How Bulgaria’s Communist Regime Hid the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster from the Public Protecting Only Itself
The world marks on April 26, 2018, the 32th year since the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster in the former Soviet Union, the worst catastrophe in the global history of nuclear energy, which in Communist Bulgaria was covered up from the public by the ruling regime of the Bulgarian Communist Party, at the time the staunchest satellite of Moscow.
Hiding the truth about the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster from the Bulgarian people when it occurred at the end of April 1986, and, naturally, taking no measures to protect the population from the radiation while protecting the high party leadership is among the worst of the numerous heinous crimes of Bulgaria’s communist regime.
On April 26, 1986, reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Northern Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, got damaged during a drill training its staff to terminate the nuclear reactor’s work in a time of emergence.
The resulting explosion blew up the reactor’s lid which weighed 1,200 metric tons, and led to the leakage of a huge amount of radioactive particles in the atmosphere.
The radioactive cloud emitted as a result of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster on April 26, 1986, passed over Eastern Europe, including Bulgaria.
However, the regime of the Bulgarian Communist Party and the then Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov (in office 1954/56 – 1989) (formally known as the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, 1944/48 – 1989) deliberately kept the information about the nuclear catastrophe from the public, and only took measures to protect from the radiation only the most senior party functionaries and the staff of the armed forces.
Not counting the three then Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, Bulgaria ranked fifth in terms of the degree of radioactive pollution following the Chernobyl Disaster, after Sweden, Finland, Austria, and Norway, reminds DeSeBg.com, a site run by Bulgarian investigative journalist Hristo Hristov who specializes in uncovering the secrets of the Bulgarian communist regime and its intelligence and secret police, the DS (“State Security”), the equivalent of the Soviet KGB.
However, in terms of the effective radiation exposure during the first year after the occurring of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, Bulgaria ranks first.
“This is due to the communist regime hiding the information about the severe disaster in the USSR, which prevents [Bulgaria’s] population from taking even the most basic precautions,” Hristov points out.
The investigative journalist, who is an expert in researching the archives of the Bulgarian communist regime, points out that Zhivkov’s regime indeed made no effort whatsoever to protect the Bulgarian people from radiation contamination following the Chernobyl catastrophe.
The Bulgarian communist regime did react, however, in order to protect the lives and health of its most senior functionaries.
The Fifth Directorate of the DS called “Safety and Security Directorate” (UBO in Bulgarian) provided clean water and food for the leadership of the Bulgarian Communist Party which was entitled to dining and receiving rations from the government’s Rila Hotel in downtown Sofia.
It is known, for example, that immediately after the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster lamb was imported from Australia and vegetables were imported from Egypt or Israel in order to feed the Politburo of the Bulgarian Communist Party.
Hristov points out that after the Chernobyl catastrophe both Moscow and its staunchest satellite, the Bulgarian communist regime in Sofia, keep quiet about the disaster even though Western news agencies run the news the evening of April 26, 1986.
“Zhivkov who could get in touch with Moscow with a simple phone call at the time did not care for the fact that at that moment he was the person who had to protect the Bulgarian people,” the investigative journalist writes.
“However, the protection of the Soviet Union’s interests has no doubt turned out to be more important,” he adds, reminding that the first “innocent” announcement about the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster was run by the radio and television in the USSR only in the evening of April 28, 1986.
Hristov cites as evidence a testimony by Grigor Stoichkov, then holding the position of Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers (equivalent to Deputy Prime Minister), and chairing the state commission for emergencies and relief.
Stoichkov testified to the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office in 1990, after the formal end of the communist regime on November 10, 1989.
“He confirms not only the lack of reaction on part of the first party and state leader but also the arrogant attitude of the Soviet authorities who kept the information about the disaster on the inter-state level,” the journalist points out.
Stoichkov’s testimony is quoted as follows,
“[Bulgaria’s] Council of Ministers received no official message from the Soviet side, nor from the Soviet leadership, nor from the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party or personally from Todor Zhivkov.
