Back in 1986, the Turkish government had to stop giving me and other elementary school children tiny packages of hazelnuts because somewhere in the USSR something had exploded, and somehow that explosion had poisoned the crops in Turkey. I was seven years old. I didn’t understand what “nuclear” meant but I vividly remember trying to imagine poisonous acid rain. Little did I know that my conception of what had happened was not even close to the reality.
HBO’s five episode miniseries Chernobyl depicts the reality of the nuclear disaster that took place on April 26, 1986 in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, just an hour’s drive north of Kiev. The show doesn’t just depict a disaster–it also reveals how a socialist government works. Or, more accurately, doesn’t work. If you grew up in the prosperous nation of the United States, this show might be an eye-opener. If you think socialism is going to solve social problems and instill economic efficiency, Chernobyl will bring you face-to-face with how centralized, corrupt power only makes the powerful more hungry and more corrupt. If you want to better understand the cost of putting the good of the State above the human person, the series offers a harrowing glimpse into the dark reality.
A nuclear physicist Valeri Legasov, played by Jared Harris, is called upon to investigate what happened at the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl. In the opening scene, as he records some forbidden information on cassette tapes, the camera pans to a bloody handkerchief, along with strands of fallen hair, telltale signs of radiation poisoning. He finishes the recording, hides the tapes in a secure place, and then proceeds to hang himself in the apartment after having made sure to feed the cat.
In the next two episodes, the events during and immediately after the explosion unfold as a flashback to attempts by Legasov and Boris Shcherbina to minimize the damage. Diligent firemen try to put out radioactive fire with water and fail miserably. They are so clueless about what is happening in that building that one of them picks up a piece of the graphite casing that controls the nuclear fusion. His hand is burnt immediately. The first responder firemen struggle and eventually die from radiation poisoning. That was the fate of many who were around the nuclear reactor after the explosion. Yet even though the Soviet leaders, including Gorbachov, are informed about the dangers of the explosion, it takes a long time to evacuate the nearby towns, exposing thousands of men, women, and children to high levels of radiation.
In a system in which fear of imprisonment or death, and the desire to attain the next level of power rule a man’s daily life, no one wants to take the responsibility for what went wrong. Scientists, soldiers, and statesmen alike try to cover up what really happened. Nobody wants to get shot. Nobody wants to tell the truth. Everybody wants to downplay the extent of the disaster.
In these five episodes, we meet a diverse array of characters. The main character is Legasov, the scientist charged with controlling the fire and the damage. Shcherbina is a career party man who understands the inner dynamics of the Communist government while trying, as a man stuck in the middle, his best to limit the damage. A couple’s ordeal during the explosion provides a closeup of the devastation caused by the disaster. The husband, one of the first responders to the fire, eventually dies of gruesome radiation poisoning because of his close contact with the graphite. His wife chases him from one hospital to another while doctors and nurses try vainly to treat him. She’s pregnant but refuses to tell this to medical professionals. All she wants is to be with her husband during his last days and hours. We witness what radiation does the body: it destabilizes the atomic structure of the cells, and then each cell is ripped apart, one by one, from the inside.
The show is striking in how it portrays the central operations system that makes the decisions and rules everybody’s life. At the same time, the lives of honest, hard-working men who makes this giant machine run, stand in contrast. Party men, including Gorbachev, sit at a table and decide that some people are expendable for the greater good of the Union. A group of miners dig tunnels under the melting reactor core to install liquid nitrogen and a bunch of young men climb to the roof that is scattered with graphite. We witness how thousands of deaths become cold statistics. Lives become expendable when the agenda is world domination and “all victories inevitably come at a cost.”
As more and more people today equate socialism with paying off college debt, redistributing wealth equitably, or helping the poor, Chernobyl is a dramatic reminder that concentration of power and a materialist ideology brings out the worst in people and fuels our sinful nature. The State grows bigger and bigger despite the best intentions of the ideologues. Socialism as an ideology insists that the ends justify the means; thus, politics becomes a religion without a transcendent, objective point of reference. If we can save or improve the lives of millions or billions in the future, why does it matter that a few thousand, or even several million, die today? Dark deeds are justified, defended, or even celebrated in a world in which man is not created in God’s image and the State is turned into a deified entity.
“We will have our villain. We will have our hero. We will have our truth. After that we can deal with the reactors,” a party official assures Legasov, as the latter is worried about a technical oversight that could cause Chernobyl-like explosions in other reactors across the USSR. What matters most is not the prevention of future disasters, but the integrity and the respectability of the Soviets.
If you want an honest conversation about socialism, Chernobyl might be a good place to start, because despite taking some dramatic liberties, the series depicts how a system plays into the hands and agenda of the elite few, even when many of the people are hardworking and self-sacrificing. Not only is this series an often compelling account of one of the worst disasters of our times, the superior screenwriting and acting, especially in the case of Harris and Skarsgård, make Chernobyl something to be watched with your children, or even in the classroom.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!