Say the date “June Fourth,” and most people’s minds will jump to Tiananmen Square. The protests that occupied this central area in Beijing, the government suppression, and the violence surrounding the entire event is a pivotal moment in modern Chinese history that had ripple effects around the world.
But Tiananmen was not the only noteworthy event to happen in a communist country that day. Outside the city of Ufa, over 4,500 kilometers away from Beijing, an explosion whose strength was just shy of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima rocked the Soviet countryside.
This disaster claimed the lives of hundreds of people, exposed the faults in a deteriorating Soviet infrastructure, and was described as “a real hell” by none other than Mikhail Gorbachev, the man in charge of the whole Soviet show.
Though some Soviet new outlets and even the New York Times covered this event, select few people seem to remember this piece of history; many Russian historians among them. This could be partially because of Tiananmen Square distracting history’s attention and partially the censorship of news in the U.S.S.R.
But an event as tragic as this should not just disappear into history. It deserves to have its story told so that the mistakes that led to it can be learned from, lives lost can be commemorated, and this event can have its rightful place in history. Just as the story of Tiananmen Square needs to be told, so, too, should history remember the Ufa train disaster.
The 1980s saw the height and the beginning of the thaw of the Cold War. It witnessed the administration of Ronald Reagan flex American muscle more assertively abroad—to many highly disputable outcomes—and to a rise in materialism, consumerism, and the ‘yuppie culture’ in the U.S. American Psycho and Wall Street, both set in the 1980s, make this a decade defined by movies about a business-card-obsessed, stylish young professional-slash-serial killer and a wealth-obsessed corporate villain who declares greed is good.
In the Soviet Union, though, the 1980s saw a tumultuous time of military buildup and quagmire in Afghanistan, economic stagnation, and political reforms over which historians and analysts have a field day arguing how each led to the fall of the U.S.S.R. in the beginning of the following decade. The world’s two greatest powers of the time saw drastically different trajectories in the ‘80s; one leading to political dissolution and the other to the assumption of the role of sole geopolitical superpower.
The Soviet ‘80s started off with the death of President and General Secretary of the Communist Party, Leonid Brezhnev. After a couple years of leadership reshuffling, Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the role of General Secretary and, later, in 1988, the role of President.
A combination of economic woes, military stagnation abroad, continued high spending and investment in military, and an attempt at political reform aimed at increased openness that unexpectedly led to an outpouring of public criticism against the government and system all took its toll throughout the decade. Any and all of these reasons can and have been attributed to setting the stage for the Soviet Union’s later collapse.
Then, on April 26, 1986, the U.S.S.R. experienced a catastrophe that some historians, and even Mikhail Gorbachev himself, assert contributed to the country’s fall: the Chernobyl Accident. The mismanagement of the disaster that produced four-hundred times the nuclear fallout of the Hiroshima bomb and the coverup of information led to increased public distrust in the government.
The Soviet government’s novel policy of glasnost—an attempt at a more open and transparent government institution—seemed to crash and burn before it had even taken off. As radiation from the nuclear power plant explosion was still leaking and spreading around the Soviet countryside, government officials, instead of disseminating information in the name of transparency, made efforts to suppress the news reports and slander foreign coverage of the event as lies and rumors. Some officials even ordered that May Day Parades in affected areas still continue as planned—with the risk of radiation exposure fully known. Gorbachev didn’t issue an official statement on the event until May 14, eighteen days after the explosion and ten days after it was finally contained.
As the ‘80s continued, they held no shortage of disaster for the Soviet Union. The same year as the Chernobyl incident, a Soviet cruise ship and cargo ship collided in the Black Sea, claiming the lives of nearly 400 people. A couple of years later, an earthquake in Northern Armenia, then a part of the Soviet Union, took the lives of around 25,000 people and destroyed several cities and villages. On top of all this, according to the New York Times, “Ethnic clashes in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and now Uzbekistan have also contributed to a sense that the country is deteriorating faster than Mr. Gorbachev can fix it.”
