In 2006, Mikhail Gorbachev called the Chernobyl accident the "real cause" for the collapse of the Soviet Union:

The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later. Indeed, the Chernobyl catastrophe was an historic turning point: there was the era before the disaster, and there is the very different era that has followed.

How significant was the accident in the political climate of the era, and why?

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    Anecdotally, it wasn't directly responsible - the fact that USSR was imploding economically after the respite of Brezhnev's oil sales revenues (and as a consequence, was unable to hold on to militarily-maintained unity) was the main driver. It DID feed into the general political feeling of population, though - the lies, the coverup, the incompetence, the fact of non-RSFSR republics suffering more... I'd be curious if some real citations and research can be found. +1
    – user4012
    Commented Jun 24, 2013 at 16:53
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    @DVK The USSR was quite good in economic terms up to the final stage. At least not much worse than previously, the GDP was growing until 1990.
    – Anixx
    Commented Jun 29, 2013 at 11:39
  • @Anixx - It's easy to grow GDP when GDP is based on numbers that your boss wants you to make up :)
    – user4012
    Commented Jun 29, 2013 at 14:28
  • @DVK how would you "make up" numbers, say, for air transportation? It was growing all the way.
    – Anixx
    Commented Jun 29, 2013 at 19:35
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    @Anixx - They are just that. Numbers. You don't think the Minister of transportation personally stood there and counted the # of cancelled flights, or collected airfair, as given to him in a report by his direct subordinates? Or that a subordinate with a # to achieve specified by a Minister's plan would prefer to fail to meet the plan #s as opposed to inflate the #s?
    – user4012
    Commented Jun 29, 2013 at 23:45

3 Answers 3


Chernobyl could not have been the cause of the collapse. It's estimated cleanup costs were mere $15B (1.5% of GDP). Gorbachev is suffering from a cognitive bias: he is attaching too much importance to an event he is currently thinking about.

The main impact of Chernobyl was indirect: the failure of the authorities to cover up the disaster; the lies in the media; not canceling the May 1st festivities in Kiev - al this lead to popular disaffection and increased interest in alternative sources of information, including foreign radio.

The main reason for the Soviet collapse was its inability to outspend the US on defence, especially SDI. "Just 13 men believed that SDI was feasible: Reagan and the 12 Politburo members. That was enough to destroy USSR".

See also here.

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    Reagan never believed SDI was possible. He just had a really good poker face and he was playing on the fact that we were able to develop stealth bombers in secret. Commented Jun 28, 2013 at 13:07
  • I don't think that Gorbachev was claiming that the cleanup costs were the direct cause of the collapse. He was probably aware of all the indirect stuff you are talking about too. Commented Jun 28, 2013 at 19:07
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    -1 the notion of spending is useless to understand how USSR economy actually worked. You guys try to understand it using US measures - inapplicable to USSR. USSR system were based on merits to get access to goods people in West usually buy with money -- apartments, cars, premium food, premium medical service. When this distribution system start getting problems (due to oil prices getting too low) in combination with high circles corruption -- then the system collapsed.
    – lowtech
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 14:34
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    @lowtech: you are confusing the system of consumption with the system of distribution of industrial resources (as in наличные vs безналичные &c)
    – sds
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 15:39
  • @sds USSR problem with money circulation (both cash and cashless transactions) were never significant problem. This is because state controlled all prices (consumer and industry goods/services) - they would just adjust some prices to get control back if something would have happened. Besides USSR gov never hesitated on bank operations like exchange of money - which was done last time in 1991. Sorry, attempt of economic justification of USSR collapse are useless, it was not economy in normal sense - rather big communal living - with certain equal member to be more equal than others.
    – lowtech
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 17:55

The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later. Indeed, the Chernobyl catastrophe was an historic turning point: there was the era before the disaster, and there is the very different era that has followed.

The Chernobyl disaster, more than anything else, opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue. It made absolutely clear how important it was to continue the policy of glasnost, and I must say that I started to think about time in terms of pre-Chernobyl and post-Chernobyl.

The price of the Chernobyl catastrophe was overwhelming, not only in human terms, but also economically. Even today, the legacy of Chernobyl affects the economies of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

This is a quote from Gorbachev's book I obtained online here. This would suggest Gorbachev is discussing the existential costs of the accident as much as the remediation/medical costs when assessing it's weight as an input on the dissolution of the USSR. I have read elsewhere he explains that USSR was at the time being stretched fiscally and economically — not by SDI — but by the war in Afghanistan.

While an unexpected bill of $18B may not seem like much today, he asserts it pushed the USSR past a fiscal tipping point from which it could not recover. Things had to change. Certainly oil prices and exports would have played their part but for him that was not the decisive blow, Chernobyl was it. I'm not sure why Gorbachev would favor a home grow disaster born of engineering incompetence or corruption over international markets conspiring against him, although I can understand why he would want the world not to believe the KGB fell for the SDI fictions. At the time SDI proposals were openly being discredited in international science journals as completely implausible given that very effective counter measures could be deployed for a fraction of the cost amongst other reason. (A miniscule ball-bearing at velocity is enough to destroy a trillion dollar satellite mounted laser weapon system for example).

  • Chernobyl being an unexpected event could have punched a 15 billion dollar hole in the USSR's cash flow. Sometimes cash flow is all that keeps a dysfunctional country together. Consider a family living hand to mouth; they might have equity in the house or the car, but a home disaster (e.g. a burst pipe) could trigger a cash flow crisis and a divorce. Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 8:56
  • Yes. And ongoing costs to Ukraine and a neighboring country have been estimated at around $250B each since the immediate event remediation costs paid by USSR. (Source wikipedia and other sources confirm these estimates) Commented Nov 3, 2013 at 0:15

The Soviet Union tried to cover the whole thing up, making only a vague announcement about the explosion after two days had passed; the world only became aware of the true horror of the accident once a radioactive cloud that had drifted into Sweden was sourced back to Chernobyl.

Just six years later the Soviet Union ceased to exist, as dissent amongst citizens, once completely satisfied with, and trusting of, their government, grew over issues such as public safety and political transparency.

Gorbachev states that Chernobyl was “perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

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