Richard Stride Commentary: Looking Back at a History of Heroism in Ukraine


Ukraine officially broke from the United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR) in 1991 and became an independent nation. 

The Ukrainian nation has existed independently since that time. Russia, many believe, invaded this independent sovereign nation to recreate the USSR. We are hearing about the bravery of the Ukrainian people in their fight against the Russian Juggernaut.

Ukrainians have a history of bravery. I am reminded of how close the world came to a devastating nuclear disaster in April 1986. Most of us don’t realize, or perhaps even remember, the worst nuclear disaster in human history. 

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant is located about 80 miles north of Kyiv and about 12 miles south of Belarus. This area of Ukraine is described as a woodland with a low population density.  A good site for a nuclear plant, or so it was thought at the time. 

In Andrew Leatherbarrow’s book entitled “Chernobyl 01:23:40: The incredible Story of the World’s Worst Nuclear Disaster”: “At 01:23:40 on April 26th, 1986, Alexander Akimov pressed the emergency shutdown button at Chernobyl’s fourth nuclear reactor. It was an act that forced the permanent evacuation of a city, killed thousands and crippled the Soviet Union.”

The nuclear cataclysm could have been much worse had it not been for the bravery of a few Ukrainian nuclear power plant workers. According to the World Nuclear Association, “The disaster in Ukraine was the direct result of fallacious Soviet reactor design and inadequate training of plant personnel.” 

Most of this information was hidden until after the fall of the Soviet Union. The resulting steam explosion and fires released at least 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the environment, with the deposition of radioactive materials in many parts of Europe. Two Chernobyl plant workers died due to the explosion on the night of the accident, and a further 28 people died within a few weeks because of acute radiation syndrome. Some 350,000 people from Chernobyl, and Pripyat were evacuated because of the accident.

When reactor four exploded, it sent a hundred times more radioactive fallout into the air than the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. The nuclear toxic fires were extinguished within hours by the brave Ukrainian firefighters. But that was not the end of the story. A far worse catastrophe was brewing just below the surface of the reactor. The forthcoming catastrophe was not fully recognized until early May of that same year. It was discovered that reactor four's core was still melting down. Under the melting reactor was a huge pool of water, used to cool the reactor itself. The volatile mass of smoldering molten radioactive metal was fast approaching the water. 

Leatherbarrow wrote about what would have happened if the radioactive metal would have reached the water: “If that happened it would have triggered a second steam explosion that would have done unimaginable damage and destroyed the entire power station, including the three other reactors. Had the reactor core reached this pool of water, half of Europe would have been contaminated.” 

By some estimates, such a blast may have wiped out over half of Europe, leaving it desolate and uninhabitable for a staggering 500,000 years, not to mention the unimaginable loss of both human and animal life. 

I can’t even fathom the magnitude of such destruction. Can you?

Leatherbarrow further wrote, “To avoid the second explosion firefighters tried in vain to completely drain the pool of water under reactor four. Something had to be done to drain the rest of the water from the reactor.  Three volunteered to enter the radioactive water and find the valve to drain the water. These three later became known as the ‘suicide squad.’” 

Even though they wore hazmat suits, the chance of being directly exposed to nuclear material was almost inevitable. 

Leatherbarrow’s account further reads, “Some water remained after the firemen’s draining mission, up to knee-height in most areas, but the route was passable. The three volunteers entered the basement in wetsuits, radioactive water up to their knees in a corridor stuffed with a myriad of pipes and valves, armed only with a searchlight. It was like finding a needle in a haystack.” 

After what seemed like an endless amount of time, “the searchlight beam fell on a pipe, we were joyous, the pipe led to the valves. The men felt their way to the valve in the dark basement. We heard a rush of water out of the tank,” mechanical engineer Alexei Ananenko said in an interview with the Soviet press, as quoted by Leatherbarrow.

“Even so,” Leatherbarrow added, “these men risked their lives to save untold millions of lives during a disaster of unheard-of magnitude. They still went into a pitch black, badly damaged basement beneath a molten reactor core that was slowly burning its way down to them.”

Like many of the Ukrainian workers that day, and in the months and even years to come their bravery is remembered. Their legacy along with many others is forever etched in a memorial at the sight.

So, as we think about the atrocities happening in Ukraine today, perpetrated by invading Russia, we remember the people of Ukraine have a history of doing the right thing. They have a history of sacrificing their own safety and wellbeing for the good of others. I admire them in their current fight against what seems overwhelming odds. But this is not their first rodeo by any means. 

So, fight on Ukrainians. Never give up your rights to freedom.  After all, you have a history of doing the right thing.


Richard Stride is the current CEO of Cascade Community Healthcare. He can be reached at