When reactor number four of the Chernobyl power plant overheated and exploded in the spring of 1986, few understood the environmental and political fallout that would result. Though many in the USSR were told that the explosion was of little concern, within days scientists throughout Eastern Europe were baffled and terrified when they recorded astronomical radiation levels in the air.
The story of what happened and its cover-up is superbly dissected in the five stomach-churning episodes of HBO’s brilliant new miniseries “Chernobyl.” By the end, astute observers are left with only one conclusion: the coercive hierarchies of entrenched communism created an atmosphere of incompetence and resignation that seeped into all aspects of Soviet life. Though official Soviet records account for only thirty-one deaths as a result of the disaster, modern researchers have estimated the number at between 4,000 and 100,000.
The series begins with the harrowing moments that led to the explosion. As zero hour approaches, all the mechanisms of state control are on full display. Youthful, inexperienced workers, sensing something amiss in the control room, are repeatedly rebuffed by senior staff, who are keen to follow orders first and ask questions later. The safety of workers and the catastrophic implications of a meltdown meet with shocking indifference, as functionaries prefer to concentrate on arbitrary deadlines handed down by party men.
When the reactor finally explodes, little concern is shown for the people of Pripyat and the surrounding area. A Central Committee meeting is hastily convened. In the darkened room, the highest in command attempts to downplay the magnitude of the situation, in the explicit hopes of preserving the rank and status of those assembled. As panic spreads among the attendees, the eldest member of the committee bangs his cane on the ground, points to a plaque of Vladimir Lenin on the wall and tells them:
Our faith in Soviet socialism will always be rewarded. Have faith, comrades. In my experience, when people ask questions that are not in their own best interest, they should simply be told to keep their minds on their labor and leave matters of the state to the state. We seal off the city. No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labor.
This speech is met with resounding applause. In the next scene, we see the people of Pripyat crowding onto a bridge that overlooks the power plant. Children dance in the soft glow, unknowingly exposing themselves to lethal doses of radiation in a scene delicately poised between beauty and horror.
In its depictions of the people of Pripyat dancing in air lit by radiation and of the firefighters who risked their lives—and died—to put out the blaze, Chernobyl makes a case for the least protected of the Soviet citizens: ordinary people. In each of the strategic discussions that take place in the aftermath of the explosion, the people of the Soviet Union are cast aside, in favor of party members who want to preserve their status.
At its heart, Chernobyl is an earnest examination of the dichotomy between the state and the individual in Soviet Russia. The series follows the intense relationship between politician Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) and chemist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris). A bookish, soft-spoken man, Legasov was a well-known inorganic scientist and member of the USSR’s Academy of Sciences. His polite but firm insistence on the true nature of the disaster is repeatedly challenged by the bullish Shcherbina, who tries his best to downplay the situation to the party officials.
Shcherbina’s narrative arch presents a compelling example of how the Soviet state disciplined and isolated its citizens. In the second episode, he and Legasov are taking a late night stroll when Shcherbina quietly points out that they are being followed. Every word they speak in Chernobyl is being recorded, every move surveyed. Throughout the miniseries, we are shown that every word from Chernobyl to Moscow is being carefully monitored by the watchful eye of the state.
In the show, as in real life, Legasov senses the danger immediately, but encounters one obstacle after another in his pursuit of the truth. At one point, he looks on in horror from a helicopter as plumes of radiation spill out of the gaping reactor and graphite rocks are strewn around the site. When he begs the pilot to carefully maneuver around the core, Shcherbina threatens to kill him.
Ordinary people’s overwhelming loyalty and obedience to the state is vividly depicted in the show. In the third episode, a massive team of coal workers labor to dig a tunnel underneath the reactor. It’s so hot that the workers strip naked, working around the clock in a race against time, to keep radiation from entering the groundwater. Later, when asked if the men will be taken care of after the job is over, Shcherbina just remains silent and looks away.
In the season finale, Legasov is called upon to testify before a council of scientists and party officials. From them, he learns that, only a year after the disaster, Shcherbina is dying of cancer from acute radiation poisoning. As Legasov walks up to the podium, the camera bobs and weaves as if the whole world were afloat. The tension is palpable. Legasov knows that he will be punished for telling the assembled body of party officials and nuclear physicists why the reactor melted down (namely, poor infrastructure). When he is done, Legasov is taken into a desolate room and told that he will never hold a title or meaningful employment in the Soviet state again.
Months later, sitting in his empty apartment, Legasov makes a recording of the happenings at Chernobyl. As he walks towards the mailbox, he glances across the street and sees a car parked suspiciously outside his flat. He drops the recordings into the box and retreats to his apartment, where he hangs himself. These tapes, smuggled out of reach of the Soviet state, revealed the truth of what happened that fateful spring and how the communist State did everything in its power to deceive the international community.
One of the show’s main themes is sacrifice. From Legasov’s final heroic flourish to Shcherbina’s lung cancer, to the firefighters who died of acute radiation sickness within hours and the coal miners who asked no questions, but slaved away to keep the reactor from leaking into the groundwater, sacrifice is omnipresent. It is an important part of how the state maintains power. The individual is of little importance: whatever the state mandates must be carried out, without question.
Some critics have pointed to the historical inaccuracies peppered throughout Chernobyl (Emily Watson’s character, for example, was created to represent a team of more than twelve scientists). But the series’ basic message is accurate. Every chance to circumvent the disaster was either ignored or rejected outright. Truth seekers were confronted by the mechanics of the authoritarian state: repression, lies, distortion and control.
What happened at Chernobyl was one part human error and one part centralized state control. Through their weaponization of the media and their exploitation of all who served the state, Soviet Union bureaucrats allowed the truth to be silenced. Calculated lies were proffered by upwardly mobile state officials who prized obedience over the rights of the people.
In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, 1,000 square miles—a landmass the size of Yosemite National Park—was evacuated. Over 100,000 people were ordered to leave. Analysts predict that it will take 200–300 years before the area is habitable again. The explosion of Reactor Four was 400 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Radiation levels surrounding the reactor are still so high that unprotected exposure would result in death within 10–20 minutes.
To many historians, Chernobyl represents the breaking point for the iron curtain. It exposed the underpinnings of the draconian communist State. As Mikhail Gorbachev put it, “The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl … was perhaps the true cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.” The really terrifying thing at the center of the story of Chernobyl was not the nuclear reactor—it was the power of the state.