On HBO, there’s a miniseries called Chernobyl. I’ve always been fascinated by that event, and was hesitant to see a dramatization of it, thinking they would miss too many key facets of the story. Little did I know how wrong I would turn out to be.
Tonight is the series finale. I’ve been completely enthralled since episode one. Not only is it cinemetically impeccable, the storytelling is just as nuanced as it needed to be to capture not only the direness of the situation, but the aspects that specifically revolve around living behind the iron curtain.
Chernobyl hasn’t once flinched in showing the heavily Soviet problems of burying a problem, at the expense of human life, to avoid being called to task by the Party (and, by extension, the threat of the Gulag and secret police). From the get-go, this has been a theme of the show: people who realize the almost incomprehensible devastation of the Chernobyl core explosion, set against Communist bureaucracy. When pieces of radioactive graphite from the explosion are littering the ground, and the engineers are repeating this fact, their boss immediately tells them that they did not see the graphite on the ground. His fear of the state is so much, that he discounts the concrete and clear cut evidence in front of all of them. It’s a fascinating scene.
The series wastes no time in getting to the heart of the story. It starts with the meltdown, and doesn’t let up. One of the most impactfull features of this series to me, is seeing superb graphics illustrating the effects of the accident. I’d read about it, but it’s one thing to use the abstract imagination of an uninformed mind’s eye, and another to see it perfectly rendered in excruciating detail. The meltdown of the core, through the eyes of firefighters are sent as sheep to the slaughter in an impossible task, shows us full on a nuclear eye of Sauron.
I really hadn’t understood on such a visceral level what it would have been like as a citizen of Pripyat, before the evacuation was finally ordered. The fact that the sky was glowing, with children allowed to play on a playground in front of the dying plant, is such an illustration of the life of the individual having such little sway over the image of the Mother Russia. It was clear that something was very wrong, but with no guidance, they were trying to continue to live their lives as usual.
The entire series is a cautionary tale of what happens when the state trumps the individual at the most elemental levels. The cost of a lie and cover-up ended up being far worse than the toll of the original accident, and the need to save face to the world is a very present theme. The fact that the accident wasn’t even acknowledged officially until the rest of the world posted imagery that was undeniable, is fascinating and terrible. Intelligent people with answers are ignored in favor of the party line; and clearly it’s systemic. One of the most poignant scenes to me is when nuclear scientists have to communicate in code about the disaster and response. They have a sophisticated system that they clearly have needed to use many times, and their own familiarity with the need to talk around what they are purportedly there to do, is chilling. We don’t see the person that must be listening in on the call, but the unseen KGB agent is the largest person in the room.
To contrast the machine that is the Communist state, we are offered the very human and heroic stories of the proletariat workers who sacrificed so much to staunch the flow of radioactivity. We see the vignettes of the first responders who bravely went into the maw of the beast; the soldiers who assisted with disposing of the graphite on the roof (after the radiation was too much for moon lander robots to penetrate), and the miners who dug beneath the core. These people were the grist in the machine, and their stories are respectfully and truthfully told.
The stories of these people remind us that ultimately behind every horrible regime, are regular people who try to do their best. I’m glad that this element is so poetically captured.
Chernobyl is not a show for the faint of heart, but it should be required viewing for every citizen. It reminds us of what happens when states have too much power, when lies matter more than facts, and how ultimately it’s the good people who pay the price.