After Fukushima: Revisiting Chernobyl and the Collapse of the Soviet Union

Marjolein van der Veen. Rethinking Marxism. Volume 25, Issue 1, 2013.

The world was stunned and shaken by the earthquake that struck Japan on 11 March 2011, with the ensuing tsunami and disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power complex. The nuclear crisis has already led countries around the world to postpone building new nuclear plants and, in some cases, to phase them out entirely. Undoubtedly the Japanese people are also questioning their reliance on nuclear power. But the nuclear disaster may have deeper implications for Japan in the form of a more fundamental rethinking of Japanese society and its capitalist system.

The Fukushima crisis struck just a month and a half before the world was to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of another nuclear disaster—that of Chernobyl. Both have been rated level seven, the most serious rating for nuclear disasters. Even twenty-five years after Chernobyl, there remains a curious silence about the extent of the disaster in the mainstream press as well as by scholars analyzing the former Soviet Union. Two important books about the Soviet Union from its 1917 revolution until its collapse in 1990-1, one by David Kotz and Fred Weir (1997; updated in 2007) and the other by Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff (2002), provide different analyses of what the Soviet Union was (“state socialism” versus “state capitalism”) and give different explanations for its collapse. Neither addresses the role of Chernobyl. This is an unfortunate blind spot as the Chernobyl disaster had devastating impacts on the communities most severely affected in Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus, producing huge social costs and leaving them in a downward spiral of economic and social decline. It may have been a significant contributing factor in the collapse of the former Soviet Union, its transition to a system of private capitalism, and its rapid economic and social decline.

A Brief Historical Overview

The Soviet Union achieved remarkably strong rates of economic growth from the mid-1930s until mid-1975. There was virtually no aggregate unemployment after the early 1930s. Workers received an array of public services such as housing, health care, education, day care, health spas, and vacation resorts. The country went from being a semifeudal, underdeveloped nation to becoming a developed, industrial society in a very short period of time, with high life expectancies and literacy rates comparable to Western industrialized nations. It produced spectacular achievements in science, space technology, medicine, the arts, and athletics, and became a superpower and rival to the United States. That rivalry developed into a cold war that dragged out for decades. After Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev declared détente in the early 1970s, a feeling of success swept through the country. By 1975, as the United States was exiting from its nightmare in Vietnam and was experiencing unprecedented simultaneous stagnation and inflation (stagflation), the Soviet leaders were celebrating. The cold war had failed to contain communism, and capitalism appeared to be in decline (Resnick and Wolff 2002, 281).

However, it was also in the mid-1970s when the Soviet system began to show signs of failure. While gross national product grew at 6.5 percent from 1965 to 1980, the growth rate slowed to 1.8 percent from 1980 to 1985 (Kotz and Weir 1997, 37). The fall in industrial output was accompanied by a fall in labor productivity. Endemic problems existed with the provision of consumer goods in adequate quantity and quality. The costs of environmental pollution continued to mount while the lack of freedom of speech and mobility, and lack of grass-roots political and economic participation, continued to stifle efforts for change by ordinary people. There was growing alienation, corruption, cynicism, and alcoholism.

After ten years of these mounting problems, Mikhail Gorbachev came into office in 1985 and initiated perestroika, with more openness in the media (glasnost), democratization of political institutions, and economic reforms. He began to democratize economic institutions, introduce elements of the market with competition and profit incentives, and link pay to productivity (Kotz and Weir 1997, 56-7). However, things then quickly spiraled out of his control. Boris Yeltsin and the pro-capitalist contingent rapidly came to power, and dissolved the Soviet Union in 1991.

What Was this Collapse?

The two books provide different explanations for the collapse and transition to a private, market-based capitalist system. For Kotz and Weir, the Soviet Union was a form of state socialism, and the push toward private capitalism was led by a minority contingent composed of the intelligentsia, the party-state elite, and the nascent capitalist class, as they had the most to gain personally from such a transition. These elite groups were seeking to enhance their material wealth and status, and aspired to achieve lifestyles comparable to what their elite peer group had in the capitalist West. A majority of the population, however, wanted to hold on to socialism, albeit a reformed and democratized socialism. According to Kotz and Weir, opinion polls taken in 1991 showed that Russian businessmen and the elite favored capitalism whereas the general public at large favored a reformed socialism (1997, 115, 138). Even Gorbachev himself wanted to hold on to socialism, though one that was no longer ruled top down by the state and Communist party but was instead democratic.