We received the first brief unofficial message about the [Chernobyl] accident on April 29, 1986. On April 30, there was an official announcement of the Soviet government which was published in the Rabotnichesko Delo daily (the official newspaper of the Bulgarian communist regime – editor’s note).
As early as April 29, I shared with the chairman of the Council of Ministers (i.e. Prime Minister – editor’s note) Georgi Atanasov [the news] about the accident which had occurred, and I informed him that observation instructions were given through the Civilian Defense service. I suggested that a consultative meeting be held, which was held on May 4.”
Investigative journalist Hristo Hristov emphasizes that the then state commission on emergency situations and relief did issue announcements about the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster to the Bulgarian population on May 2, May 4, and May 6, 1986, “but they were very brief, laconic, and belated.”
“On May 1, ironically, in Sofia and [Bulgaria’s] other large cities government-sponsored Labor Day parades were held under the falling radioactive rain,” he stresses.
He also cites data showing that only on May 2, in a single day, the region of Bulgaria’s capital Sofia received an amount of radioactive substances that was equal to the amount from the preceding 17 years.
Between April 30 and May 2, 1986, the radioactive air pollution in Bulgaria grew several thousand times compared with the levels before the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster. A new governmental meeting was held in Sofia on May 10, 1986.
Then Deputy Prime Minister Grigor Stoichkov’s testimony is quoted further, as follows,
“During this period of time I turned to the Ambassador of the USSR to Bulgaria Leonid Grekov for sending an expert on relief. He recommended that I turn to the Soviet Committee for Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy. Grekov told me that we were exaggerating the danger of radioactive contamination, and “are making a fuss” more than we should. I responded that as a government we are obliged to carry out the measures that our experts deem necessary.”
Stoichkov further drafted a special report on the consequences of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster for Bulgaria which was sent to communist dictator Todor Zhivkov (formally, the Chairman of the State Council, i.e. President, and General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party).
“I informed Zhikov that there was contamination, and that we had taken measure to shift around the grain, to end the sales of a certain amount of [white] cheese, and the production of apple juice. The things I said were taken only as a piece of information, without him [Zhivkov] taking a position,” Stoichkov told the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office back in 1990 regarding the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster.
Investigative journalist Hristo Hristov points out that at the beginning of 1987 a new report was drafted for Zhivkov entitled “Preliminary Information for the Radiation Situation in the Country at the end of 1986.”
It said that because contaminated forage had been fed to the livestock in Bulgaria, the radiation exposure is expected to grow. The result was a secondary surge of radiation in milk and meat.
“How radiation affect the Bulgarian population was not of primary importance for Todor Zhivkov who, in cases when the interests of the USSR were directly affected, preferred not to make decisions which might bring about Moscow’s disapproval,” Hristov writes.
In 1990, the after the formal end of the communist regime in Bulgaria, the Atomic Physics Department of Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” estimated that the total radioactivity registered in May 1986, following the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, was between 90 and 1,400 times higher than normal in Northern Bulgaria, 340 to 1700 times higher than normal in Southern Bulgaria, and 1,300 to 31,000 times higher than normal in Bulgaria’s expansive mountain areas.
Another one of today’s few remaining independent Bulgarian journalists, Ivan Bakalov, who was a young reporter in the then People’s Republic of Bulgaria at the time of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster in 1986 has also provide insights into the criminal behavior of the Bulgarian communist regime during the crisis months in a number of articles on his website, e-vestnik.bg.
“In 1986, the disaster in Chernobyl remained secret for the Bulgarians for several days. The USSR announced about it 2 days later, after Swedish stations had detected the high radiation. In Bulgaria, there were no official messages until the third day, the media kept quiet, and people went picnicking or to work on their vegetable gardens in the countryside,” Bakalov writes.
