On Friday 25 April 1986, a clear and warm sky showed blue over all Ukraine. Vladimir Vasiljevich Scherbitski, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine and a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee (CC) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), spent that day in the city of Dnepropetrovsk. I saw him at the meeting of the Bureau of the Regional Party Committee, then at a number of enterprises, an institute — a set of places to be visited by such party leaders was incidentally habitual. But, despite warm and glad April of that year when the sowing campaign was in full swing and there was a lot to do, Scherbitski did not go to the countryside that time. He did not even have time to go to his native Verkhnedneprovsk, a quiet green and cosy town where his mother Tatiana Ivanovna used to live.
Vladimir Vasiljevich looked worried or even gloomy all day. Everyone, who was supposed to, knew that he disliked very much the First Secretary of the Dnepropetrovsk Regional Party Committee Victor Boiko for his arrogance, play-acting and constant desire to ingratiate himself not so much with Kiev as with Moscow. But is there a boss who likes his subordinates acting behind his back? Besides, Scherbitski himself used to be the "First" in Dnepropetrovsk, but he became the one almost immediately after Brezhnev, and, as it often happens, the former head of a region is fairly jealous of his successors. It seems to him for some reason that they are always doing wrong things and in the wrong way, even if they cope with their duties better than himself.
Scherbitski could possibly have other reasons for discontent, too, and the ones I mentioned even were not among them. After all, he was 68 at the time — an elderly man already, tired of everything and everybody. I repeat, he remained in my memory just as a man of this kind: gloomy, worried, thinking about something of his own.
Having waited with an effort till the end of the visit, Vladimir Vasiljevich made hastily for his personal plane, even without having dinner with Victor Boiko, and an hour later landed in Kiev at his favourite airport "Borispol". There, getting into the his car, he told the driver: "To Pheophania"… And Konstantin Prodan, his faithful servant, assistant and a man coming from the same part of the county, was given the following instruction: "I am not available till Monday. To anyone"…
Konstantin Konstantinovich Prodan, an old hand at the work, realized instantly that the chief was going to his country residence, to his pigeons — the only irresistible hobby of all his life. At the government residence in Pheophania, which is something like Barvikha near Moscow, they built a pigeon-house for Scherbitski. Its keeper loved pigeons as enthusiastically as Vladimir Vasiljevich himself. Every Saturday and Sunday they enjoyed the magnificent flight of the birds. That is how it obviously was at that sunset hour.
And at night Chernobyl burst!
It happened at night from 25 to 26 April, Friday to Saturday. Scherbitski was unaware of the event till Monday. For those who know well manners and customs of our party leaders, and especially of such calibre as Political Bureau members, there is nothing surprising in this fact. He left instructions not to be disturbed till Monday, was there any room for disobedience or questions? Nobody disturbed him. They were afraid. To go to death was something of which they were not afraid. As soon as the news from Chernobyl came to the control room of the Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior, fire brigades on duty rushed there. They went into the unknown, gotinto water failing to find a ford, and they did it under the command of General Gennadi Berdov, Deputy Minister of the Interior of the republic. Certainly, he had no idea either, and nobody explained to him what scale of the disaster he and his men were confronted with. The main thing was that nobody knew the nature of this disaster. The firemen rushed into the fire and, having received a fatal irradiation doze, in a month or two almost all of them died from radiation in Moscow hospitals.
The tragedy of Chernobyl has been described in thousands of articles. Hundreds of books have been published and as many films were shot about it. However up to now, nobody, not a single person knows the reason for the disaster and will identify that ominous point from which the nuclear Moloch started its orgy. It is true, soon they arrested the chief of the Chernobyl power plant, Bryukhanov, and several engineers and put them into prison just to be on the safe side. But even the judges, I am sure, did not understand what they imprisoned these people for. Nobody knew about the coming disaster and, especially, how to battle against it. Both the "masses" and the "leaders" thought it was not going to last for long: once the fire is extinguished, everything will get settled. I saw trains with troops and equipment going through Dnepropetrovsk to Kiev, I watched all our carelessness with my own eyes. May was hot, the soldiers on the platform cars were wearing just tunics, or even only vests, and were… singing. It did not even occurred to anybody what kind of hell they were going to encounter.