For Resnick and Wolff (2002), the Soviet Union was never actually socialist in the first place, but rather was “state capitalist.” Thus, the transition was never about switching from socialism to capitalism, but rather from state capitalism to private capitalism. The Soviet Union had never eradicated a class system of exploitation of its workers despite its 1917 revolution, elimination of private property, and replacement of markets with central planning. Workers were still exploited, but now their surplus labor was appropriated and distributed by the state bureaucracy and the Communist party (rather than by private capitalists sitting on corporate boards of directors).

For Kotz and Weir, the Soviet Union was predominantly state socialist with some nonsocialist features, because it had state ownership of the means of production, central planning, and production for use. It was not capitalist because, for them, capitalism is about competition, markets, the profit motive, and private property (Kotz and Weir 1997, 26). Resnick and Wolff, however, untangled the economic processes of property (private versus public or state) and power (whether goods and services are produced and distributed via a system of markets or central planning) from the class process of the production, appropriation, and distribution of surplus. According to their understanding of Marxian theory, in a capitalist class process, the surplus is appropriated and distributed by someone other than the producer of that surplus. In communist class processes, producers of the surplus themselves appropriate and distribute the surplus. Hence the roles of property (public versus private) and power (markets versus planning) are separate issues, and neither is the defining feature that distinguishes capitalism from communism. Capitalism can potentially coexist with public ownership and planning, and communism can potentially coexist with markets and private ownership. In the Soviet Union, state officials (rather than private boards of directors) appropriated and distributed the surplus produced by workers. Resnick and Wolff (2002) called it “state capitalist,” although there were pockets of communist class processes occurring in some realms of the Soviet economy, such as the collective farms and communal households of the 1920s.

Explanations for the Collapse

For Kotz and Weir, lack of democracy in both the political and economic realms gave rise to increasing disaffection and a reduction in labor productivity. As workers slacked off on the job, both the quantity and quality of output per worker deteriorated, bringing down the rate of industrial output and causing economic stagnation. Gorbachev initiated perestroika in an attempt to make the transition from a state socialist system to a democratic socialist system. He thought the establishment of democracy in the political and economic realms (with decentralization and worker self-management) would revitalize the economy and help boost economic growth rates back to their pre-1975 levels. Gorbachev’s reforms spiraled out of his control when the pro-capitalist coalition of the intelligentsia, party-state elite, and pro-capitalist businessmen pushed for a transition to a capitalist system with markets and private property. Thus, the Soviet system was undermined by internal factors. External factors (such as foreign pressures to destabilize the regime in the form of the cold war, rising military expenditures, and the conflict in Afghanistan) were less important. For Kotz and Weir, “the explanation of the Soviet stagnation must be sought in factors internal to the Soviet Union, not in its relation to the West” (1997, 48).

Resnick and Wolff give more weight to both internal and external pressures on the Soviet Union that caused it to crumble. Its “success” in achieving rapid industrialization (especially in heavy industry), a superpower status with its strong military and huge weapons stockpiles, and a large state apparatus under Communist party control, came at huge expense. The state was able to obtain the expenditures for these “successes” only by siphoning off revenues from the agricultural sector (squeezing agricultural workers on the state and collective farms), squeezing workers engaged in industrial production, and squeezing households engaged in domestic production. After a certain point, this process of squeezing became unbearable for workers and households, especially when they were not receiving rewards in the form of the quantity and quality of consumption goods comparable to the West. Women in particular were adversely affected by the lack of consumer goods that would have made their lives easier. The shortage of consumer goods meant wasting precious hours waiting in shopping lines. Since women were primarily responsible for the domestic work of shopping, cooking, cleaning, and child care, the double shift of domestic production and paid employment became unbearably onerous. The increasing economic and human costs of the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s—a war whose toll was comparable to that of Vietnam for the United States—was an added burden that intensified the squeeze on workers and households to their breaking point.

