INTERVIEW: Alla Yaroshinska, revealer of Chornobyl's "Forbidden Truths"

Alla Yaroshinska is a member of Russian President Boris Yeltsin's Council of Advisors (to which she was appointed in 1993) and the president of the Association of Russian Journalists. She also heads a Moscow-based charitable foundation, the Ecological Private Fund, which provides assistance to children affected by the Chornobyl disaster in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and issues publications concerning the environment.

Born in Zhytomyr, about 130 kilometers from Kyiv, Ms. Yaroshinska is a journalist by training. At the time of the Chornobyl disaster, she contributed the "Industry and Construction" column to the oblast center's Party newspaper, Radianska Zhytomyrshchyna.

In her book, "Chernobyl: The Forbidden Truth," (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), Ms. Yaroshinska describes how, in the summer of 1987, acting on a "hunch," she first traveled to the exclusion zone's vicinity to investigate why housing for evacuees was being built so close to the site of the recent disaster.

Her trip to Rudnia-Ososhnia, now a "dead" village in the notorious Narodychi district, Zhytomyr region, set her on a path, at "whatever the cost, to publish the truth."

"I have kept the notebooks I filled at the time," Ms. Yaroshinska wrote, "and they sweat blood, like the memories of people who have reached a great age and who no longer expect anything from life."

Faced with her newspaper's refusal to print her reports, in 1987 she circulated them throughout the affected zones of the Zhytomyr and Polissia region by way of the samvydav (samizdat) network, in order to inform the local population of the dangers they faced.

In 1988, she tried to have her articles on the region published in Ogonyok, the Moscow-based purported beacon of glasnost, but even personal meetings with then-editor-in-chief Vitaliy Korotych, ("After all, he's Ukrainian, like myself") failed to prompt their appearance on the magazine's pages.

Elected to the newly established USSR's Congress of People's Deputies in May 1989, Ms. Yaroshinska stepped up her crusade. After she presented a videotape of conditions in the Narodychi district to then Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, she was able to publish her materials in the Moscow press.

The first mainstream Soviet periodical to print an exposé by Ms. Yaroshinska was Moskovskiye Novosti, followed by a series of articles that appeared in Izvestia, throughout the summer and fall of 1989.

At the second session in the spring of 1990, she spearheaded a movement to form a commission of the Supreme Soviet responsible for dealing with the consequences of the Chornobyl disaster, and served as its chair.

As an official of the government, she, at least on paper, had access to all of its archives and managed to collect damning material from the Soviet central ministries of environmental protection, health, and defense, and other agencies.

Following Mr. Yeltsin's edict banning the Communist Party in September 1991, she finally got access to the secret protocols (minutes) of the Central Committee of the Communist Party's Politburo.

In April 1992, the Moscow daily Izvestiya began publishing the documents Ms. Yaroshinska unearthed, implicating almost every major Communist Party official, from Mr. Gorbachev on down, in one of the most repugnant cover-ups of the 20th century.

Later that year, Ms. Yaroshinska was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in Stockholm, known as the "alternative Nobel Prize."

Her book, "Chernobyl: Sovershenno Sekretno" (Chornobyl: Top Secret; Moscow: Drugie Berega, 1992) was published in Russian, based on her early reporting and her work as a commissioner. It includes a staggering 225 pages of documents drawn from the archives of the Soviet Politburo, and various levels of government of the USSR and the Ukrainian SSR.

"Chernobyl: The Forbidden Truth," is an abridged English translation (by Michele Kahn and Julia Sallabank) of this book, minus the appended documentation.

It has yet to be published in Ukraine or in Ukrainian.

Ms. Yaroshinska was recently in the U.S. to participate in a series of conferences in connection with the 10th anniversary accident at the Chornobyl atomic energy station, in particular the April 8-9 conference at Yale and Columbia universities. She also met with the Ukrainian American community in Chicago, and delivered a lecture at Michigan State University on the upcoming elections in Russia.

Part I of the interview was conducted by Andrij Wynnyckyj The Weekly's Toronto Press Bureau follows.

Q: Please describe how you were able to obtain the Politburo's secret protocols [minutes] on Chornobyl.

A: The last days of the Soviet Union, November-December 1991, coincided with the last days of the Supreme Soviet's session. Through the committee we established to investigate the role of government officials in the accident at Chornobyl, we were able to get a series of protocols to examine.