The "leaders", too, though they were in possession of a much greater volume of information, did not panic much either. The same Scherbitski authorized, without wavering, workers' May Day demonstration in Kiev — just 70 kilometres from Chernobyl. And he must have been quite frank when calming Moscow down: he said they should not worry as in two or three days, maximum in a week's time, this damned power unit would be filled up with lead and that would be the end of it. Such public sentiments were found everywhere, which is rather indicative: given such a tranquil attitude to the nuclear threat, the disaster, to put it bluntly, could not but happen.
And it did happen. That it happened in Chernobyl rather than in some other place, is just a trick of fortune.
All Scherbitski's entourage, all KGB, the Ministry of the Interior and the Central Committee staff did their best not to upset Vladimir Vasikjevich. Queer things used to happen. When Gorbachov, scared by inquiries from the Swedish, Austrian and Yugoslavian Embassies about whence the radiation was coming to their countries, finally sent Yegor Ligachov and Nikolai Ryzhkov to Kiev, they found Scherbitski in his office in absolutely quiet moods. He, trying to calm the high-ranking Moscow visitors down, told them there was no threat to Kiev, let alone to the country. And as proof, he handed the visitors a Japanese-made dosimeter: according to its reading, the radiology background was normal.
Nikolai Ryzhkov took out his dosimeter, looked at it and said in astonishment: "But your dosimeter is out of order!.."
The Central Committee fraternity either was afraid to upset their "celestial" or deliberately exposed him to the Muscovites, but a queer thing happened, a scandalously miserable one. Since that day 2 May 1986, whatever and wherever you read about combating the Chernobyl disaster, you will not find the name of Scherbitski there — either among the heroes, or among those guilty of the tragedy. The entire operation of struggling with the nuclear elements was conducted by Moscow, and the leader of the three-million strong army of the Ukrainian communists could only be divined in the background of the events: he exists and at the same time he, as it were, does not exists.
Scherbitski was relegated to the background, and there were strong reasons, which Vladimir Vasiljevich could not only guess but knew for sure. For example, he opposed the construction of the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl — in close proximity to two-million Kiev. They knew about his letter to academician Anatoli Alexandrov, in which Scherbitski suggested that some other place be selected for the plant. For Moscow to publicly recognize this obvious fact was to "tarnish its image". Not to confuse the public's minds, he was simply not spoken about.
However, the real reason for relegating the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine to the background is much deeper, and it is not immediately linked with the Chernobyl tragedy. I happened to meet with Scherbitski many times, to talk to him in his office in Kiev. I met him frequently during his visits to Ukraine's largest regions where I worked as a "Pravda" staff correspondent at that time. In Ukraine there were 8 "Pravda" correspondents per 25 regions. The editorial chiefs annually brought us together for conferences, which customarily ended in a talk in Scherbitski's office. By the way, the head of the Ukrainian Propaganda Office Leonid Kravchuk, the future Ukrainian president, used to stay humbly in the waiting room, he was not allowed to participate in those talks.
Vladimir Scherbitski was rather accessible to and frank with newsmen. By then, at the dawn of perestroika, he spoke about the need to reform the system though not by destroying it but by effecting the necessary changes within it. The Kremlin elders from the Political Bureau were rather jealous of their young, as against them, Ukrainian colleague and were afraid very much that he would be the one who would be elected the General Secretary of the CPSU CC.
It would be proper to mention that both Brezhnev and Scherbitski entered on a party career in Dneprodzerzhinsk. Leonid Iyich (Brezhnev) liked his younger friend very much and quite informally called him Volodya even in the presence of other people. And this friendship intensified even more the fears of the Moscow elders from the Political Bureau. They were in panic fear of Scherbitski and Peter Masherov from Byelorussia who were young and with good prospects. But Masherov was killed in an accident under mysterious circumstances, and Scvherbitski — here he is, safe and sound. Therefore, when Brezhnev died, they heaved a sigh of relief: there was nobody else to shield Scherbitski. By the way, Vladimir Vasiljevich too made some moves to strengthen his position in the Political Bureau. Thus he voted for Gorbachov and made several statements in support of perestroika launched by Gorbachov and Yakovlev.
However, as an experienced political fighter, he could not but realize that prestroika will call for sacrifices from among major political figures. He and the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Kazakhstan Communist Party Kunayev were the first candidates to play the part of sacrifice bulls. They parted quickly with Kunayev, having organised allegedly spontaneous demonstrations of young people in Alma-Ata. Then it was Scherbitski's turn. The Chernobyl tragedy proved to be very helpful to remove him, so that he did not hamper perestroika.
Vitali Cherkasov Merited journalist of Ukraine
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