Workers and households thus responded by slacking off on the job and opting out of the system when possible. They turned inward toward their personal lives and spent their energies in private productive activities in their households, agricultural plots, and the illegal production of goods and services (Resnick and Wolff 2002, 307, 313). Workers had less energy to devote to their jobs in state enterprises but also less motivation to do so, and they had the ability to slack off without the severe repercussion of job loss (thanks to the Soviet policies of job security and full employment). Consequently, labor productivity fell and economic growth declined through the 1980s.

For Resnick and Wolff, the crisis was insurmountable when the state could not squeeze workers and households any further. Gorbachev’s attempts under perestroika to institute decentralization and worker self-management initiated changes in power relations, but left exploitative class relations intact. The reforms under perestroika facilitated opting out of the system and engaging in private enterprises. So the crisis was resolved by switching from state capitalism to a private capitalism with markets and private property, which was already being practiced by larger numbers of people in Soviet society. The transition to capitalism was not just favored by those at the top, the party-state elite, intelligentsia, and pro-capitalist entrepreneurs. Capitalist ideology and practices were much more widespread and entrenched, even among workers and households.

The Blind Spot of Chernobyl

Neither Kotz and Weir (1997) nor Resnick and Wolff (2002) discussed the Chernobyl disaster, which struck on 26 April 1986. This absence was more surprising for Kotz and Weir, who provided a more detailed discussion of the Gorbachev years of 1985-91. The Gorbachev years received much less attention from Resnick and Wolff, appearing only in their concluding chapter. On second thought, perhaps it is not so surprising that neither book mentioned Chernobyl, since the scale of the disaster has not been fully recognized by the outside world even today, due in large part to the withholding of information by the authorities.

The amount of radioactive releases (iodine-131, cesium-137, strontium-90, and plutonium-239) from Chernobyl was initially severely underestimated, by as much as a factor of ten (McQuerry 2000, 148). The wind patterns changed three times, ultimately contaminating 43,500 square kilometers of Belarus (23 percent of its territory), 37,600 square kilometers of Ukraine (5 percent of its territory), and 59,300 square kilometers of Russia (1.5 percent of its territory), with a combined population of six million people (UNDP and UNICEF 2002, 35). Hundreds of thousands were evacuated and resettled, whereas tens of thousands of people remained in areas polluted to a level between fifteen and forty curies per square kilometer. Initially, about thirty-one people died from the accident and radiation exposure during cleanup, and, by 2000, more than four thousand clean-up workers had died (Gentleman 2000, 4), according to some reports. Tens of thousands of people were exposed to thyroid-cancer-causing radioactive iodine, as well as radioactive cesium with a half-life of thirty years, which has contaminated such foodstuffs as milk, meat, and forest products like game, berries, and mushrooms. The fallout of radioactive plutonium-239, with a half-life of some twenty-four thousand years, was concentrated adjacent to the Chernobyl plant. Some of these radioactive isotopes are feared to be migrating toward deep aquifers. Thus, people living in the contaminated regions are at continued risk of internal contamination from the consumption of radioactive foodstuffs. There remain widely differing estimates of the total death toll to date. While a 2005 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimated about four thousand fatal cancers, a recent study from the New York Academy of Sciences (originally published in Russian in 2007) put the death toll attributable to the Chernobyl disaster from all affected areas around the world at almost one million (Caldicott 2011).

The Chernobyl disaster put a heavy burden on national budgets, given the need for cleanup, compensation, resettlement, and ongoing health care. To compound the problem, much of the land was now off limits, so investment fell, industry and agriculture declined, unemployment rose, and workers migrated outside the affected areas. The Soviet Union spent $18 billion on rehabilitation efforts between 1986 and 1991, and after 1991 the Ukraine and Belarus were still demanding more compensation from Russia (UNDP and UNICEF 2002, 28). In addition to the impacts on health and the economy, there were psychosocial impacts as people experienced a downward spiral of anxiety, depression, apathy, and fatalism (3). As people became less and less able to support themselves, many migrated out of the region and abroad. A recent study estimated the total economic cost from Chernobyl at about £144 billion or approximately US$230 billion (McNeill 2011).

