What makes news in the Soviet Union. Tradition of secrecy may block Gorbachev's goal of `openness'
The Chernobyl atomic disaster has presented Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev with one of his biggest challenges. It is a challenge to live up to the vow he made only two months ago to promote public openness in Soviet society. ``It is fundamental for us to increase public openness,'' Mr. Gorbachev told the Communist Party Congress in a policy-setting speech on Feb. 25. ``Sometimes, when it is a question of public openness, one hears calls for greater caution in talking about our shortcomings and deficiencies. There can be only one answer to this: Communists always need the truth.'' He went on in this vein, returning to the topic at three different times in the speech and winning prolonged applause.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet, when fire in a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant spread radiation last week, the Gorbachev regime first concealed the news for two days. Then, after the fallout was detected in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe, alerting the outside world, Gorbachev's spokesmen minimized the damage and evaded inquiries.
The cover-up has forfeited prestige abroad. If Gorbachev continues to evade disclosure of the extent of the disaster -- and as facts about the calamity begin to seep in from Western sources and rumor magnifies them -- he risks a more dangerous erosion of faith among his followers at home.
However, if Gorbachev tries belatedly to live up to his advocacy of openness, he confronts likely resistance from colleagues in his 12-man Politburo. Although he heads this ruling body, he does not necessarily control it.
As at Three Mile Island, local bureaucrats and power industry officials may have been responsible for withholding information in the very beginning, perhaps from the leadership itself.
But the decision to cover up or to report the facts could be made only at the level of the Politburo. That a majority of this body initially voted against disclosure was evident from the cover-up. No one outside the Kremlin knows whether Gorbachev approved of that decision or was outvoted.
Behind the cover-up decision lie a long tradition of secrecy and several specific considerations that can only be guessed.
The prospect of casting a pall over the May 1 national holiday was one probable consideration. The festivities had been planned long in advance.
Beyond concerns about turning the jubilant holiday into a scene of gloom, stood a deep-seated belief that the Western news media would use any admission of serious trouble to embarrass the regime.
Add, too, the possibility of panic among a people unaccustomed to candor about national disasters.
Fear of panic has been repeatedly evident in Kremlin behavior. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Kremlin hesitated to telling the public until eight hours after the attack. When Joseph Stalin died in 1953, his successors' first act was to warn against ``panic and disorder.'' The picture of the mushroom cloud and the story of the atom bomb were banned until the Soviet Union acquired its own atomic weapon in 1949.
In 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev disclosed Stalin's crimes, he did so in a ``secret'' speech to a closed party meeting. Only afterward was it leaked to the public at large in diluted form over a period of many weeks, so as to cushion the shock. At least three times -- under Stalin, Khrushchev, and Leonid Brezhnev -- rumors of currency reform set off panic buying. When the Soviets shot down the South Korean airliner in 1983, it was six days before Moscow admitted the fact.