[Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the HBO miniseries Chernobyl]
“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then? What else is left but to abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves instead with stories. In these stories it doesn’t matter who the heroes are. All we want to know is who is to blame.”
With these lines, we are drawn into HBO’s Chernobyl, an engrossing miniseries about one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. On April 26, 1986 an explosion at the Vladimir I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station (Chernobyl) in Soviet Ukraine destroyed RBMK reactor core #4, sending large quantities of radioactive material into the atmosphere and endangering the lives of thousands.
Such situations naturally cause us to start asking questions and pointing fingers. Who’s at fault? Who is to blame? This latter question is one that the miniseries attempts to answer, and though it might place an undue amount of blame on a select few individuals, it points to a greater villain—a system built on lies. The miniseries is exceptionally well-made, asks great questions, and captures many key incidents of the Chernobyl disaster (though, not always accurately).
All of the Lies
Chernobyl follows three characters involved in the response to the disaster—Soviet nuclear scientist, Valery Legasov; Soviet Deputy Prime Minister, Boris Shcherbina; and Soviet nuclear physicist, Ulana Khomyuk (a fictional character, created to represent the dozens of scientists who worked alongside Legasov in investigating the crisis).
Working tirelessly to prevent further catastrophe and clean up the mess left in the wake of the explosion, our heroes are constantly hampered in their efforts by a corrupt and dishonest government. Near the end of Episode 5, Legasov blames the catastrophe on the Soviet State and its failure to tell the truth. Secrets and lies are “practically what define us,” Legasov says.
His statement is an important insight into the USSR. Soviet Socialism promised people freedom, prosperity, and abundance—a perfect world where everyone shares with each other, no one takes more than their fair portion, and there is no need for a state or government—utopia.
However, Soviet Socialism failed to deliver. Instead of prosperity, there was famine; instead of everyone having their equal share, those in power had much while the common person had nothing; instead of no government, there was a dictatorship that repressed anyone who disagreed with it. The Soviet Union was built on a lie—the lie that we can make a utopia on this earth because people are perfectible.
Given the aim of spreading Communism around the globe, it was essential for the outside world to believe that people were thriving in the Soviet Union; and a dense network of deceit was needed when things weren’t going as planned. No flaw could be admitted in the system.
In the miniseries, after the reactor core explodes, a plant worker runs into the control room saying that he’s looked in the core and it’s completely gone; the response is “He’s in shock. RBMK reactor cores don’t explode.” No argument, no room for disagreement. It just doesn’t happen, it couldn’t happen; not in the Soviet Union at any rate.
Except that it did happen. And when it did, the Soviet Union was at pains to keep secret how bad things really were. In fact, the Soviet Union did not tell anyone outside what had happened until European nations began picking up high levels of radiation in the atmosphere—and even then, their reports were misleading.1 They even lied to the Germans, who were trying to help them, by severely downplaying the radiation levels.
At one point in the show, after relief efforts are once again hampered by government deceit, Scherbina laments, “The official position of the State is that a global nuclear catastrophe is not possible in the Soviet Union.” The blame had to be placed somewhere else—the plant operators.
However, it’s not long before our three heroes learn that the explosion was not due solely to gross operator error, but to a serious design flaw in the Soviet reactors, which the Soviet government had known was problematic and potentially destructive. Despite the dangers, the government ignored the problems and failed to even warn plant managers about the potential danger. Even after the catastrophe, the Soviet Union was slow to acknowledge and correct the defects in their reactors.
The final episode of the series places Legasov in the courtroom, giving evidence at the trial of the men deemed responsible for the disaster. After pointing out the failure of the operators to properly manage the situation, Legasov boldy criticizes the State, condemning their failure to tell the truth.
Though Legasov’s role in the trial is complete fiction, he did eventually speak out in an article titled, “My Duty is to let Everyone Know.” Prior to ending his own life, Legasov criticized the Soviet Union for its “lack of concern for nuclear security” and poor design. The article was censored by the state, and never published.2 Some argue that Legasov’s suicide was his last-ditch effort to make himself heard.
During his final speech in the courtroom, Legasov says, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth, sooner or later that debt is paid. That is how an RBMK reactor core explodes—lies.”
All of the Lives
That debt to the truth was paid at Chernobyl with thousands of lives. One of the most distressing elements of how the Chernobyl incident was handled was the Soviet Union’s utter disregard for people, represented in this key scene that occurs on the night of the explosion.
