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies, UCL
  • "Serhii Plokhy has produced a highly readable account of the Chernobyl disaster and its political impact. It is destined to be the authoritative account for years to come."
    John Herbst, Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council
  • "Serhii Plokhy is uniquely qualified to tell this tragic story: he writes not only as a major historian, but also as someone who was living with his family under the cloud of the Chernobyl disaster at the time. The result is as riveting as a novel."
    Mary Elise Sarotte, author of The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall
  • "Chernobyl lays out in devastating detail how the Soviets were vastly unprepared, in ways small and large, for what became the worst disaster in the history of nuclear energy...A riveting account...Is it possible that the world might someday forget the horrors that unfolded there three decades ago? Books like Plokhy's should help ensure that that doesn't happen."—Henry Fountain, Undark
  • "An insightful and important book, that often reads like a good thriller, and that exposes the danger of mixing powerful technology with irresponsible politics."
    Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

On Sale
May 15, 2018
Page Count
432 pages
Basic Books

Serhii Plokhy

About the Author

Serhii Plokhy is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University. The New York Times bestselling author of The Gates of Europe and Nuclear Folly, Plokhy is an award-winning author of numerous books. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Learn more about this author