MOSCOW - In the weeks following the explosion and fire at the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station six years ago, the Soviet leadership told lie upon lie to cover up the scope of the disaster and hide the danger it posed to the country's population, according to secret Communist Party documents published yesterday by the newspaper Izvestia.
In a pattern of cynical and calculated deceit, the Soviet government and the Communist Party effectively denied medical care to tens of thousands of people caught in the showers of radioactive particles released from Chernobyl, secret minutes from meetings of the party's ruling Politburo showed.
Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people were put at risk through the shipment of materials, including food, from the contaminated regions of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia on orders from party and government officials concerned about "lost production," according to the documents.
"People who took part in those (Politburo) meetings knew all the truth about Chernobyl, but chose to misinform and deceive the country and the world," Alla Yaroshinskaya wrote in her biting analysis of declassified Chernobyl documents taken from party files.
Among Izvestia's findings:
-- The amount of radiation considered safe was increased 10-fold by the government two weeks after the accident with the approval of the Politburo in order to reduce the number of people who would have to be examined, treated and perhaps hospitalized. Most consequently are still not receiving full medical care.
A similar decision on what constitutes dangerous levels of radioactivity was made to limit the number of people who would have to be resettled away from the contaminated area to 166,000 rather than 1.5 million who would have had to be moved under a previous standard that most environmental scientists still regard as minimal.
-- Milk and meat from the contaminated area were deliberately mixed with those from other re-gions and distributed around the country so that it could be sold. Regulations on acceptable radiation levels again were changed with Politburo approval.
An estimated 47,500 tons of "dirty" meat and 2 million tons of milk with radioactive levels higher than had been allowed for human consumption were shipped from the region from 1986 through 1989 and mixed with clean meat and milk for sale under this directive, according to government officials quoted by Izvestia. There has been no assessment of the harm done or provision made for long-term care.
-- The workers at the Chernobyl plant, forced to move out of their highly contaminated township next to the plant, were resettled in a new town, Slavutich, that government and party officials knew to be contaminated as well with radioactive Cesium-137 isotopes.
-- From the outset, the number of victims reported to the Politburo was far higher than the 32 dead and 209 victims of radiation sickness disclosed publicly, and the secret Politburo minutes show that thousands of people were being hospitalized, many hundreds of them children, at a time when Soviet leaders were minimizing the extent of the crisis.
Yuri Spizhenko, the Ukrainian health minister, estimated earlier this week that 6,000 to 8,000 people have died in his country alone as a result of Chernobyl. While some were residents of the area, most were soldiers, firemen and construction workers who fought to put out the fire at Chernobyl and received high doses of radiation there.
While charges of a cover-up had come earlier from Ukrainian investigators, with the Politburo minutes Yaroshinskaya documents a pattern of decisions that not only hid the truth but actually spread the danger and thwarted a full response.
The most fundamental deception occurred, in Yaroshinskaya's view, when the Politburo approved the change, less than two weeks after the accident, by the Soviet Health Ministry to increase by 10 times - and even 50 times in some cases - the amount of radiation a person was believed able to absorb without ill effects.
The logic was chillingly plain: Because the thousands of people who were already being treated for radiation sickness could not have received a serious dose of radiation under the new criteria, they must be suffering from something else, if anything at all, and no special medical care was required for them.
"This is how thousands of our compatriots suddenly in one day recovered without any medicine or treatment whatsoever," Yaroshinskaya commented.