Since the session was drawing to a close, I sensed that the documents could probably be taken away from us, and then sealed in the Russian archives.

I took this material, about 600 pages of text, to the Supreme Soviet's official photocopy office, where I was told that there were specific orders not to allow me to copy them. I then went to the security officials who issued this order to demand an explanation. They told me: "Well look, the documents are marked 'top secret.' You have to ask the Communist Party to waive the restriction."

Just think how absurd that was - the Communist Party had already been banned by that time, its leaders were sitting in jail. What was I supposed to do, go and ask a bunch of convicts like [Chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet Anatoliy] Lukyanov for permission? It was ridiculous.

The party was banned, and yet the KGB was still protecting them. So I phoned Vadim Vakatin, whom [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin had just appointed as head of the KGB, and asked him what was going on, why there was still censorship on this subject.

To make a long story short, in the end I decided to simply make the copies myself. I took the bundle of papers over to [the Moscow daily] Izvestiya's offices, where they had one of the few photocopying bureaus in the city.

They agreed to make copies for me on the condition that I would publish the documents only through them. It was sensational stuff, and they knew it.

So I copied all of these minutes, then put them back in the safe where I'd taken them. I kept the first set of minutes for myself, the originals. I knew that if the originals somehow disappeared, I would be accused of having written all of this myself.

So one set of minutes, with the official seal, with [USSR Council of Ministers President Nikolai] Ryzhkov's signature, head of the former Soviet government, I kept for myself, may God forgive me.

The copy I put back in the safe, with the other originals.

Q: In terms of the documentation you gathered, which individual or individuals would you consider most guilty of compounding the harmful effects of the Chornobyl disaster?

A: Those individuals who were guilty of withholding information are guilty of [jeopardizing] the health of 8 million people who were living in the affected area, and their health could have been much better.

In terms of individuals, let's begin with Ukraine. Ukraine's Procuracy officially charged with suppressing the truth [Ukrainian Communist Party Secretary Volodymyr] Shcherbytsky; Valentyna Semenivna Shevchenko, chairman of the Ukrainian SSR's Supreme Soviet; the minister of health Anatoliy Yevdokymovych Romanenko - they were charged with suppressing the truth.

The case was initiated, but then closed. There should have been a formal trial. But there wasn't, the charges were simply dropped, because somebody declared the statute of limitations on these crimes had run out.

Q: When had they run out?

A: Who knows when? The procuracy finished its investigation about two years ago. It was simply decided to have them formally declared guilty of this and that, and the case was closed without a court hearing because the statute of limitations had run out.

It will take about 24,000 years for the plutonium particles scattered by the accident to decay, but we'll be stuck with the effects of Chornobyl for ages, for ages - but for them, the statute of limitations has run out.

Even in Bulgaria, there was a trial and officials found guilty of suppressing the facts concerning the accident have already served their time in prison, they're back on the outside. But in Ukraine, they haven't spent a day in jail, and now the statute of limitations has run out. It's further evidence that it's the same system, under a different name.

Q: One person who was a health official before and after independence was Dr. Yuriy Spizhenko, originally Mr. Romanenko's deputy and then himself the health minister under President Leonid Kravchuk. Should he be held responsible?

A: I certainly think so. When I was a correspondent for Radianska Zhytomyrshchyna, Yuriy Spizhenko was the head of the Zhytomyr Oblast Executive Committee. I went to the oblast administration, that is, not to him personally, but dealt with officials, who assured me that things were fine.

And this much I wrote in my book, about Spizhenko.

Q: Do any of the officials of the former regime hold any positions of responsibility today?

A: Spizhenko is one of them. It's a disgrace, he's a disgraceful character. This Romanenko, who was officially indicted and officially declared guilty of suppressing information about Chornobyl is now the head of the institute dedicated to researching the aftermath of the disaster.

Can you imagine what this research is going to be like? This man lied, and now he'll be forced to continue lying, because otherwise he'd have to sit in the dock.

The same thing in Russia. Before the first session of the Soviet of People's Deputies [in the summer of 1989], I took my documents from the Zhytomyr region to the minister devoted to Chornobyl-related affairs, and showed him. This man told me: "You have your documentation, we have ours."

