Built on Lies

Chernobyl, directed by Johan Renck

The name Chernobyl has lodged itself into the modern consciousness. It triggers many of the defining anxieties of the twentieth century: nuclear power, environmentalism, and the potential for humanity’s technological achievements to wreak untold destruction.  

In the early hours of April 26, 1986, one of the four reactors at a nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union) was undergoing, of all things, a safety test, when it exploded. Within days the blast and the still burning reactor had cast a cloud of radioactive contamination across half of Europe. The response of the Soviet government was a massive mobilization of human and physical resources to extinguish the reactor, seal off the power plant, and carry out the evacuation and “liquidation” of thousands of square kilometres surrounding the power plant, which remains uninhabited until the present day.

The subject of a nuclear accident might seem better suited to the documentary format, but HBO’s new miniseries Chernobyl tells the story in a more powerful way by focusing on the human side of the story. We get a few chunks of exposition here and there explaining the basics of nuclear physics, but otherwise the story is about the people who were caught up in an event that had literally never happened on this planet before, and which few truly understood. This approach makes sense considering the material the show’s writers were working with. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, aside from the official positions taken by the Soviet government, only a limited amount of information was disseminated on either size of the Iron Curtain. Only a few years later the disaster and the people involved got caught up in the collapse of the Soviet Union.  It was only much later that journalists and scholars started compiling and releasing more detailed information about what had really happened. 

The miniseries covers a period of several years. It begins with the explosion itself and its immediate aftermath, with plant workers and firefighters rushing into an Inferno-esqe landscape to save lives and prevent further damage, mostly in complete ignorance of the dangers they faced. Many would be dead within weeks of acute radiation poisoning, and Chernobyl does have a few scenes that portray the horrific effects of radiation poisoning. In the days that followed, as the true nature of the disaster became clear, frantic efforts were made to prevent a further nuclear cataclysm. These included a massive helicopter airlift to dump sand on the burning reactor core, sending three men on a presumed suicide mission into the plant’s sewers, and having miners dig a tunnel beneath the plant to prevent the melting nuclear fuel from poisoning the water table.  Once the situation was stabilized, a massive liquidation effort was undertaken to cleanup the surrounding area and seal off the power plant. The actual effort involved hundred of thousands of people, but the show focuses on a three-man squad tasked with a mundane yet heart-wrenching task: travelling the abandoned homes around the power plant, shooting domestic animals to prevent them from spreading radioactive contamination. The series closes with the show trial of three of the plant officials deemed responsible for the accident.  

Chernobyl follows a rotating cast of characters, from plant workers, party bureaucrats, nuclear scientists, miners, soldiers, and simple residents of the area around the power plant. But the unifying thread of the series follows two characters, both historic: Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgard), the member of the Soviet Council of Ministers assigned to oversee the cleanup efforts; and Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris), a nuclear physicist conscripted into the cleanup by Shcherbina. The two make a classic odd couple: the former a gravelly-voiced apparatchik who routinely garnishes his imperative statements with threats to have the recipient executed; while the latter is a wise but timid scholar, completely helpless amongst the corridors of power and the machinations of the mighty. Yet both are changed as they come to discover the truth about the disaster, particularly the fact that it was partially caused by a serious design flaw widespread in the Soviet nuclear industry that the government had covered up. Both are forced to the face the implications of the disaster for both their society and for themselves personally. 

Truth, or more properly the lack of it, is the unifying theme of Chernobyl. From the moment of the explosion, those involved were confronted with not only a bureaucratic hierarchy, but an ingrained mentality, which would not permit or even comprehend that something so seriously wrong could have occurred. Every level of the Soviet system was permeated by an unwillingness to admit either error or responsibility for it. Even when the disaster was finally acknowledged, the system insisted on being absolved from blame. It is fitting that Chernobyl ends with a blatant show trial, a staged drama that let the system have “our villain, our hero, our truth.”

Certainly, Chernobyl has some modern resonances given popular concerns about climate change and our leaders’ increasingly tenuous relationship with the truth. Chernobyl does give us a few inelegant scenes of highly qualified scientists trying to tell block-headed bureaucrats how bad things really are, only to be met with a difference of “opinion”. But the power of Chernobyl is not so much its warning about a descent into a post-truth society, but rather in its story of what happens when such a society has run its course and has the truth rudely thrust upon it. 

 In April 1986, very few people believed that the Soviet Union only had another four years of life left in it. But the Chernobyl disaster struck a fatal blow to the image of Soviet material and technological superiority. When that facade came down, what was exposed was a system and an ideology that were metaphysically and spiritually bankrupt. This is best illustrated by a scene in the first episode, when the local party leadership convenes in a bomb shelter to be advised that the disaster is nothing more severe than a roof fire. When someone suggests that perhaps things are slightly worse than what they have been told, an elderly member gets to his feet, gives a short speech about the benevolence of the state and the need for faith in Soviet socialism, and then recommends that the city be sealed off and the phone lines be cut to contain “the spread of misinformation” to “prevent the people from undermining the fruits of their own labour.”  Everyone promptly claps, but no one buys it. The scenario repeats itself throughout the series, showing us a society built entirely upon lies that most people understood but still pretended to believe in, perhaps only because there was nothing else to fall back on (unless you count vodka, which is consumed in prodigious quantities).  

Chernobyl is not by any means a hopeful story. Yet there are a few glimpses of hope, in the form of the disconnected but still meaningful acts of human kindness and self-sacrifice that a few people were able to accomplish despite the horrific setting they found themselves in.   


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