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History of A Tragedy

Serhii Plokhy

On the morning of 26 April 1986, Europe witnessed the worst nuclear disaster in history: the explosion of a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet Ukraine. The outburst put the world on the brink of nuclear annihilation. In the end, less than five percent of the reactor's fuel escaped, but that was enough to contaminate over half of Europe with radioactive fallout.

In Chernobyl, Serhii Plokhy recreates these events in all of their drama, telling the stories of the firefighters, scientists, engineers, workers, soldiers, and policemen who found themselves caught in a nuclear Armageddon and succeeded in doing the seemingly impossible: extinguishing the nuclear inferno and putting the reactor to sleep. While it is clear that the immediate cause of the accident was a turbine test gone wrong, Plokhy shows how the deeper roots of Chernobyl lay in the nature of the Soviet political system and the flaws of its nuclear industry. A little more than five years later, the Soviet Union would fall apart, destroyed from within by its unsustainable communist ideology and the dysfunctional managerial and economic systems laid bare in the wake of the disaster.

Judges’ comment: “Serhii Plokhy’s account of the tragedy of Chernobyl describes how Cold War political pressures, a flawed nuclear industry, and human error combined to produce a nuclear disaster that affected the lives of millions and hastened the Soviet Union’s demise, but which could have been so much worse. Written in clear, precise prose, the book’s message is still urgent today: we must learn from what happened in Ukraine on April 26th, 1986.”

First published:
Published by:
Allen Lane
Hardcover 404 pages
What the judges said

“It is a horror story – of political cynicism and scientific ignorance – in which the world was saved only by heroism and luck.”

Serhii Plokhy - 'Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy' Book Trailer

About the author

Serhii Plokhy is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University. He has published in English, Russian and Ukrainian as well as having taught in Canada, Ukraine and the USA.