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Our Chernobyl

August 5, 2019

Craig Mazin’s Chernobyl — a brutal, beautiful, frightening piece of film making — tries to grasp in a net of images and story  the worst nuclear disaster in human history,  an accident that was in a sense the inaugural event of the Anthropocene: the first moment in which we humans suddenly experienced as an actual reality our own power potentially to render the world, the whole world,  uninhabitable. The HBO series has two basic aims:  first to convey the human reality of the story: the fear,  pain and suffering experienced by those who went through it; second, to try to plumb its meaning; to figure out what the disaster was all about.  It fails on both counts.

The first failure is admirable and forgivable.  The series conveys with luminous clarity the texture of life before, during and after the disaster. But what the people suddenly caught up in the vortex of nuclear disaster actually went through is, in a real sense,  not possible to convey. The words are all wrong’, says Lyudmila Ignatenko, the wife of Vasily Ignatenko, one of the firemen who died in agony from radiation poisoning two weeks after rushing to the conflagration when Reactor 4 exploded in the small hours of 26 April 1983. Not the Lyudmila in the series, the real Lyudmila; the actual, historical woman whose account provides the inaugural story in Voices from Chernobyl, the social history on which the HBO version draws.   She tells her story simply, even beautifully, but her words are of a reality that is unimaginable.  ‘It’s all so very mine!’ she says of the experience of watching the man she was in love with basically liquify, day by day, on the hospital bed in front of her. ‘ It’s impossible to describe!  It’s impossible even to write down! And even to get over.’  The worst and most painful parts, she says, she can’t even remember.  It comes to her ‘in flashes, all broken up’:  painful details, lodged in the body, toxic and ineradicable.   A survivor of an experience whose most intense reality lies beyond words, even beyond memory.  



The second failure is the result of calculation, of smugness, of thinking you know the answers.   Instead of conveying the full and terrible moral complexity of what happened, the series turns the story of Chernobyl into a comfortable and heartwarming narrative, into a parable about courageous, truth-seeking scientists confronting bureaucratic ignorance and Soviet stupidity. In a way, radioactivity becomes a baleful metaphor for truth itself:   The nuclear reaction surging catastrophically out of control in the core, in response to the  imperious arrogance of the buffoonish Anatoly Dyatlov;  the chunks of toxic graphite littering the reactor site, nakedly contradicting the blind refusal of officials to believe that the core could explode; deadly isotopes sifting gently down from the sky or seeping up from the earth, while the government assures everyone they’ve got everything under control — all these become metaphors for the inevitability and the unstoppability of Truth, its refusal to be contained by bureaucratic obfuscation and propaganda. The gift of Chernobyl, Legasov admonishes his official superiors, is that it shows us that the truth does not care about our needs or wants. ‘It does not care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time’.

An imaginary scientist

There are three problems with this.   The first is ironically enough, that it’s a lie.  As Masha Gessen pointed out in her rather angry New Yorker essay the makers of Chernobyl can only get the story to carry its uplifting message by twisting real events out of shape: through making Valery Legasov a far less ambiguous, compromised figure than he really was; through the many ‘repetitive and ridiculous’ scenes in which heroic scientists confront truculent bureaucrats; through the totally invented, totally improbable figure of the doughty Ulyana Khomyuk, an imaginary scientist straight out of Hollywood fantasy; and above all through staging an entirely fictional, impossible trial where Legasov theatrically unveils,  in spite of KGB efforts to keep it quiet, ‘the truth’ about the design flaws in the RMBK control rods that finally led to the meltdown.

But that’s not the truth, it turns out:  though Gessen does not mention this, the series’ diagnosis of the ultimate causes of the disaster — that a paranoid Soviet government censored evidence about the dangers of those graphite-tipped control rods, keeping the information out of the hands of its own scientists — is a complete misrepresentation.  The reality is rather more tawdry: the Soviet nuclear community knew about that design flaw, but just never acted upon it. They just didn’t think it would ever really be a problem.

