Chernobyl: stirring nationalism? Ukrainian resentment of Moscow rule expected to rise

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear facility near Kiev has implications that reach far beyond the critical questions of health, contamination, and nuclear safety. Because it occurred in the Soviet republic of Ukraine, the Chernobyl accident is likely to fan Ukrainian independent-mindedness and resentment of the Russian-dominated Soviet state, analysts say.

``The response to Chernobyl will be varied,'' says Leonid Plyushch, a Ukrainian mathematician and former polticial prisoner now living in France.

A segment of the population will believe Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's explanations, which will place the blame on local Ukrainian party and government officials, Mr. Plyushch says.

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``But a significant segment of the population will say: `This is Moscow's fault. Why aren't we masters in our own house?' '' Plyushch adds. The late 1980s could see the emergence of a new wave of dissident activism, revolving around ecological concerns as well as those of Ukrainian autonomy, he says.

Sovietologist Bohdan Bociurkiw, a professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, says the disaster may serve to bring together Ukrainians, Jews, and Russians from the Kiev area.

``Chernobyl, for the first time, will create a powerful issue over which Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians will see the advantages of local control over policy,'' says Professor Bociurkiw. He agrees that the accident will exacerbate tensions between the people of the Ukraine and the regime in Moscow.

Five days after the April 26 accident, Soviet television painted a colorful May Day picture of young girls dancing in embroidered costumes down the boulevards of Kiev. Now, a far less idyllic picture is emerging.

Vladimir Malynkovych, a Soviet physician now living in West Germany who reached his parents by telephone in Kiev, says Soviet authorities are continuing to withhold information about the accident.

``People are still drinking milk and buying fruit,'' he says. ``They've only been told to keep their windows closed and to bathe thoroughly several times a day.''

[Soviet authorities yesterday announced six deaths resulting from the accident. It was unclear whether this is in addition to the four previously reported. The officials also said that 35 people are still in serious condition, nearly twice the previous official figure for serious injuries.]

The region near the damaged facility has been severely affected. ``In Pripyat and Chernobyl, the situation is very bad,'' Dr. Malynkovych says.

And, according to Plyushch, there were reliable reports of public anger and dissention among spectators at the May Day parade. Some Kiev residents were dismayed at what they considered callous celebrations just as reports of dead and injured in and around Chernobyl were emerging, he says.

The relationship between Ukrainians and Russians has long been contentious. Many Ukrainians regard Russians, who make up half of the population of the Soviet Union, as oppressors intent on assimilating them and eradicating their culture and identity. By contrast, many Russians prefer to view themselves as paternalistic elder brothers, bringing with them the advantages of their own proud heritage.

The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic is the second largest of the Soviet Union's 15 republics and is a nominal member of the UN, where it never takes positions at variance with Moscow. Although the Soviets portray the Ukraine as an independent republic that voluntarily bonds itself to the Soviet Union, the republic's economic and cultural programs are determined centrally in Moscow -- including nuclear energy policy.

The Kremlin may already be moving to distance itself from responsibility for the disaster. Recent Soviet statements on the accident have mentioned only the Ukrainian Council of Ministers and have pointedly avoided any reference to the Kremlin.

The Communist Party newspaper Pravda reported Monday that three employees of the plant had been disciplined for failing to recognize the seriousness of the disaster and for bungling the evacuation of the surrounding region. All three were party members working at the plant, including the chief engineer of the branch supplying construction materials at Chernobyl.

There is speculation that a more wide-ranging purge may be in the offing. Likely to go first are Ukrainian Communist Party First Secretary Vladimir Shcher-bitsky, a member of the Soviet Union's powerful Politburo who appears to have survived previous attempts at ouster, and the Ukraine's energy minister, V. Skalyarov.

The Chernobyl disaster is only the most recent in a series of misfortunes that have befallen the Ukraine since the imposition of Soviet rule in 1921:

In the 1930s, a series of mass purges and show trials eliminated a generation of Ukrainian intellectuals and artists. One indication of this was the drop in the number of writers publishing in the Ukrainian language inside the Soviet Union -- from 289 in 1930 to only 36 in 1938.

In 1932-33, a famine brought on by the forced collectivization of Ukrainian agriculture led to the death by starvation of between 4 and 7 million Ukrainians.

In World War II, along with the rest of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine lost millions of its inhabitants -- an estimated 6 million, including 4 million civilians and nearly 1 million Jews.

In 1946, the Soviets outlawed the Ukrainian Catholic Church and imprisoned hundreds of bishops, priests, and nuns, many of whom perished. In all, half a million Ukrainians were deported to Siberia after the war.

In the 1960s and '70s, successive waves of repression resulted in the arrests of hundreds of activists who were pressing for national rights and cultural freedom.

A 1972 crackdown on dissent was soon followed by a purge of the Ukrainian Communist Party and cultural elite, spurred by Moscow's fear that the Ukraine's communist leadership was exploiting separatist sentiment. By 1973, thousands of other high-ranking party, government, educational, and cultural workers were purged.

The persistence of Ukrainian dissent is underscored by the fact nearly 40 percent of all known political prisoners in the USSR are Ukrainian, more than two times their proportion in the overall Soviet population.

Ukrainian dissent, say analysts, is not confined to the Ukrainian intelligentsia. The post-Stalin period contains instances of unrest by Ukrainian workers. Several strikes have occurred in Kiev since the 1960s over housing, work conditions, and wages.

George Zarycky is research director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute in New York. Adrian Karatnycky is director of research at the AFL-CIO Free Trade Institute in Washington.

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