And yet this scene captures something about the Soviet regime both at its most mundane and its most dangerous. Everyone was accountable to everyone else. Any show of public defiance, or even a misplaced comment, could carry severe consequences. And yet, at a moment of great peril to millions of Soviet citizens and millions more around the world, no one was accountable. Every bureaucrat and manager simply repeated the mantra of the gray, authoritarian system that produced them: I had my job. I did my job. I fulfilled my tasks. I did nothing wrong.
In this environment, falsehoods are policy. In the hours following the explosion and fire, Soviet authorities insanely tried to keep a spiraling nuclear disaster as a state secret, hoping against all odds that they could hide a gigantic conflagration from American satellites and a massive release of radiation from even their country’s closest neighbors.
This state, run by delusional old men chasing, imprisoning, and shooting millions of their fellow citizens in a “circle of accountability,” controlled thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at the United States and its allies. We all lived under the constant threat that the commitment of a group of paranoids to ideas first bruited about in the coffee houses of Victorian Europe would lead to global extermination.