Staunton, June 26 – Revelations about the Soviet past are not coming as thick and fast now as they did during glasnost and the Yeltsin years, but this week two reports about events in the USSR after the death of Stalin appeared that deserve to be noted because of the light they shed not only on the past but on the possible impact now and in the future.
The first of these concerns what happened in Ukraine following the Chernobyl accident. Olga Shcherbitskaya, the daughter of the first secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party, gave an interview in which she described the pressure Mikhail Gorbachev and Moscow generally put on her father after the Chernobyl accident (www.nr2.ru/kiev/289242.html/print/).
She told the Ukrainian newspaper “Novaya” that “after the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Moscow experts came to Kyiv and told [her] father that there was no danger. An explosion had happened but it wasn’t anything terrible. One of the experts said that he was ready to lie down alongside the reactor and even put his grandson there.”
Shcherbitsky, his daughter continued, “was guided by the opinion of Moscow because such important specialists spoke that way about the security” of the plant. But then, she continues, there arose the question of whether to hold the May Day demonstration as scheduled given reports of widespread radiation.
“Father explained the situation to Gorbachev and said that there was a great danger of radiation and that it would be better not to conduct the May Day demonstration in the [Ukrainian] capital. To this Gorbachev responded,” she said, “panic is beginning in the republic, and this must not be allowed in any case.’”
“’If you allow it,’” the Soviet leader told Shcherbitsky, “put your party ticket on the table…’ You can imagine what this would have meant for [her] father,” Olga Shcherbitskaya said. It would have been “like death.” As a result, the demonstration went forward, but it was kept short and Shcherbitsky left his grandsons at home.
In the current context, the Shcherbitskaya interview will serve as a reminder to many Ukrainians of the cavalier way that Moscow treated them even during the period of glasnost and perestroika, and it should serve as an indication to those in the West who hold Gorbachev up as a great humanist that at least at the time of Chernobyl, he was anything but.
The second report this week concerns an earlier event, one that has been surrounded by murkiness for more than 50 years. On Wednesday, Lt. Gen. Vadim Volkovitsky, the chief of staff of the Russian air force, said that the late Marshal Pavel Batitsky had “personally executed” secret police chief Lavrenty Beria in 1953 (vz.ru/news/2010/6/23/412857.html).
Volkovitsky’s comment came at a commemoration of the centennial of Batitsky’s birth. The current air force commander said that “not without basis, Batitsky is called the best commander of the anti-aircraft forces of all times,” but he continued, “it is not less well known for one affair – in 1953, Batitsky personally carried out the sentence of Beria.”
In 1953, Batitsky was the deputy commander of the Moscow military district, and his possible role in the execution of the widely-hated secret police chief, whom the Soviet military may have hated as much as any other group, had been suggested before. But Volkovitsky’s statement is perhaps the most authoritative declaration of this.
And given the tensions at the present time between the Russian officer corps, on the one hand, and the FSB-dominated Russian government, on the other, his reference to that long ago event may exacerbate the anger of the former against the latter and intensify the concerns of the latter about the attitudes of the former as well.