“Passion for the people” (or rather, lack thereof) leads the city council to seal off the city and cut the phone lines. This was supposed to be for the protection of the people—to keep them from asking questions that concerned the State and “undermining the fruits of their own labor.”
In reality, officials blundered around considering what to do, while people in nearby towns walked the streets openly without protection. It took around 36 hours for the evacuation of Pripyat (one of the closest cities to the disaster) to actually begin due to such delays. Approximately 50,000 people were displaced from their homes. They were told it was temporary, but as it turns out, it was permanent. Most of the residents in surrounding areas of Ukraine were not informed of the danger they were in until more than a week later. Parades continued as planned out of doors, and people were told that everything was fine.3
And we have yet to consider those who were exposed in the plant when the accident occurred, or the brave firefighters who rushed to the scene without proper protection. A few were killed initially, and many more developed Acute Radiation Syndrome. It is, however, estimated that roughly 80% of these first responders survived.4 But the effects radiation poisoning can be horrific, and some of the first responders deteriorated quickly.
Though the official Soviet death toll lists only thirty-one deaths as a result of the accident, most estimates average 4,000 and up. On the whole, over 600,000 people were sent in by the Soviet State to help clean up the accident and the surrounding area—an area of roughly 30 kilometers, known today as the exclusion zone. Experts say it won’t be inhabitable for at least 1,000 years. Each worker was exposed to high levels of radiation, which affected their lifespans. Some estimates say that of these workers, 4,000 died from radiation-caused cancers and 70,000 were disabled.5 There are residents in the hospital to this day suffering from the effects of radiation exposure. These are the heroes whom we will never know.
Following the disaster, increased cancer rates and fear of birth defects in children became a huge concern. Whether or not these fears were realised, the fear of radiation-related birth defects among those women who lived in areas that were exposed to low-levels of radiation, caused them to terminate somewhere between 100,000 to 200,000 pregnancies.6
At one point, Legasov complains about the government’s handling of the incident, “Is this really the way it works? An uninformed arbitrary decision that will cost who knows how many lives, made by some . . . career party man?” The statement is probably more likely to be in the minds of the audience than something that Legasov would have actually said out loud. But still, can we be anything but appalled at this utter disregard for human life in the handling of this incident?
So, who is to blame for Chernobyl? Perhaps it was said best by the New York Times, “To a large degree, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was the result of a rotting political system composed of mostly pliant men and women, who ignored precautions and blew up a reactor because they were more concerned about adhering to a system based on lies and deceit, than they were about protecting the people.”7
In the show, General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbechev, cries out, “Our power comes from the perception of our power. Do you understand the damage this has done?” No concern for the lives that have been destroyed. Only concern for the perception of power that is being lost. We don’t know if Gorbechev ever actually said this, but we do know that Gorbechev would later pinpoint the Chernobyl disaster as the cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.8 The lid was off, the lie could no longer be sustained.
In pursuit of a Communist utopia, governments under Communist rule have sacrificed untold thousands of people, and Chernobyl is one more example of the failure of such systems. The debt to the truth must be paid, and throughout the history of Communism, that debt has almost always been paid with lives—the very lives that communism purports to look out for. Ultimately, a system built on lies cannot stand for long.
It is unfortunate that the Chernobyl miniseries, for all its criticism of lying, fails to tell the whole truth about the actual disaster on several counts. The show portrays Legasov as an unmarried man against the world, giving evidence incriminating the state at the trial, speaking out boldly against higher ranking officials. Nearly everyone else in the show acts out of fear of being shot. And perhaps most distressingly, Anatoly Dyatlov, one of the men held responsible for the disaster, is portrayed as an incompetent, arrogant, and evil man.
Unfortunately for the series, none of this is true. Legasov was not a loner, he had a family. He never appeared at the trial or spoke out boldly against the State in public. People were not regularly threatened with being shot during 1980s Soviet life (this was more of a threat during Stalin’s time). Finally, the portrayal of Dyatlov is almost ridiculous; he is a caricature designed to arouse our hatred.
For all of its failures, HBO’s Chernobyl makes one thing very clear: When lies are told, lives are lost. This is the great tragedy of Chernobyl. Speaking out and telling the truth is costly, but perhaps lying is more costly. As Legasov says, “Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: What is the cost of lies?”
Sign up here to receive weekly Reflect emails in your inbox!