The official death toll from Chernobyl is 31. But we now know that, in the weeks and months that followed the accident, the USSR recruited between 600,000 and 800,000 of its citizens as part of the deadly clean-up project. These human “liquidators,” as they were known, came into direct contact with radioactive substances. Within 20 years, 120,000 were dead, and, of the survivors, the vast majority have suffered health complications, ranging from respiratory problems to cancer.

The USSR’s response was an effective exercise in damage control. Practically, the mass evacuations, animal slaughters, and human “liquidators” undisputedly averted further disaster. But at what cost? When faced with a crisis, the Communists resorted to pride and denial, deception and confusion. This strategy was a devastating political miscalculation — enshrining a legacy of weakness and inspiring years of public resentment.