Revisiting Chornobyl

    Screenshots from HBO’s mini-series “Chernobyl”

    Daniel Bartchouk for New Pathway – Ukrainian News.

    “What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger, is that if we hear enough lies then we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then?”

    In May 2019, HBO released their critically acclaimed series ‘Chernobyl’, based on the tragic events of the nuclear disaster that happened in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, then part of the Soviet Union, on April 26, 1986.

    The television show focuses on the individual experiences of multiple key figures of the catastrophe and a few Soviet citizens as they navigate the aftermath of the disaster, and the effects of the event on their loved ones, personal lives, and the society.

    The show is not just about how the reactor exploded, but more importantly the prolonged circumstances of a system that this could happen in; the lies and short-cuts that resulted in a culmination of disaster.

    Consider the situation in time—this had never happened before in human history. Chornobyl did not always carry the connotation it does today, it was just a place.

    Anatoly Dyatlov, the man arguably responsible for the disaster, had no conception of the possibility of the reactor’s ability to explode. He is in an intense state of denial, as all the control room workers think in an overarching tone of—“if this thing we think happened then we are all dead”.

    Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris), a Soviet nuclear scientist investigating Chornobyl, in the final court scene explains that the reactor tips are made of graphite. The question is asked, why? Legasov responds: “For the same reason we are the only nation that builds water-cooled graphite reactors with a positive void coefficient… it’s cheaper.”

    The show is effectively about the cost of lies, not the danger they presented to established narrative, but the eventual effect on reality, when enough lies were told.

    The Chornobyl nuclear power station blew up during a safety test. This irony is key to the pertinence of the Soviet cover-up post-explosion, as summed up in a great line to Boris Shcherbina’s character: “you want to humiliate a nation that is obsessed with not being humiliated”.

    Throughout the show there is a universal pertinence of not knowing the full story, a common pattern throughout the narrative being that when people choose to lie, when people choose to believe, we can get away with it for a time, but the truth comes back.

    This is exemplified in the Soviet bureaucrats managing outcomes for themselves, containing vital information and spreading misinformation all of way up the chain of command to Gorbachev about the non-lethal levels of radiation, which were of course dramatically underestimated.

    The systematic lies of the initial event speaks to the deep insecurity in the integrity of the Soviet structures that the bureaucratic elites had already planned to keep secret. The responsibility was avoided and passed, as everybody fought to cover their own position, reputation and future in the party.

    The truth is revealed in behaviour of human beings.

    The show acknowledges the hand Soviet citizenry played in the disaster, focusing its primary perspectives on the individuals in the situation.

    We also see the tragic unawareness of the nearby people of Prypyat, many of whom were unaware of the dangers of radiation, and like the residents on the ‘Bridge of Death’ were exposed to lethal doses due to their proximity and duration of the time spent near the explosion site. It took the authorities three days to acknowledge the severity of the accident, and even then not properly inform the citizens, evacuating them beyond the 30km exclusion zone. Many were told to bring clothes for a few days, promised to return…

    The limited understanding is exemplified in the Moscow doctors using milk to treat radiation burns, or the common belief among the soldiers that drinking vodka would protect against radiation.

    The mentality of the Soviet system was of a community, a collective. Each individual was meant to feel as if they were contributing to something bigger than themselves. Their sense of civic duty contributed to the clean up and reparations after the disaster—clean up crews, the firefighters, miners, and many more.

    The authorities sacrificed many “bio-robots” in this process, in the name of preventing further damage to the nation and the continent. They called this “counting lives”, as they knew there was no way to solve this miss without sacrifices. They had to send good people to their deaths, as there was no other choice—sacrifice the few for the many.

    This was not the only language manipulation used to ease the effect of words, as so often in the Soviet system before. They called the clean up efforts “liquidations”, and overall 600,000 citizens who contributed “liquidators”.

    This contrasts the differences in the old bureaucratic personalities and the citizens, who, despite their lack of authority, or acclaimed positions, displayed a stronger sense of courage and civic duty for the good of the country than the leading figures had.

    The creators of the show dedicated themselves to reproducing the era back down to the smallest of details, such as the uniform buttons and cloth material. They went over hundreds of old photographs, blueprints of the plant and the building designs, many similar to the same as in Lithuania, where the show was shot. There is an authenticity to the events, a great determination to portray everything “as it was”.

    There are many articles, some from Russians, that criticize inaccuracies of the show, which I have scrutinized in my research and found a common misunderstanding. They seem to forget the fact that the television show is just that—a show. Elements have to be dramatized for a sense of coherence, narrative congruency, and the necessity to make up for things that have to be left out due to variety of factors like time, network limits, creative decisions, etc.

    It is important to remember when viewing that this is not a documentary about every fact and detail, and there is no self-righteousness to be gained from inept criticism from people who do not understand narrative structure, character contrasts, or scene development. Craig Mazin created a parallel podcast to specifically address discrepancies between historical fact and fiction, and which elements depicted were fictional and why.

    Some parts of the Russian government were so unhappy with this television program that they announced production of its own more “patriotic” account of the events, involving a wholly fictional storyline based on a conspiracy theory that a CIA agent was in Chornobyl to sabotage the plant. They failed to acknowledge the inadequacies of the former Soviet system and maintained the position of willfully lacking responsibility.

    An accurate number of deaths caused by Chornobyl in the years following the disaster will never be known, as a 1988 decree from the Kremlin prevented doctors from citing radiation as a cause of death or illness.

    Legasov’s angry summation of the Soviet bureaucracy works as a culminating thesis for the show: “When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it is even there, but it is still there. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.”

    The explosion of the fourth reactor was not enough to shut down the first, second, and third reactors, which were active and operating during all of it, supplying power to Kyiv and neighbouring cities. Reactor No. 2 was shut down after a fire in 1991, Reactor No. 1 was shut down in 1996 after pressure from foreign governments, and Reactor No. 3 was closed in 2000.

    The concurring theme of Chornobyl is still relevant today. What are the dangers of prolonged lies, the consequences of buried truths? If we learned anything from the Soviets, it is that the truth is always revealed, and in this case in the form of hot, radioactive catastrophe.

    Legasov’s rhetorical question in the first episode—“What is the cost of lies?”—is answered in a very fundamental, literal sense: the tragic events of Chornobyl, and its effects on the future generations of Ukraine.