Secondly, the implicit historical exceptionalism in the series — the repeated suggestion that the train of events leading to the accident and the attempts to cover it up is somehow specifically Soviet — does not hold water.  The reality is much more unsettling.  A glimpse of that picture is offered, for example, in Karen Brown’s account of Western collusion in the attempts to downplay the seriousness of Chernobyl’s aftermath.  It is not only in the Soviet sphere, it turns out, that the warnings of scientists get ignored, or unsettling realities about the danger posed to our life on Earth by own industrial civilization are passed over and denied.   (But you know that.  Today, in 2019, you know that). And if truth be told, one thing the series does give an inkling of is the decisiveness of the Soviet response once it realised what it was dealing with.  Would a society governed by market forces be willing or able to scrape 30 centimetres of topsoil off thousands of hectares of farmlands?  Or send in more than half a million civilian and military personnel into a nuclear fall-out zone to evacuate an area and clean it up?

Here’s one clue: the contingency plan of the government of the Western Cape in South Africa, in case something bad happens at Koeberg, the ageing nuclear reactor built just about astride a geological fault a mere 50 kilometres north of my house, involves the evacuation of the local population by minibus taxis.  That’ll work!

Are these liberties with the truth poetic license, an attempt to simplify the story so that it can be told more effectively?  I don’t buy it. For the overall artistic consequence of this moralising spin is that it causes the story to drift away from its emotional centre. This is my third, and in a way my most serious objection.  If dramatic licence was required  to impart a sense of drama to an otherwise dry or overly complicated historical record, it would be understandable. But in this case, it does not really seem warranted.  People battling frantically to contain a runaway nuclear reaction?   Soldiers and miners risking their lives to avert disaster?   Hundreds of thousands of lives shattered by sudden forced evacuation, or blighted by creeping illness?   It’s not as if this is a story that needs to be spiced up or given artificial dramatic interest. And in fact, there is a gradual leaching away of energy as the story winds on and the initial wrenching scenes of disorientation and fear give way to the battle between apparatchiks and scientists, and the trial’s schoolroom lecture about how a nuclear reactor works.

This, for me, is the real issue with Chernobyl.  Because what’s really strange about it  is how it allows some of the most emotionally compelling and unsettling aspects of the crisis to slip through between the lines.  It is as if the meaning of what we see is right there in front of our eyes, but still remains unsayable.  For the drama and the power of the story does not come from this staged confrontation between scientific truth and bureaucratic lies.  It comes from the uncompromising and visceral way in which it conveys  the sense of  a world suddenly gone nightmarishly out of control.  The central scenes in the series were for me dreamlike: instantly recognisable though I had never been there;  refusing to be banished from memory even days after viewing.   The panic and chaos in the control room.  The fireman curled up in agony around his hand, burned by invisible rays from the graphite.  The divers endlessly plodding through the claustrophobic dark in the waterlogged basement of the reaction, listening to the chattering scream of the dosimeter.   The cleanup squads, blundering about in the rubble on the roof above the yawning maw of the reactor, racing against time.  Lyudmila Ignatenko and her husband. People thrust into a world that has suddenly and incomprehensibly become an inferno; trying heroically and sometimes futilely to deal with dangers they do not completely understand; dangers that they cannot see;  but a danger that they slowly realise they brought on themselves.  Human technology — yes, human science!  — revealed as a pandora’s box from which invisible horrors emanate, malign and unstoppable.

Think about it.

A world turned into inferno. 

Dangers we cannot see, that we do not know how to control.   

A world at risk of becoming uninhabitable because of our arrogance, our ignorance, our refusal to heed warnings.   Our foolishness.

Warnings that were all around us.

The thing about climate change,  and about the ways it will change our lives is this: we can’t blame the Soviets.  And there won’t be a  grimly decisive Boris Shcherbina to save us.  We’ll be on our own.


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