An expert's point of view on a current event.

‘Chernobyl’ Shows How the Soviets Squashed Scientists

The brutal legacy of industrialization left the “scientific-technical intelligentsia” in the cold.

A scene from season 1 of HBO’s 'Chernobyl.'
A scene from season 1 of HBO’s 'Chernobyl.' HBO

At one point in HBO’s hit miniseries Chernobyl, the (fictitious) scientist Ulana Khomyuk, played by Emily Watson, goes to a scientific archive labeled for “official use”—a term Soviet censors used for technical material only accessible to specialists—to attempt to understand how the RBMK reactor could have melted down, even with the safety measures supposedly embedded in the design. In a scene familiar to anyone who has worked in a post-Soviet archive, Khomyuk fills out a call slip by hand and gives it to an attendant who, in turn, verifies the access to the files and retrieves them—or, at least, the ones Khomyuk is allowed to see. She deduces from the files that the design was flawed from the beginning and problems were kept from not only the public but the scientific community at large.

That’s a telling moment in a series that goes out of its way to capture the Soviet Union of 1986 accurately. Khomyuk is a scientist in a country that prides itself on being a technocracy and that exalts Marxism as scientific truth. The writer Craig Mazin created her as a place holder for the army of Soviet scientists that worked to understand and contain the Chernobyl disaster. She also represents what sociological parlance has called the “scientific-technical intelligentsia”—the vast army of highly trained experts, technocrats, and scientists generally born between the late 1930s and the mid-1950s and shaped by the rapidly expanding system of higher education into a supposed elite whose role was to serve the state.

Yet, with very rare exceptions, these elites had very little impact on state policy and were alienated from power. In Mazin’s metaphor for this, despite being a member of an official committee and a highly respected scientist, Khomyuk cannot even see the technical documentation for the RBMK reactor. Party politicians, not scientists, held the reins of power in the Soviet Union.

Unlike the Cold War-era fears in the West of a hyperrational Soviet bureaucracy able to coordinate vast amounts of resources with scientific accuracy, the reality of Soviet rule was governmental inefficiency, mass mobilization, and, most importantly, the selective ignoring of expert advice. This system, in turn, created massive class divides. Khomyuk’s conversation with an unnamed party official in Minsk features her being dismissed by a curt reply that her scientific credentials mean nothing compared with his proletarian background.

However, the reality of working-class life in the Soviet Union looked more like that of the miners who were pressed to desperately dig a tunnel into the reactor, whose foreman was masterfully portrayed by Jay Simpson in the TV series. The alienation of those miners is shown in their confrontation with Mikhail Shchadov, the Soviet coal minister, who had received an engineering education in the 1930s and had spent his entire career as a Communist Party bureaucrat with the goal of increasing production by any means necessary.

This generation of men represented by Shchadov formed a gerontocracy of political operators who understood how to use the state machinery to throw massive amounts of resources into an emergency, as they did in the aftermath of Chernobyl. But they were also deeply arrogant and inflexible and consequently dismissive of expertise and scientific caution.

For Soviet leaders of this generation, there was barely any distinction between wartime and peacetime governance. Every five-year plan was a battle and the clean-up effort described as a military campaign. This same militarized mentality meant that no matter the flaws during its construction, the reactor at Chernobyl had to work, warnings from experts be damned. Ironically, it took the emergency of Adolf Hitler’s invasion for Joseph Stalin to stop interfering in the judgments of Soviet generals and thus prevent a disaster, just as it took the tragedy of Chernobyl for Soviet scientists to coalesce as an autonomous political group. The Leninist party-state inverted the classic trope of the state breaking routine governance in a state of emergency and instead allowed its experts and technocrats full rein only during actual crisis.

It would be easy to put the onus of this type of governance onto Russia’s long history of authoritarian culture. But it’s much more closely connected with the ideas of Leninism and the “democratic centralist” model of decision-making by a leadership of a single ruling party, whose decisions would be executed by members who staffed state and industry institutions. The practices developed by Soviet Communist Party replicated across states far removed from Russia and even from ideological Leninism.

In his classic work on the history of economic development, Alexander Gerschenkron described the state of “backwardness” as a modern condition created by the perception of an intellectual group that others are advancing while their “state” is stuck in an economically stagnant, “traditional” state. The ideology becomes the solution, and institutions are shaped to mobilize—and forcibly modernize—the population. For the industrial technocrats of 19th-century France, who dreamed of a rational society run by engineers, these institutions were development banks such as the Crédit Mobilier meant to finance new French industrial infrastructure. In Russia, the Bolshevik belief in the urgency of rapid industrial development shaped their belief in a strictly centrally controlled, professional revolutionary party whose organizers would mobilize “immature” workers toward revolutionary consciousness. The political scientist Ken Jowitt has argued that the Leninist model of a single party-state with its combat goal became an effective ideal type for governing largely agricultural societies whose intellectual elites wanted to push the population toward industrial modernity.

