“Chernobyl” offers a grim, dramatic indictment of socialism

If you want to better understand the cost of putting the good of the State above the human person, the HBO series offers a harrowing glimpse into the dark reality.

A scene from HBO's "Chernobyl". (Image: HBO)

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.


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About Derya M. Little 10 Articles
Derya M. Little has a PhD in politics from Durham University, England and an MA in history from Bilkent University, Turkey. She is the author of the new book From Islam to Christ: One Woman's Path through the Riddles of God (Ignatius Press, 2017).

14 Comments

  1. EDITOR: Please post this revised comment instead:

    While it may play well to the predominantly pro-capitalism (right-wing) disposition of most CWR readers, Dr. Little’s unfortunate decision to cast the multitudinous evils of the USSR as socialist, rather than totalitarian, does a great disservice to your readers and her argument.

    To quote Cullen Roche, “there are exactly ZERO predominantly socialist developed economy countries in existence. Every single developed economy in the world is a predominantly capitalist economy with varying degrees of socialist intervention in redistributing the means of production.” Roche goes on to say, “Socialism means social ownership of the means of the production. Capitalism means private ownership of the means of production. No need to confuse it more than that. “

    Capitalism and socialism are both flawed ideologies. Ideologies that, without the moderating influence found in Christianity alone, become despotic. Every government and business in the world make (sometimes arbitrary) decisions as to who will live and who will die. Who will enjoy a life of affluence and splendor, and who will suffer a life of restricted opportunity and abject poverty.

    All the ills attributed to socialism in this article are found in the exact same measure in capitalism. The question is simply one of who will enjoy the benefits of wealth and privilege and who will not—and whether corporations or governments make those decisions. It is intellectually dishonest to claim otherwise.

    “Jesus said to him, If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Matthew 19:21)

    “There were no needy ones among them, because those who owned lands or houses would sell their property, and bring the proceeds from the sales… (Acts 4:34)

    • Socialism failed in the first Christians society and it fails today. I choose the capitalist method because it takes advantage of mans strongest instinct of survival. I understand that evil will exist because of our nature assured to us by the first sin, and thus greed and lack of sincere universal concern for others is a result, but I understand that to go against nature is simply ineffective.
      Renaming this system of socialist ideas will not change its outcome if we let it slip more and more into our culture.
      Pray…put God back in everybody’s life daily, and then perhaps the closest to the system designed for the Garden of Eden will become our touch of Heaven on Earth.

    • Randell:
      Have you ever studied the Soviet Union at all? The word “Socialist” is in their name – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Stalin’s stated goal was to achieve “socialism.”
      There are various methods to achieve totalitarianism – socialism, communism, Fascism. But what Russia had in the 20th century was specifically socialism. The government directed the means of production. The government took over private property.

      You quote some good Bible passages, but I don’t see Jesus mentioning that it should be the government that takes your possessions while pointing a gun at you, and then redistributing those goods to high ranking party members. And this is exactly what the Soviets did. Charity is a virtue. Forced charity is not.

  2. Dear Randell,

    Nowhere in this article or anywhere I suggested that unchecked capitalism is a superior ideology. Without the Man who laid down His life for the sinner, all of our ideas about a perfect society fall short.

    Socialism, that is the state ownership of modes of production, inevitably leads to totalitarianism. One’s reliance on the State instead of the Church for caring of the poor also results in an exaggerated view of what governments are capable of. I grew in a country who was socialistic in its structure and thus have first hand exposure. Also, I spent most of my youth reading the writings of socialist and communist thinkers and was a proud communist myself for over a decade. The premise is of this ideology is contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church because it disregards man’s soul and his Creator’s role in the ordering of a just society.

    I do understand, however, why many American idealize this system despite its many failures. But, one’s anger at the capitalism should not lead to the promotion of socialism. In the end, the solution is, and has always been, the conversion of hearts and salvation of soul.

  3. The plant at Chernobyl was a rush job in planning and construction – poor reactor design -and the employees at that site were incredibly ignorant of nuclear physics in proper methods and testing. The procedure they were doing was very dangerous, reckless and, in two prior attempts, produced no answers.

    Lack of an independent press at the time did not help matters.

