Writing in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen takes HBO’s recently-concluded, and for the most part universally-lauded, miniseries about the Chernobyl disaster to task for failing to grasp Soviet power structures.
Herein lies one of the series’ biggest flaws: its failure to accurately portray Soviet relationships of power. There are exceptions, flashes of brilliance that shed light on the bizarre workings of Soviet hierarchies. In the first episode, for example, during an emergency meeting of the Pripyat ispolkom, the town’s governing council, an elder statesman, Zharkov (Donald Sumpter), delivers a chilling, and chillingly accurate, speech, urging his compatriots to “have faith.” “We seal off the city,” Zharkov says. “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 statement has everything: the bureaucratic indirectness of Soviet speech, the privileging of “fruits of labor” over the people who created them, and, of course, the utter disregard for human life.
The final episode of “Chernobyl” also contains a scene that encapsulates the Soviet system perfectly. During the trial of three men who have been deemed responsible for the disaster, a member of the Central Committee overrules the judge, who then looks to the prosecutor for direction—and the prosecutor gives that direction with a nod. This is exactly how Soviet courts worked: they did the bidding of the Central Committee, and the prosecutor wielded more power than the judge.
Unfortunately, apart from these striking moments, the series often veers between caricature and folly. In Episode 2, for example, the Central Committee member Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) threatens to have Legasov shot if he doesn’t tell him how a nuclear reactor works. There are a lot of people throughout the series who appear to act out of fear of being shot. This is inaccurate: summary executions, or even delayed executions on orders of a single apparatchik, were not a feature of Soviet life after the nineteen-thirties. By and large, Soviet people did what they were told without being threatened with guns or any punishment.
Similarly repetitive and ridiculous are the many scenes of heroic scientists confronting intransigent bureaucrats by explicitly criticizing the Soviet system of decision-making. In Episode 3, for example, Legasov asks, rhetorically, “Forgive me—maybe I’ve just spent too much time in my lab, or maybe I’m just stupid. Is this really the way it all works? An uninformed, arbitrary decision that will cost who knows how many lives that is made by some apparatchik, some career Party man?” Yes, of course this is the way it works, and, no, he hasn’t been in his lab so long that he didn’t realize that this is how it works. The fact of the matter is, if he didn’t know how it worked, he would never have had a lab.
I don’t agree with everything Gessen writes—for example, I don’t see how you can argue that the series treats Anatoly Dyatlov, the control room supervisor who insisted in the ill-advised safety test that ultimately caused the reactor to explode, as its sole villain. On the contrary, one of Chernobyl‘s many brilliant scriptwriting touches is that the first thing we hear about Dyatlov—in Jared Harris’s opening monologue as Legasov, set two years after the disaster—is that treating him as a scapegoat, though convenient given his unpleasant personality and his many failures (and self-protective lies) on the night of the explosion, is insufficient. So from the first minute, before we even meet him, we are inoculated against the belief that Dyatlov was solely responsible for the disaster. As we watch it, and its aftermath, unfold, we keep craning around him to see the larger system that has allowed—encouraged, even—his failures to occur.
That said, I think the broader point Gessen makes, that Chernobyl simplifies the systems that authoritarianism creates to perpetuate itself, is inarguable. The moment in the series’s concluding episode that struck me as most important and most telling about the way authoritarian regimes function wasn’t Legasov’s speechifying about truth while testifying in a courtroom that should never have allowed him that level of freedom. It was his plain and simple answer to the question of why Soviet nuclear reactors use graphite-tipped cooling rods, which creates a fatal flaw that the mismanagement of the Chernobyl reactor unwittingly combined with to cause an explosion: “Because it’s cheaper.” Those three words, to me, encompass all the corner-cutting, poor decision-making, and lack of accountability that are allowed to run rampant when the good of citizens isn’t held paramount, and when those citizens aren’t given a voice in their government. As the KGB head later says to Legasov, “Why worry about something that isn’t going to happen?”
But for the most part, Chernobyl doesn’t have enough space to depict how that system of compromises, learned helplessness, and deliberate blindness functions. I found myself thinking that the show needed to be either longer or shorter. Either focus your story purely on the mechanics of the disaster, its causes, and the desperate scrambling to contain its consequences, or broaden your perspective enough to depict the full complexity of the Soviet system (including of Legasov himself, who was much more the loyal, clued-in party man than the series allows him to be, even though it admits otherwise in its closing minutes). The compromise the show chose, of using Legasov as the kind of truth-teller who, by definition, couldn’t have existed and wouldn’t have been allowed to reach the position he did, is satisfying as a storytelling decision, but what does it tell us about authoritarianism and how to fight it?
When Chernobyl first aired, I worried that viewers would read it merely as an indictment of the Soviet Union (and there absolutely were people on twitter who took the “so glad to live in the US of A, where this sort of thing can’t happen” approach), despite the fact that creator Craig Mazin clearly intended its lessons about openness and accountability to be applicable to the present moment in the US. Overall I feel like the show’s storytelling avoids that problem—it is specific to its place and moment, but also spends so much time lauding the courage and self-sacrifice of the people who kept Chernobyl from being a much greater disaster than it was that you can’t read it solely as a condemnation of their culture and values. But I do wonder what it says that the solution to its central problem comes from having one brave man stand up and speak the truth. We’d all like to believe that that’s how it works, but doesn’t doing so help us avoid the problems growing all around us?
Still, these are marginal complaints against the extent of the show’s achievement. Chernobyl is as much a work of horror as it is a work of historical reenactment (as many people have quipped, it’s funny that Harris has twice in the space of two years ended up appearing in stories of environmental horror, and even playing a similar character type in both; also, watch The Terror, it’s brilliant). The way the show treats the open, burning reactor as a sort of mythical monster should be silly, but instead ends up conveying both the environmental and human contours of the event’s horror. After all, no one can look into the reactor and survive, but they keep being sent in nonetheless, by leaders and supervisors who refuse to admit the truth. The fourth episode sequence in which soldiers are sent up to the damaged roof of the reactor to clear highly radioactive graphite rubble, a place so toxic that no robot can function, and where humans can only safely remain for a few minutes, is similarly a brilliant combination of genre horror tropes and the horrors of history.
I also thought the decision to start with the immediate aftermath of the disaster, then circle back to its causes in the final episode, was brilliant. Not only does it put us further in the heads of our heroes, who had to piece the causes of the explosion together from fragmentary evidence and recalcitrant witnesses, but it mirrors the actual progress of disaster response—first address the immediate problem, then start asking questions about why they occurred. By the time we return to the hours and minutes before the explosion, we know intimately the cost that these bad decisions will have, and will also have seen many of the people inching their way towards disaster die—like Akimov and Tuptunov, the hapless, inexperienced control room operators.
It really is a magnificent feat of writing and directing, and if I could wish that its intentions with all that magnificent creation were a little clearer, or its conclusions a little less glib, that doesn’t undermine the extent of its achievement. One of the things that struck me while watching Chernobyl is how little is known and discussed about this disaster, despite its far-reaching consequences. Even the full number of fatalities has never been confirmed, and estimates of secondary deaths caused by radiation range wildly from the thousands to the tens of thousands. I’m glad we’re talking about it, and about the habits of thought and mismanagement that can lead to it.