Even within the Soviet Union there has to be an eventual accountability, and in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster the bureaucratic post-mortems will have to consider not only what went wrong and why at the reactor site, but also how the Soviet Union handled its crisis of information. The crisis was internal as well as external -- an unusual situation for a communist state and the Russian state, but one that is likely to become more frequent.

One immediate sign of this is that Mikhail Gorbachev broke precedent in order to speak to his own people on television. The Soviet Union used to be a closed society, but now it's only partially closed. Even today's small flow of information into Russia limits the options for Gorbachev. Gradually, they will become more limited.

Modern technology made it inevitable that people outside the Soviet Union would know of the disaster -- even, it would seem, before some of the leaders of the Soviet Union itself were briefed on the problem. Now, other new technology also makes it more and more difficult for the Soviet Union to contain the story in its own society. from outside the Soviet Union, unimpeded in space, were able to photograph the extent of the damage at Chernobyl, and a similar technology will play a growing role in filtering information back into the Soviet society. No matter how firm a grip the state holds on the internal dissemination of information, the state won't be able to stop it, merely to slow it. the state can't stop completely the unofficial story, it is forced to make the official version more credible, thus shifting the relationship of the rulers to the ruled.

Foreign short-wave broadcasts have always reached the Soviet people, despite the vast amounts of money that the Soviet government spends in its attempts to jam some of these signals, and there has always been some spillover of terrestrial television transmissions, from places such as Finland, into Estonia. The rapid growth of television and radio satellite technology is gradually going to make the Soviet Union more and more vulnerable to transborder information. Satellite transmissions from space are like rain. They are more difficult to jam than the old-fashioned (terrestrial) short-wave radio services now used by the BBC and the Voice of America. And the normal commercial development of European entertainment and news systems is likely to create some natural and inadvertent spillover into Soviet territory.

All television news systems now contain instant material from all over the world in a quickening fever of event and reaction and response to reaction. And it won't stop with the television broadcasts, for there is another technical miracle: the simple domestic videotape recorder. Already Japanese VCRs have been brought into the Soviet Union, and the Soviets are themselves manufacturing their own models. This gives the individual the ability to capture and repropagate programs, so that the ephemeral material seen only near the border can now be reproduced and circulated throughout society in a series of private and individual transactions. It may be frowned upon or illegal, but it's certainly possible and will therefore take place.

The official Soviet attitude toward the VCR would seem to be ambiguous. They're worried about the possible effects but can't afford to ignore the potential benefits of the "information economy." As with computers, they need to keep up.

The Soviet Union also is losing its geographical cordon sanitaire. On its Western borders the countries of Eastern Europe, which previously held to similar if less stringent restrictions on information, are now loosening up. In fact, in some countries, the authorities appear to embrace Western mass commercial entertainment, perhaps as a form of placebo.

The city of Budapest is building a cable system, and Rupert Murdoch's Sky Channel, "Charlie's Angels" and all, will be upon it. In East Germany, 80 percent of the population can see West German television, and the East German authorities are running cable to make it available to the others, such as in Dresden, where the Western signals were unavailable until cable brought them in to satisfy the workers. Whether this constitutes an element of freedom or a substitute for freedom is not clear, but it does mean that different attitudes and values are diffused and information made available that must make the political frame less predictable.

Many attempts to increase the flow of information to the communist world are governmental and direct, with all the clarity of intent and disadvantages inherent in this. But it may be that private initiatives in pursuit of gain will provide the real agents of change. The rapid deregulation and growth of commercial communication systems in capitalist Western Europe, providing entertainment and information and using new satellite, cable and cassette technology, is seen there as bringing a problem of culture and an opportunity for business. But to the East it could become an engine of incalculable effect on communist countries, an agent of political force. Runaway nuclear reaction is difficult to control once it gets going. So also is information.