Adding Chernobyl to Resnick and Wolff’s Account

There were almost a dozen explanations for the cause of the disaster, from problems of carelessness, irresponsibility, skipped safety training, poor design of safety tests, and a history of concealment of serious violations, to the supply of incorrect information to higher officials (McQuerry 2000, 119). Some of these failures could have arisen from the lack of labor effort being exerted by workers or the lack of high performance due to overwork and exhaustion. After the disaster, the population was not adequately warned nor were precautions taken, such as the distribution of potassium iodine (as was done in Poland). Knowledge about the true extent of the disaster was made public only years later. Feelings of anger regarding how the mistakes and inefficiency of a state enterprise had such disastrous consequences, together with betrayal by government officials, might thus help explain the rapid switch in sentiments against the existing system (whether state socialism or state capitalism) in favor of something else.

The expense from the aftereffects of Chernobyl merely compounded the burdens on the state. If the state could no longer squeeze workers and households, Chernobyl was the straw that broke the camel’s back. One could thus extend the analysis provided by Resnick and Wolff by concluding that the Soviet system was (1) engaging in the exploitation of its workers despite being named “socialist,” (2) under ever increasing internal and external pressures, and (3) unable to survive the final blow of the Chernobyl disaster, given the total costs from cleanup, relocation and compensation of inhabitants, and the provision of ongoing health care, in addition to the economic costs from the loss of land turned into an exclusion zone and made uninhabitable for decades to come.

However, whether the desire to switch to a private market-based capitalism was widespread among the majority of the population is still open to question. They may have wanted to switch to anything else rather than retain the status quo. This “anything else” might have been democratic socialism, or a social welfare state like Sweden, or a form of communism. Kotz and Weir (1997) discuss how the West and its institutions (the International Monetary Fund and World Bank) were offering significant monetary assistance to the Soviet Union if it made specific major reforms (in the form of privatization, markets, and its shock therapy program). By 1990, the leaders may have recognized that they were going to need much financial assistance to deal with the scope of the disaster and could get it only if they changed their economy per the West’s directives. They might not have wanted to go through with the full range of reforms but felt compelled to do so with no other options in sight. However, the result of these private capitalist reforms was a tragedy of huge proportions. Over the next two decades, Soviet life expectancies plummeted, income inequality tripled, a third of the population fell below the poverty line, and crime and corruption spiraled out of control.

Implications of Fukushima for Japan

While the Fukushima nuclear disaster was triggered by a natural disaster rather than human mistakes, there were manmade dimensions to the crisis. Like at Chernobyl, there was a history of concealment of safety violations, avoidance of costly repairs, weak safety regulations, and corruption between enterprise managers and government officials (Onishi and Belson 2011). After the disaster, officials failed to fully disclose the radiation levels and properly evacuate at-risk populations. Heavy burdens will be placed on the national budget for cleanup, compensation, resettlement, and health care. Even months after the disaster, very high levels of radiation were still being emitted from Fukushima. Contamination of foodstuffs (rice, beef, and tea), as well as soil, municipal waste, sewage, and air, remained a serious threat. The exclusion zone was initially placed at twenty kilometers (twelve miles), with eighty thousand people evacuated. However, some advocated that the exclusion zone be increased to a much larger area (Greenpeace 2012). Hot spots of radiation were even being found four hundred kilometers away from the plant. It soon became apparent that Fukushima would be worse than Chernobyl, given the greater number of nuclear reactors and spent fuel pools involved, the larger amount of fallout, and the more densely concentrated population living in the surrounding areas. At least one scientist went so far as to predict that the Fukushima disaster could ultimately result in more than one million deaths. The costs of provision of ongoing health care will be huge. Already the economic costs from cleanup and rebuilding are estimated as at least $500 billion (Greenpeace 2012).

As the long-term health and economic consequences of the Fukushima disaster become more apparent, the Japanese population will likely have similar feelings of anger and betrayal. This may fuel not only opposition to nuclear power, but opposition to an entire economic system that allowed its capitalist enterprises to cut costs in their drive to maximize profits and allowed them to muzzle watchdog agencies. We may see a deeper questioning of a system of private capitalism in Japan that failed to keep its population safe from this nuclear disaster.