  4. “Chernobyl is a dramatic reminder that concentration of power and a materialist ideology brings out the worst in people and fuels our sinful nature.”

    I agree, the concentration of power of corporate interests in american society and their materialist ideology brings out the worst in people and fuels their sinful nature. What a startling admission – on CWR of all places. Did the Napa think tank toadies vet this article enough?!?! The mere suggestion that statist, pro-corporate politics might be flawed is getting me VERY UPSET!!!

      • To Carl: Oh, c’mon, that was pretty profound for a troll, you gotta admit.

        Seriously, Joe K., is your nickname an anagram for “joke”? Because to deliberately twist what the author wrote and use it to attack the people who run the very platform where you’re commenting seems kind of like a bad attempt at humor.

  5. Randell Franklyn Busby, Ph.D. is correct insofar as economic structure within socialist nations that have managed to survive and even thrive economically incorporating Capitalism China the prime example. What author Derya emphasizes is the evil of centralized power. Although there power itself is not evil despite Lord Acton’s convictions, which leads to what Ms Derya Little alludes to, perhaps establishes the destruction of the human soul. Example today is China, “Socialism as an ideology insists that the ends justify the means; thus, politics becomes a religion without a transcendent, objective point of reference. Dark deeds are justified” (Derya Little). Yes the person is entirely subject to the perceived good of the socialist state, but the common good itself is not an evil rather it’s the absence of faith, religious belief in a God [Derya’s transcendent objective point of reference] who holds to both the common good and the inviolable rights of the individual found solely in the revelation of Christ. Now Capitalism cited as flawed by Dr Busby likewise correct likewise not correct if the suggested alternative is a Christian communal life of shared goods initially tried though necessarily evolved into religious orders the Church wisely permitting Capitalism that is free enterprise to meet the existential human condition. The Am political crisis is this vision of two cities Capitalist Socialist diametrically opposed. The reasonable response is not a triangulation of the two rather the proven benefits of Capitalism salted with Christian social doctrine.

  6. Interesting how the response to Dr. Little’s article is a debate over capitalism versus socialism. Capitalism absent being “salted with Christian social doctrine” degenerates into Gordon Gekko crony capitalism and is as indefensible as socialism. I submit that capitalism administered by properly ordered Christians is the best system considering our flawed condition. I imagine a captain of industry kneeling before God on Judgment Day and the conversation, arguably one-sided in the presence of Truth, would sound something like this:

    “I gave to you power. I have but two questions: Whom did you serve? Did you love?”

  7. Back in 1989-1990 I shared student housing in Oxford with a physicist from Kiev (researching at Oxford on a Soros grant; interestingly, only pure Russians got the grants, none of the ‘minorities’ in the USSR were allowed out on grants). He was 35 years old then and already had an advanced degree in physics when Chernobyl melted down. He told me that shortly thereafter, he and his colleagues at the university were sent somewhere in the region to test milk for radioactivity. Their instruments indicated that the mill was off the charts for radiation. They wrote up their results and recommended dumping the milk.

    A few days later, the radio reported that Soviet physicists had found the milk supply in the region safe to drink.

    He only told me this and other realities about the USSR when he was slightly tipsy (which seems to have been fairly regularly). He was more forthcoming after the Berlin Wall fell – months and months after, when his grant was almost finished. But he was still cagey and fearful that I might report something he said to the others who had been sent to Oxford on grants. He was absolutely paranoid about the others not knowing his whereabouts or comings and goings. He once told me that he did not expect ‘Russia’ to be truly free in his lifetime – at least not without a bloody revolution.

    I never met a more dour and hopeless human being than Sergei. I often wonder what his life has turned out to be like.

    • I don’t think people who grow up free understand the oppressive power of totalitarianism. Back in the day, in college, I signed a petition to the Turkish government to make it legal for people to speak in Kurdish in public. Can you imagine Spanish would be banned from spoken and written language? A few days later, two gendarmerie (military police) showed up at my mom’s door with not-so-veiled threats about me and my brother being expelled from our universities. My brother had nothing to do with it. A few days later, I formally withdrew my signature, whatever that means.

      I hope Sergei found some peace later in life.

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