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HBO’s Chernobyl and the Rendering of History

While watching HBO’s recent 5-part dramatization of the 1986 Soviet nuclear accident at Chernobyl, which spewed more radioactive material into the atmosphere than Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings combined, I kept thinking of all the suffering it caused. (Because of the difficulties of determining eventual early deaths due to radiation exposure, we don’t know whether they be in the thousands, tens of thousands, or more.)

I also kept thinking of lines from Ian McEwan’s novel Black Dogs (1993):

He was struck by the recently concluded war [World War II] not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust. . . . For the first time he sensed the scale of the catastrophe in terms of feeling; all those unique and solitary deaths, all that consequent sorrow, unique and solitary too, which had no place in conferences, headlines, history, and which had quietly retired to houses, kitchens, unshared beds, and anguished memories.

Like wars, the Chernobyl accident had all kinds of unforeseen consequences.

In an earlier HNN essay, I mentioned that novels, films, or television can sometimes stir our emotions and imaginations more than drier works by professional historians. And truth comes to us not just through our intellects, but also from the affective areas of our personalities. That same essay dealt with the problem of determining truth in fictionalized history. Regarding Chernobyl, Masha Gessen, who is both a U. S. and Russian citizen, provides some guidance

She lauds the “uncanny precision with which the physical surroundings of Soviet people have been reproduced.” One example that struck me was a dilapidated sign hanging over a street that read “Our goal is the happiness of all mankind” (also the miniseries title for Episode 4). Such signs were abundant in Soviet Russia. One banner hanging over a street (a photo of which I included in my A History of Russia) urged children returning to school after summer vacation in 1978, to “get ready to become active fighters for the cause of Lenin and for communism.”

Although praising background depictions, Gessen faults the miniseries for “its failure to accurately portray Soviet relationships of power.” Too often, it unrealistically depicts “heroic scientists,” especially the fictional Ulyana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), “confronting intransigent bureaucrats by explicitly criticizing the Soviet system of decision-making.”

Despite such failures, the Chernobyl episodes do a good job depicting the effects of the tragedy. The suicide of scientist Valery Legasov. The suffering of the young Lyudmilla Ignatenko as she watchs the slow and painful death of her fireman husband, Vasily, and later has her new-born daughter die of the radiation she absorbed while pregnant. The hundreds of miners exposing themselves to Chernobyl radiation—at the end of the series we are informed that “it is estimated that at least 100 of them died before the age of 40.” (All quotes from the miniseries are taken from the episode scripts.)  The young soldier Pavel forced to kill contaminated dogs and other animals. The old woman who refuses to move out of her contaminated home even after a soldier shoots the cow she is milking—some 300,000 people “were displaced from their homes.” And we think, “How could Soviet leaders have been so careless as to allow such a tragedy to occur?”

The causes, as usually happens with historical events, were many, and the series mentions some of them. The fifth (and last) episode of the miniseries is devoted mainly to the 1987 trial of three Chernobyl officials whom Soviet authorities claimed were most responsible. The miniseries certainly indicated that they shared some of the blame, but it was also endemic to the Soviet system. 

In episode 5 a fictional KGB head tells scientist Legasov that the Chernobyl accident was essentially “the result of operator error.” The KGB and judge at the trial wanted to deflect any suggestion that the Soviet communist system itself was at fault. The judge tells Legasov, “If you mean to suggest the Soviet State is somehow responsible for what happened, then I must warn you—you are treading on dangerous ground.”   

Gessen mentions that “the Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy’s 2018 book on Chernobyl . . . . argues, it was the Soviet system that created Chernobyl and made the explosion inevitable.” (See an excerpt of the book here.) In fairness to the miniseries, it does indicate some of that blame.

In one scene featuring the three men who were put on trial, one of them tells the other two that the power at Chernobyl could not be lowered to the extent it should have been for the safety test, the failure of which causes the massive nuclear accident. Why couldn’t it be lowered more? “It's the end of the month. All the productivity quotas? Everyone's working overtime, the factories need power.” 