“When the authorities finally announced about the disaster, it was presented as something limited, not so dangerous, and it was especially emphasized that there was no threat for Bulgaria. This was deliberate disinformation on part of the authorities [regime]. At the same time, many people at the time were making salads out of the first lettuce which had been sprinkled with radioactive rain. Meanwhile, the high nomenclature [of the Bulgarian Communist Party] was being supplied with clean food and water,” he elaborates.
Bakalov goes on to tell the story of how, as the state-run radio and television in Bulgaria in May 1986 were running messages on how everything was under control and the radiation in the food was below the dangerous levels, the government’s Rila Hotel in downtown Sofia had seen a special team of experts test its water and refrigerated food.
In the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, the Rila Hotel in Sofia was the base which fed the high nomenclature: that was where the families of the members of Politburo, the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party, government ministers and committee chairpersons all got food to consume at home.
The restaurant of the Rila Hotel had a list of about 250 top level functionaries who could eat directly there. As the journalist notes, these were “top of the tops” of the Bulgarian communist regime.
The day after the water and food at the Rila Hotel were tested, the expert team came back and banned the staff from using the tap water, which, in the words of a doctor from the team, “was not good even for washing, let alone drinking and cooking.”
Two military grade water tanks with clean water were brought to the inner yard of the Rila Hotel, and the cooks in the top kitchen of the Bulgarian communist regime were ordered to use only their water, including for washing dishes. Meanwhile, all the rest of the Bulgarians were drinking regular tap water.
All food from the Rila Hotel was seized, and replaced with lamb from Australia (Bulgarians have a tradition of eating lamb especially on St. George’s Day, May 6), and with vegetables with were imported from Israel or Egypt.
Even though it had been imported, the food for the senior leadership of communist Bulgaria was still tested before it was used.
Meanwhile, the only TV station in the country, a state-run channel, was broadcasting reassuring news.
Bakalov does point out that this blatantly special treatment of the senior leadership of the Bulgarian communist regime following the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster might have been due to the fact that the Rila Hotel at the time was supplied with water from the water pipeline coming from the nearby Vitosha Mountain, not unlike about 10% of the city of Sofia, while the rest of the city got its water from the water pipeline from the larger and more distant Rila Mountain. It was possible that the water from the Vitosha pipeline might have been more contaminated because of the Rila pipeline went through the large Iskar Water Reservoir.
In any case, that is just a theory, and the communist regime did not warn any other part of the Bulgarian population to watch out over the Chernobyl radiation poisoning.
“Anyways, many of us Sofianites at the time figured out that we were being duped, and every evening we would go to get mineral water from the springs in the Gorna Banya quarter. There were lines of 100 people there at 1-2 am,” Bakalov writes.
He does point out that the only exception to the communist regime’s deliberate failure to protect the Bulgarian population from the Chernobyl radiation was the then Defense Minister Dobri Dzhurov who ordered strict measures for testing the food and water used for the armed forces.
“But outside the army and the nomenclature, nobody knows who ate what in the various parts of the country since the radiation contamination across Bulgaria varied,” the journalist notes.
He cites acquaintances of his who took measurements in some Bulgarian mountains using Geiger counters which showed higher than the safe radiation levels following rains in May 1986.
The journalist also cites a relative who at the time was employed at the Ministry of Health.
“The milk that comes to Sofia from some parts of Bulgaria has radiation above the normal levels. We mix it with the milk which is below the normal levels, so that it can meet the requirements and we won’t have to throw it away,” the person is quoted as saying back in the late 1980s.
“That was how at the time people learned important news – by word of mouth, from friends, from relatives, we would warn one another,” Bakalov says, referring to the fact that the Bulgarian communist regime took no measures to protect or at least warn the population, and even kept the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster secret for as long as it could.
Ivan Dikov is the author of 6 Million Abortions: How Communism Utilized Mass-Scale Abortion Exterminating Europe’s Fastest Growing Nation and Ugly Bargain: How the European Union and Bulgaria’s Post-Communist Oligarchy Fit Together, among other books.
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