Only the Chimneys Remained


Uncovering Soviet Disasters, by James E. Oberg, New York: Random House, 256 pages, $19.95

A few years ago, a young woman in the Soviet city of Karaganda was eagerly looking forward to attending Moscow University. When she failed to return home from taking the entrance examinations, her father got worried. Inquiries from Karaganda produced nothing, so he traveled to Moscow. No one at the university had heard of her; she had not shown up for the exams. Her friends in Moscow had had no word of her. The man then sought help from the Moscow police, and one of them delicately suggested he make further inquiries at the airport. There a guard warned him that he was about to learn a state secret, which was to be kept strictly confidential. The Aeroflot flight from Karaganda had crashed, killing his daughter and all others on board.

No one should be surprised to learn that the Soviet Union, an industrial society, experiences plane crashes, train wrecks, mine cave-ins, and the like. But the general and longstanding practice has been to cover them up, to refuse to admit that they happened, or to paper them over with official reassurances.

In Uncovering Soviet Disasters, it is James Oberg's contribution not merely to penetrate the cover of secrecy and recount many disasters in detail but to deal with the secrecy itself, allowing us to learn just who benefits from the cover-ups, and how. It is a situation that is not likely to change with glasnost, he maintains.

Oberg is an independent expert on the Soviet Union and its technology. He has traveled extensively within that empire and speaks and reads the language fluently. His book on the Soviet space program, Red Star in Orbit, is a standard reference.

His methods are those of the professional Sovietologist: to sift through newspapers and other publications, including those from the outlying provinces; to study unclassified CIA materials; to exchange information with other specialists; to collect interviews with emigres; and to work through the years to piece the resulting snippets into consistent patterns.

He breaks potentially significant ground in discussing how Soviet cover-ups conceal crimes the Nazis never thought of. In his chapter "Nuclear Gulag," he documents the Soviet practice of using zeks, slave laborers from concentration camps, as workers in the nuclear industry. "Even the simplest safety precautions (such as adequate ventilation, functional drains, and clean face masks) were ignored despite pleas from informed workers and specialists," he notes.

In one group of uranium mines, some 2,000 prisoners died each month over a period of many years. Their deaths appear to have been agonizing, marked by radiation poisoning with consequent collapse of the bone marrow's ability to produce red blood cells and even destruction of the linings of the intestines. As Oberg reports, "Work teams brought bodies out of the camp every night and dumped them down abandoned mine shafts. Before the workers took the bodies out of the compound, they verified the prisoners' deaths by bashing in their skulls with hammers. "

Similar disregard for human life has extended well beyond the forced-labor camps. In a 1958 nuclear accident, huge quantities of high-level waste, derived from the processing of plutonium, were being stored in solution along with explosive nitrates. The nitrates became hot and detonated, scattering the radioactive wastes over a vast area. As an émigré later recounted, "We crossed a strange, uninhabited and unfarmed area. Highway signs along the way warned drivers not to stop. The land was empty. There were no villages, no towns, no people. Only the chimneys of destroyed houses remained."

In 1979, a similar disaster struck the city of Sverdlovsk itself, from a military laboratory engaged in the cultivation of anthrax bacilli for use in germ warfare. An explosion released some 10 kilograms of anthrax spores, which spread on the wind and contaminated much of the city. Public-health authorities tried to cope with the resulting epidemic, but as many as 1,000 people may have died.

In such instances, of course, secrecy serves the interests of the Soviet state by making it easier for the authorities to maintain control. When Aeroflot experienced numerous plane crashes during the early 1970s, the authorities seem to have taken steps to improve safety; the rate of such crashes fell markedly after a while. But since the party line had denied the occurrence of any such accidents in the first place, Aeroflot's managers had been able to proceed without pressure from public opinion.

Secrecy helps in other ways, too. The Soviet mining industry evidently experiences an appalling accident rate. The reasons include poor mining technology and generally high levels of alcoholism among workers. These problems do not lend themselves to easy solution, so secrecy allows the state to maintain production.

On top of this is the historically high level of paranoia within Soviet officialdom, which leads its air-defense forces repeatedly to shoot down civilian airliners. Nor should one believe that such events are accidental, the result of misidentifications.

Oberg presents the 1978 case in which a Korean Air Lines plane was struck with an air-to-air missile. The Soviet air force pilot had identified the plane as a Boeing 707 and had noted the KAL logo on its tail. This led to the following exchange with ground control:

CONTROLLER: Do you see the target?

PILOT: Roger, it is a civilian airliner.

CONTROLLER: Destroy the target.

PILOT: Did you understand me?

CONTROLLER: Destroy the target.

Fortunately, the missile damaged but did not destroy the airliner, whose pilot succeeded in making a forced landing.

Oberg emphasizes that the new "openness" under Mikhail Gorbachev is largely tactical, directed from above on a case-by-case basis. For instance, in 1986 the cruise ship Admiral Nakhimov sank in a collision in the Black Sea. Subsequent press reports emphasized shoddy navigation by the officers of both ships involved. The purpose was clear: use public opinion and press attention to pressure other captains into doing better.

Also in 1986 there was the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It, too, has been hailed as an example of glasnost, being reported extensively. But Oberg argues that the Soviets had little choice. The plume of radioactivity had been detected in Scandinavia and could be traced to the Ukraine; civilian observation satellites, such as the French SPOT, made images of the reactor complex. If outsiders had not learned of the disaster through such means, Oberg suggests, the Chernobyl incident might have been covered up just as the 1958 Urals catastrophe was.

"Since the West cannot wait for the Soviets to move all the way to full openness," concludes Oberg, "we must still take the major initiatives of investigations." Moreover, as a mere tactic reflecting the predilections of Gorbachev personally, glasnost is subject to revocation on short notice.

"Let a hundred flowers bloom. Let a hundred schools of thought contend," said China's Chairman Mao in 1957, when he was briefly in a similar mood. Mao soon decided that the "hundred flowers" were actually "poisonous weeds," and he reimposed orthodoxy. As long as there is no rule of law in the Soviet Union, no fundamental commitment to liberty, the same acts of tyranny could come forth anew. That is the real message of Oberg's book.

T.A. Heppenheimer writes frequently on science and space.