BY Andrew Durbin in Frieze | 03 JUN 19

HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Doesn’t Understand History

The disaster was not a ‘uniquely’ Soviet problem

BY Andrew Durbin in Frieze | 03 JUN 19

Crisis pollutes the truth. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides wrote that the fight against – and for – democracy concocted a mendacious atmosphere in Greece, where words became shifty and poisoned by untruth. Only two weeks ago, President Trump once again tested the ancient Greek historian’s hypothesis when he lined up his staff, live cameras rolling, and had each affirm what everyone knew to be untrue: that he had been ‘extremely calm’ during a reportedly tense meeting with the Speaker of the House. ‘This was definitely not angry or ranting; [you were] very calm and straightforward,’ said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, her eyes never straying from the President. She understood that the charade was pointless; its audience was not watching from home but standing at the podium in the room. She only wanted to keep her job.

Sky and HBO’s celebrated new miniseries, Chernobyl (2019) – a moody, five-part drama about the 1986 explosion of the number four reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station near Pripyat, Ukraine – is composed of numerous scenes like the recent one in the White House, where one bureaucrat lies to preserve the delusions of another. Apparatchiks defer blindly to party orthodoxy, as at the start of the first episode, when no one believes that the plant's reactor has exploded because it is not possible for a Soviet reactor to explode, despite the gaping hole in its roof, the litter of glowing graphite outside the Station and the convulsing, radiation poisoned-workers gasping for their burns under an iodized sky. ‘You didn’t see graphite on the ground because it isn’t there,’ one chief engineer shouts to another, after he sees graphite on the ground. His coworkers, their faces wilting from fatal exposure, nod agreement.

Craig Mazin, Chernobyl, 2019, film still. Courtesy: HBO

Only the plucky, truth-telling scientists – Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) – are brave enough to pull against Kremlin headwinds and admit that the reactor is now a toxic hole in the ground threatening to render half the Soviet Union uninhabitable. Pestering party members dissimulate, deny and obstruct, but still, across the show’s five episodes, the scientists persist. They stop the worst from coming true and discover, in the perusal of secret Soviet archives, what went wrong on that fateful April night. (It’s no surprise that the culprit is incompetence and a cover-up.) Around them, faces of fire fighters and station workers bubble with noxious pus, and evacuations spiral out from Pripyat to other small towns lying westward; but throughout, we understand the scientists’ mission to be more than clean-up. They must nobly convince the world of the truth of Chernobyl: that it is worse than it seems, and that the government is lying to its citizens – and the world. They do so against the backdrop of a spectacularly Soviet universe of Brutalist apartments and Moskvitch cars, filmed on location in Belarus and Ukraine. It is a very pretty show, down to the ghastly decomposition of first responder flesh. It is also very compelling story-telling. As of this writing, it is HBO's highest rated television show on IMDB.

But the central premise of Chernobyl is somewhat faulty. Namely, that the disaster was a ‘uniquely’ Soviet problem. Earlier this spring, the show’s creator Craig Mazin told the Decider, ‘Chernobyl can’t happen unless the absolute worst of human instinct and human behavior takes place, in a systematic, repressive, long-standing way. When Chernobyl explodes, it’s the result of a uniquely Soviet kind of breakdown. But only the Soviet people could’ve fixed it. To fix it was such a remarkable, daunting, terrifying and dangerous task and I was just so moved by the spirit of those people.’ Mazin invites his audience to see this ‘unique’ problem as a parabolic warning for those who would place too much faith in the state; in this, the show is less a portrait of the Soviet Union – there are no Ukrainian, Belarusian or Russian actors, and everyone speaks in varyingly accented British English – than it is of the noble western powers that opposed it, here in absentia.

Craig Mazin, Chernobyl, 2019, film still. Courtesy: HBO

Karol Markowicz, a conservative commentator for the New York Post tweeted on 27 May: ‘Started Chernobyl last night and it’s always nice to get a reminder to be endlessly grateful that I got to be an American and not grow up in a backward ass country that is more concerned with the embarrassment of a nuclear accident than its deadly ramifications.’ The tweet went viral, with people using it to share their own stories of nightmarish American government incompetence and dissimulation. One example: the US military dumped 76.5 million litres of Agent Orange on Vietnam between 1961 and 1971, which the US always denied using as a weapon. Three million people, according to Vietnam’s government, continue to suffer health problems from its effects. Roughly 4,000 died from Chernobyl, according to the United Nations. (Estimates vary between organizations.) But I am reminded of Christopher Isherwood’s quip to a man hankering to argue over which populations died in greater numbers in the Holocaust: ‘What are you? In real estate?' At bottom, the causes of Chernobyl – rank cronyism and bureacratic incompetence – are not unique to the Soviet Union, even if they were particularly dramatic features of it; they are conditions of any state power, and as Chernobyl and the Trump administration demonstrate, they are often preservatives of that power, too. 

Chernobyl, 3 November 2017. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; photograph: Jorge Franganillo

One particularly moving storyline in Chernobyl follows a woman whose husband was among the first firefighters to arrive at the power plant. His body is destroyed by the radiation, and eventually he succumbs in a Moscow hospital. His pregnant wife attends to him against doctor’s orders; their daughter dies within hours of birth from the effects of radiation. The story is borrowed from the real life of Lyudmilla Ignatenko, who serves as the opening narrative of Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer (1997), the Nobel Prize winner’s documentary account of the survivors of the disaster. ‘I keep saying the wrong thing to you. The wrong thing,’ Ignatenko tells Alexievich after relaying the story of her husband. She had meant to tell about love but love only led her to death.

As Chernobyl Prayer moves from the destroyed lives of Pripyat’s former residents to the vast reaches of Soviet life, it constructs a portrait of a time and place that is unique, bound by a unique political system, but troubled by more universal dilemmas. They are dilemmas we can find almost anywhere where enormous power is concentrated, whether it be the halls of the Kremlin or the Oval Office. Stupidity is stateless.

Main Image: Craig Mazin, Chernobyl, 2019, film still. Courtesy: HBO

Andrew Durbin is the editor-in-chief of frieze. His book The Wonderful World That Almost Was is forthcoming from FSG in 2025.