Leninist democratic centralism, born in the initial design of the Bolsheviks, was driven by working underground: a small, conspiratorial setup in which information was closely guarded and paranoia encouraged. In designing their governing institutions, the Bolsheviks created a new model based on their experiences as an underground party—the single-party state in which the cadres of the party would both staff and supervise the state. This model, fully perfected under Stalin, established a set of institutions that were designed to govern via mass mobilization of people and resources toward particular tasks rather than bureaucratic administration and routine regulation. These governing practices remained mostly unchanged up to the reforms of the perestroika-era that the Chernobyl disaster helped launch.

There was one more element to the genius of the Leninist party-state that made it so effective and transferrable elsewhere—the role of the party and of the servants it created. It would take the children of farmers and train them to be industrial workers who followed so-called cultured ways of life, including reading, hygiene, and even enjoying opera and other high culture.

This core of vydvizhentsy (“promoted workers”), deeply grateful to the party for their transformation, led the transformation of the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. The approaches they pioneered, which focused on bootstrapping an industrial economy regardless of waste or safety, helped drive the Soviet Union’s transformation from an agricultural society into an industrial one—even as it left a trail of maimed workers and poisoned lakes behind it.

But the vydvizhentsy didn’t disappear after the war, and the second generation of socialist scientists had a much more ambiguous relationship with the state. They were supposed to be the elites who were to create the new technologies necessary to “build the material basis for communism,” as the official rhetoric went, but the Soviet hierarchy remained dominated by the aging vydvizhentsy.

This was not just a matter of gerontocracy—the institutions of the Soviet state that had been extremely good at industrializing an agricultural country were no longer sufficient to build the kind of bureaucratic, professionally staffed polity needed to tackle the demands of a complex, industrial society. Even as some of the vydvizhentsy aged out of office, the institutions they had built continued to behave the same way, and younger officials—and some scientists—found themselves co-opted by them and repeating the patterns of their elders. Thus, while the Soviet government could bootstrap a nuclear reactor, it could not find effective ways to enforce safety regulations or stop itself from making rash decisions about design.

The fall of the Soviet Union has not eliminated the problems of the Leninist state. The Boris Yeltsin years, during which his base of support was originally the scientific-technical intelligentsia, saw the collapse of the Russian economy and the further marginalization of the Russian scientific elites who did not or could not cash in as oligarchs or immigrate to provide the cheap labor that helped spur the IT boom of the 1990s.

When the high price of oil helped pull post-Soviet Russia out of its cataclysmic economic collapse, the children of the scientific-technical intelligentsia, the Moscow middle class, became known for their conspicuous consumption. But the new wealth did not come with better institutions. Instead of bureaucratic politics and technocratic regulatory bodies, the Russian state became increasingly authoritarian.

Since Vladimir Putin’s third term, a “deinstitutionalization” has made the governance of Russia increasingly resemble the politics of the Soviet system in the 1970s. Just like at the height of the Leonid Brezhnev era, decisions are made, ad hoc, either by a small group around Putin or more commonly by functionaries at lower levels with little coordination, forward planning, or expert input. The major difference is that power isn’t embedded in party privileges but in the often informally enforced access to ownership of major economic assets and corrupt cash flows that are then banked and legally protected in the Western financial system. If Lenin once quipped that communism is “Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country,” then the world of political capitalism in Russia and other states with democratic-centralist political legacies is “Soviet political practices plus the financialization of the whole country.”

This is not a uniquely Communist problem. As the writers of Chernobyl have pointed out, ignoring expertise as disaster looms is hardly unknown today. In the United States, attacks on government agencies and the professional bureaucracy have often been justified by citing the example of the Soviet Union’s bloated, inefficient governance. However, it was not the size of the Soviet technocracy that made the USSR what it was but the disregard for technical and scientific expertise, coupled with the dead weight of institutions protecting their own members’ privilege—a lesson that shouldn’t be forgotten in our own age of climate disaster and public corruption.

Yakov Feygin is associate director of the Future of Capitalism program at the Berggruen Institute. Prior to joining the Berggruen Institute, Yakov was a fellow in History and Policy at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government and managing editor of The Private Debt Project.