Meanwhile, in China, the government was dealing with its own public unrest. Protestors, mostly students, had gathered en masse in Tiananmen Square. The demonstrations were instigated by the death of Hu Yaobang, the former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, who had encouraged the development of democratic and liberal reforms. The protestors started gathering in Tiananmen Square the day of Hu’s funeral, April 22, and continued to occupy the square, calling for political and economic reform the whole spring, until the night of June 3-4.
June 3, 1989, as night shrouded Beijing, the government ordered tanks and soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army to enter the Square and clear it of the protestors. As June third turned to the fourth, the reports coming from Beijing captivated seemingly the entire attention of governments, press outlets, and people around the world. The world’s attention was distracted so much so that few people were aware of the similar protests and crackdowns that occurred around China the same day—the most notable of these in Chengdu and Shanghai, though the latter ended in a peaceful negotiation—let alone happenings on the other side of the Asian continent.
It was against this backdrop—apparent Soviet decline, unrest in the world’s two major communist countries, and all eyes on China—that the Soviet Union experienced the Ufa train disaster. An event forgotten by many, but which had a tremendous impact on hundreds of families and the leader of the Soviet Union himself.
In the early morning of June 4th, or possibly the late night of June 3rd, a faulty gas pipeline began leaking natural gas just east of the city of Ufa. Some reports claim engineers registered a drop in the pressure of that pipeline, but returned the levels to normal without first checking for leaks. Weather conditions placed the ensuing gas cloud right by some train tracks a kilometer away.
As the cloud of natural gas was forming, two passenger trains traveling between the city of Novosibirsk and the Black Sea resort town of Adler made their way along the tracks towards their destinations. Many of the 1,200 passengers aboard these two trains were children on their way to or from Pioneer Camps along the seaside.
As the two trains passed each other, they did what many trains do as their metal wheels barrel along the metal tracks: they produced sparks. What happened when those sparks met the forming gas cloud was what any chemist can tell you is a perfectly normal reaction: ignition.
The ensuing explosion is said to be equivalent to that of 10,000 tons of TNT. The nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima was equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. It reduced seven carriages to ash while engulfing the remaining 37 carriages and two locomotives in flame, completely destroying them.
Initial counts put the death toll at between 500 and 650 of the 1,200 passengers. The official death count today stands at 575 people dead, though a memorial at the site of the explosion lists 675 names while other sources claim as many as 780 people perished.
The exact figures are difficult to attain because, much like the Chinese government’s reaction to the contemporary Tiananmen Square incident, the Soviet government was hesitant to release much information about the disaster. According to Evgeny Buzhinskiy, a retired general of the Soviet Army, the Soviet government heavily censored the media. In an interview with the BBC, he stated, “In general, the Soviet media was more concentrated on positive news and very briefly informed the public about negative news.” According to the BBC, “no fewer than three historians of the Soviet Union told the BBC they have little or no recollection of the Ufa train disaster.”
Shortly after the explosion, military detachments and medical teams were sent to the site for search and rescue efforts. They combed the woods in search of survivors who might have escaped the blaze. But mostly, they spent their time searching through the charred remains of the train, transporting badly burned and wounded passengers to nearby cities for medical care, and carrying away the charred remains of the unfortunate souls who did not escape the blast and blaze.
Soviet President and General Secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, along with the prime, health, and defense ministers and a retinue of other officials, visited the site of the disaster the day after. Sources quote Gorbachev as saying it was a “real hell there.” He went on to say, “’I have to say this: I believe we are being persecuted by these events – first one, then another. Many of them are caused by mismanagement, irresponsibility, disorganization.’
And perhaps that is the big lesson to be taken away from this piece of history: the dire consequences that can come from simple negligence. Or perhaps the consequences of a government spending money on military and defense that they could better use on other public services. Or perhaps it is the importance of government transparency in the face of disaster. We can apply many of these lessons to modern day events.
But, whatever the lesson learned from this story, the Ufa train disaster deserves its place in history and its proper telling to ensure lessons are learned. Though events in China overshadowed it, the Ufa train disaster holds importance of its own. And, though no memorial or telling of the event will undo the damage and loss it caused, this story can bring awareness to us today. It can help us make efforts to avoid the same mistakes and a repeat of similar disasters in the future.