Sunbathing after Chernobyl – How Czechoslovakia reacted to the 1986 nuclear disaster


One of the largest nuclear accidents in history – the Chernobyl disaster, took place on April 26, 1986. While in the West, countries were quite swift to react to the dangers of radiation, Czechoslovak authorities decided to downplay the incident, withholding information which resulted in people going out into the streets oblivious to the danger.

Chernobyl nuclear reactor | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

Western Europe received the first reports that something happened two days after the accident thanks to news from Sweden and Finland, whose scientists had detected heightened levels of radiation.

However, in Czechoslovakia, which was a member of the Eastern Bloc, there was hardly any information at all, says historian Dr Jan Kalous.

“Czechoslovak citizens had not been informed about the catastrophe at this time at all. What’s more, the information that they did get, told that the inhabitants of the local towns and villages had been evacuated. However, this wasn’t completely true.

Sunbathing | Photo: SamuelStone,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“There are authentic images showing the inhabitants of Prypyat, a town 5km away from the power plant, walking around with small children and all the while you can see soldiers in chemical suits around.”

Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

The Czechoslovak authorities agreed to react to the catastrophe by forming a special commission. However, the commission first met only five days after the accident. In fact, to prevent what the authorities called a “crowd psychosis”, the state went ahead and held its traditional largescale May 1 celebrations.

And so, while in Austria frantic measures were being enacted and the public was being informed about how to stay safe, in neighbouring Czechoslovakia people could be seen outside sunbathing and holding public marches en masse on Labour Day.

What is worse is that this wasn’t a case of mass scale obfuscation across the entire Eastern Bloc. Many other states in the Eastern Bloc acted differently, says Dr Kalous.

Photo: Rudé právo,  1. 5. 1986

“There were different levels of reaction. In Hungary and in Poland information was far more accessible than in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. That means that Hungarian and Polish citizens were able to prepare and protect themselves far better than those in Czechoslovakia.”

Even as late as May 5th and 6th, Rudé Právo, the main Czechoslovak newspaper dispelled what it called a “Western campaign of lies”.

“The recent accident at one of the reactors of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant has become a basis for a Western campaign of lies by various representatives of anti-Sovietism and anti-Communism. It has even impacted sport.”

Peace Race | Photo: Czech Television

The latter reference was to the Peace Race, a multiple stage bicycle race held annually in the Eastern Bloc which took place on May 6th around the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, in close proximity to Chernobyl. Western countries were wary of sending their cyclists to the race. Czechoslovakia did however, with only one cyclist managing not to take part.