“Your technology is hopeless,” Gorbachev tells the stunned audience in Leningrad. “Productivity is low and the quality of goods unacceptable.” There’s a tongue-lashing for Soviet economists, too. “We’ve not been getting our sums right, comrades,” he says. Information, in this case dismal economic figures, was the weapon Gorbachev needed to push for change.

The Soviet journalists

In that early glasnost period, it was possible as a foreign correspondent to file stories from Moscow nearly every day about freshly revealed information: data on past political executions, new reports on economic decline, investigations of political corruption. Among our sources were reform-minded Soviet journalists, some of whom made a remarkable transition from propaganda to accountability journalism.

The shift began in 1986, after the explosion in the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant in the Soviet republic of Ukraine. For three days, a radioactive fire burned out of control, but, as The Second Russian Revolution reminds us, “not a single word about the accident appeared in any newspaper, nor on radio, nor on television.”

Gorbachev was in power by then. So was the liberal Alexander Yakovlev, the Politburo member in charge of party propaganda, who explains the party leaders’ silence for the BBC team.

There was no ban [on reporting the accident] as such. But we didn’t know what to say. We were afraid. Would we cause needless panic?

It’s possible to think, fleetingly, that the earnest, sympathetic Yakovlev has a point—until you remember the extremely dire consequences of that official silence. Invisible radiation spread out over the unsuspecting population of Ukraine, and was soon detected in Sweden.

That was three days after the explosion, but in the Soviet Union, media were still only reporting that “An accident has occurred at Chernobyl nuclear-power station. One of the atomic reactors has been damaged.” The usual “measures” had been taken “to eliminate the consequences,” victims were being aided, and a government commission was named to deal with the problem.

Vladimir Gubarev, science editor for Pravda, tells The Second Russian Revolution that newspapers like his were forbidden to publish anything beyond the official statement.

After a train trip to Ukraine to see the panic and death caused by Chernobyl, Gubarev spoke truth to power—not in Pravda’s news columns, but quite literally to two of the country’s most powerful men, who summoned him to a meeting upon his return to Moscow:

It’s twilight. The desk lamp is on. Gorbachev and Yakovlev are sitting there. I’m telling them about Chernobyl. I was furious. I’d seen so much incompetence. I’d seen so much stupidity. It was such a disgrace.

The two leaders send Gubarev off to write a brief for them by the next morning:

I think that report is the best thing I have written.

Gubarev picks up the report and reads from it: “The main reason for the panic in Kiev is the lack of information. Nothing about what had happened, not even on radiation in the city, not one Ukrainian leader has appeared on TV to explain.”

Gorbachev didn’t acknowledge Gubarev’s criticisms publicly, but he began to make moves that repudiated the old policies of secrecy and censorship. Vitaly Korotich, an editor in Ukraine, had publicly labeled the Chernobyl coverup “criminal.” Instead of being punished, he was rewarded with a new job in Moscow editing the national weekly magazine Ogonyok. Under him, it became one of the liveliest Gorbachev-era publications.

Ogonyok, like all Soviet media, was still serving the cause, but now the cause was reform, warmly embraced by Korotich and other liberal editors. Far from relinquishing control, though, the Politburo continued to debate what could, and could not, be said in the media, the arts, and elsewhere.

Ann Cooper teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked as a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and National Public Radio, and was the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.