Serhii Plokhy is a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard Image Credit: Supplied

Serhii Plokhy, who won the Baillie Gifford non-fiction prize for Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy last month, always intended to write about the world’s worst nuclear disaster, not least because he lived through it. “I was there at the time,” he says of his days as a young university lecturer living 500km downstream from the explosion at the Ukrainian nuclear plant in 1986 that contaminated vast swaths of Europe, worrying if the waters of the river Dnieper had been contaminated. “I remember the horror.”

Former classmates were directly affected by the radiation released by the explosion, and he suffered from an inflamed thyroid he believes may have been the result of exposure. Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union in 1986, and the disaster had such an impact on the country that the 61-year-old Plokhy, now professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, felt he should tell its story. But he was almost too close to it; the testimonies of survivors were too emotional, too powerful. As a historian, he felt he lacked critical distance.

It was only with the Ukrainian revolution of 2014 and the subsequent conflict with Russia that Plokhy felt liberated to write about Chernobyl, in part because suddenly the catastrophe had been trumped by new dramas but also because he realised it could be seen as central to everything that followed — glasnost in the Soviet Union, the growth of a nationalist movement in Ukraine, and the collapse five years after the disaster of the crumbling edifice of the Soviet empire.

Plokhy was born in Russia to Ukrainian parents but has been based in the US for 20 years. He likens his multiple identities to “a matryoshka doll — open one up and you find another”.

“To get a tenure, you have to ask the big questions and think broadly,” he says. “That came naturally. It was how I was trained. But then I integrated a lot of human stories and voices.”

The key to the success of the book is that union of personal stories — the managers of the plant who made terrible mistakes and paid with their lives or ended up in prison, the firefighters and soldiers who consigned themselves to almost certain death by trying to stabilise the reactor, the scientists who covered up the design faults — and globally significant history. “The trick was to bring together the very human voices and the bureaucratic documents,” he says. “It looks like the judges [of the prize] think I managed it.”

But should we really see Chernobyl as the key to the unravelling of the Soviet Union?

“There is a very direct line,” he insists. “The first mass movement in the Soviet Union gathered around ecological issues, and Chernobyl was responsible for that. That was permissible under glasnost; Chernobyl and glasnost are one and the same. I’m not saying there would have been no glasnost without Chernobyl, but glasnost happened when it happened and how it happened because of Chernobyl. It exposed the culture of secrecy and it hit everybody. It didn’t just affect non-party members; it affected party members, the police, the KGB, everybody felt threatened and it suddenly became a legitimate concern of the entire society. Before that, there had been very few concerns that the entire society shared.”

According to Plokhy, the pro-independence movement in Ukraine came out of the mobilisation around Chernobyl.

“The leaders of the movement maybe don’t say that now,” he argues, “but they used to say it again and again in the late 1980s.” Their success was politically crucial. “The Ukrainian referendum [on independence in December 1991] was the last blow to the dying Soviet Union,” he says.

The Soviet empire finally collapsed later that month. He accepts the Soviet Union would eventually have disintegrated anyway — “this was the century when the majority of multi-ethnic, multicultural empires collapsed” as nationalism took root, he says at his big-picture best - but Chernobyl was a crucial trigger, the radiation it released fatally weakening the Soviet body politic.

Who was really to blame for the disaster? “There were two sets of characters,” says Plokhy, “the people who made [operational] decisions that led to the disaster and the people at the top who kept silent and didn’t tell their own people what was going on.”

He argues that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was culpable. “I see Gorbachev as responsible for being silent,” he says. “It took him two weeks to address the nation. Gorbachev is a hero in many narratives and he did many good things, but I don’t trust him when he says he didn’t have enough information [about the disaster].”

Plokhy also blames the Soviet system itself for corrupting science and cutting corners. “There was little regard for safety,” he says. “The attitude came from the race for the atomic bomb; the sacrifice of health and life was almost expected. That culture was transferred to the nuclear power establishment.”

The book ends with an impassioned call for the world to learn the lessons of Chernobyl and for the countries beyond the west that are now developing nuclear energy capacity to pay heed to safety concerns. “The next great nuclear-power frontier is Africa,” he writes. “Volatile Egypt is currently building two reactors — its first in history. Are we sure that all these reactors are sound?”

Autocracy, contempt for the well-being of the public and a lax approach to nuclear safety are a dangerous combination, as the people living close to Chernobyl and the rackety old Soviet empire itself found to their cost.

–Guardian News & Media Ltd

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy is published by Allen Lane.