As one book on the Soviet environment states, “For the environment, the central planning system became Frankenstein’s monster. . . . The plan and its fulfillment became engines of destruction geared to consume, not to conserve, the natural wealth and human strength of the Soviet Union.” 

Fulfilling quotas, whether multi-year, yearly, or monthly ones, generally became more important than safety or quality considerations. (See here for prioritizing the production schedule over nuclear safety at Chernobyl.) In the vast Soviet bureaucratic central-planning system,pleasing your superiors by meeting quotas became an important path for advancement. 

That same system discouraged individual initiative, initiative that might have prevented or mitigated the effects of the accident. One individual reporting in May 1986 to the Central Committee of the Communist party about conditions his investigating group discovered at Chernobyl wrote that “we constantly heard the following phrase: ‘We did not receive those instructions from the center.’” He added, “They waited for orders from Moscow.” (In annual summer trips to the USSR in the mid and late 1980s, I frequently observed this reluctance to exercise initiative. In the summer of 1986, for example, just months after Chernobyl, the group I was leading was assigned inadequate lodging when we checked into a hotel in Odessa, a city more distant from Chernobyl than Kiev, where we were originally scheduled to go. When I complained to the hotel manager that the accommodations assigned to us were inferior to those we had arranged and paid for, he informed us that he would have to straighten the matter out with officials in Moscow. It took three hours to do so. Only then were we assigned proper lodging.) 

At the trial mentioned above, Legasov indicates still other failings of the Soviet system, especially its secrecy and lies. “They are,” he says, “practically what defines us. When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we cannot even remember it's there.” He also mentions that to save money various safety measures, like having containment buildings built around the reactors, were not taken.  

In his Memoirs, published after he no longer headed the Soviet Union (1985-1991), which itself had disintegrated, Mikhail Gorbachev alluded to the Soviet failings indicated above. He wrote: 

The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was graphic evidence . . . of the failure of the old system. . . . 

The closed nature and secrecy of the nuclear power industry, which was burdened by bureaucracy . . . had an extremely bad effect. I spoke of this at a meeting of the [Communist party] Politburo on 3 July 1986: ‘For thirty years you scientists, specialists, and ministers have been telling us everything was safe. . . . But now we have ended up with a fiasco.  . . . Throughout the entire system there has reigned a spirit of servility, fawning, clannishness and persecution of independent thinkers. . . .

Chernobyl shed light on many of the sicknesses of our system as a whole. Everything that had built up over the years converged in this drama: the concealing or hushing up of accidents and other bad news, irresponsibility and carelessness, slipshod work, wholesale drunkenness. This was one more convincing argument in favor of radical reforms. 

Gorbachev himself is depicted in the miniseries as someone more interested in discovering the truths of Chernobyl than in covering them up. And in general that was true, but he inherited a Soviet system that was not much interested in truth or justice, and he had to contend with many government and Communist party officials opposed to some of the radical reforms he pushed, such as more openness, less censorship, and economic restructuring.

Media and the courts were strictly controlled by the Communist party and government. About the Chernobyl trial, Legasov says, “It's a show trial. The ‘jury’ has already been given their verdict.” One indication that such was the usual practice was the observation of an earlier Soviet dissident that among 424 known political trials in the decade following 1968, there were no acquittals in any of them.

But the value of HBO’s Chernobyl is not just what it tells us about the failings of the Soviet system. It offers much more. In 2011, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an essay by Gorbachev that listed some of the lessons that the world could learn from the accident. One was that we “must invest in alternative and more sustainable sources of energy” like wind and solar. Surely, another lesson is the need for caution in developing any powerful technology. In June 2019, conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote an op-ed entitled “What ‘Chernobyl’ Teaches About Trump.” In it he compared the effects of Trump’s many lies to those of Communist officials. Wikipedia offers us a convenient overview of the miniseries, including a summary of each episode, and most significantly links to various other essays that comment on the miniseries and its relevance for today.