But after my presentation before the first session of the Supreme Soviet, 12 villages in the region were immediately evacuated, because it was finally recognized that my information was accurate.

But this man, Vozniak, I can't remember his given name, headed this Chornobyl ministry until recently, when it was disbanded and absorbed by a committee dealing with emergencies and extraordinary situations.

My blood boiled when I first found out he was appointed, and he headed this department until recently... I had to write a memorandum to Yeltsin saying this was a disgrace. Yeltsin fired him in the end; I won't say only because of my note, I'm sure many others investigated his performance.

This Vozniak wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Chornobyl, defended it. Can you imagine that?

Q: What is your opinion of the IAEA's reports over the years, and those tabled at the recent conference in Vienna?

A: I haven't seen any information about the most recent conference, but I can tell you this. When we, the deputies, began saying that Chornobyl was a crime [perpetrated by the Soviet government] against its own people, when my articles began appearing in the press, the Soviet government decided to hide behind international experts, and so they invited experts from the IAEA.

This IAEA delegation was headed by a Japanese official, Shihimatsu. I spoke to Mr. Shihimatsu again in 1992, on a recent trip to Japan with eight other journalists (including two from Ukraine).

I met with Shihimatsu and forced him to acknowledge - this was a private discussion, not a public one - that the IAEA commission's conclusions, the report of the group he headed were inaccurate and false.

I asked him how he could write that there were no changes in people's health, that everything was normal, if they didn't have any precise data on people's health.

"You didn't conduct any research," I told him, "You just took the data given to you by the mendacious Russian medical officials, the material given to you by Academician Ilyin, director of the former Soviet and now Russian Radiobiology Institute. These data were simply fabricated, and based on these falsified pseudo-scientific data, you issued conclusions? You mentioned a few thousand people, but about 8 million people were living in the affected areas. Can this report can have been considered accurate?"

He was forced to admit, in private, that this had been improper.

Q: Has the IAEA ever publicly admitted its error in this regard?

A: The IAEA has only admitted to one of my findings, and only partially. About two years ago, they issued a very brief statement saying that the explosion in Chornobyl, the tragedy, was caused not, as previously stated, simply by the unprofessionalism of the workers and specialists on site, but also by design faults of the Chornobyl reactor itself.

In itself this was a considerable accomplishment. Prior to that, they'd always said that these [Soviet RBMK] reactors were very nice, safe and everything was normal.

But I published a series of articles, backed up by conclusions given to me by experts from Russia and Ukraine, suggesting that these reactors were inadequate, and that they could not be improved to the point where they continue to be safely used.

So about two years ago, the IAEA made this barely perceptible announcement, that I picked up, that the accident was caused not only by the unprofessionalism of the specialists who worked in Chornobyl, but also by faults in its construction and design.... I believe the IAEA is in part responsible for the fact that the truth about what happened in Chornobyl did not come out immediately. Absolutely.

Q: Is there any documentation of correspondence between the IAEA and the Soviet authorities implicating the former in a cover-up?

A: This appears in my book. When the Soviet specialists prepared their report to the IAEA on the Chornobyl tragedy, they had one for the IAEA and one for their internal use. The IAEA was given a report that blamed only people for the explosion. They omitted the phrase concerning design and construction faults.

Q: Can any other government, international or national agency be so implicated, in the U.S. or elsewhere?

A: I don't really have any information about that.... The U.S. might have known more about what happened and earlier than we are aware... and perhaps its government could have applied greater pressure on the Soviet government to clearly inform its people.

But as the minutes I published show, the [Soviet] disinformation campaign was massive, so maybe [the U.S. government] truly didn't know 100 percent what happened. I can't accuse any other government [of misdeeds] other than the former Soviet government.

The people in the Soviet government who concealed this accident are simply criminals. When the Russian constitutional court examined the question of banning the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, I appeared as a material witness on the Chornobyl question...

A political trial is still in order, as far as I'm concerned. The role of, for instance, of Mikhail Gorbachev has not been sufficiently brought to light.

More recently I found an additional set of minutes, not part of the original group of 40 documents I published, and published them about a year and a half ago in a full-page Izvestiya article. They demonstrate that Gorbachev definitely knew the parameters of the accident, and he referred to its effects as the same as those that would follow a small-scale nuclear war in central Europe. Those are his words. ...


Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, May 5, 1996, No. 18, Vol. LXIV

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