June 30, 2019

Chernobyl and the Soviet Legacy

Chernobyl and the Soviet Legacy

Midway through episode one of HBO’s Chernobyl, the directors of the nuclear power plant and the executive committee of Pripyat meet in the site’s doomsday bunker. As the apparatchiks debate whether or not to evacuate the city, a grizzled old committee member named Zharkov rises from his seat. Cane in hand, Zharkov limps to the head of the table.

"What is the name of this place...?" he asks. "…The Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power station," he answers. "How proud he [Lenin] would be of all you tonight. Especially you, young man," he points to a commissioner who called for the evacuation of Pripyat. "The passion you have for the people. For, is that not the sole purpose of the apparatus of the state? Sometimes we forget. Sometimes we fall prey to fear. Our faith in Soviet socialism will always be rewarded. The state tells us that the situation here is not dangerous. Have faith comrades. The state tells us it wants to prevent a panic. Listen well."

Zharkov calls on the committee to seal Pripyat and cut the phone lines, in order to prevent the spread of misinformation and panic. One suspects Zharkov knew Lenin personally, and got his limp serving in the Great Patriotic War. Zharkov’s speech is not calculated or cynical. Zharkov’s are the words of an idealist, a true believer in the cause of Soviet socialism.

"Nothing like this has ever happened on the face of the Earth."
– Quote from the film

In the view of Chernobyl writer Craig Mazin and Director Johan Renek, the Soviet state failed the Soviet people at Chernobyl. The state constructed sixteen RBMK graphite moderated nuclear reactors like the one at Chernobyl across the Soviet Union, each with an unlikely but fatal flaw that would cause a core meltdown, the Positive Void Coefficient. The state knew about the flaw but built the RBMKs anyway, without steel containment domes – in order to save time, money and face. For to build the containment domes would have been to admit that Soviet nuclear reactors were flawed.

Chernobyl is many things: a disaster movie, a meditation on power, a warning against secrecy, a thriller – a race against time. Chernobyl is also a horror movie where the monster is radiation, unseen yet everywhere. But ,unlike the zombies of our imagination, this monster is real. Chernobyl shows us the full horrors of radiation exposure. We see station personnel in hospital days after the explosion, their skin bloody and black with death, their faces melted off. These scenes are gut wrenching, difficult to watch and necessary.

Watch the Trailer

Amidst the real-life radioactive horror, Chernobyl shows the heroic and tragic efforts of thousands of Soviet citizens. Firemen run into the shattered reactor building to douse the radioactive flames. Coal miners dig a tunnel under the reactor to install a heat exchange system. Red Army helicopter pilots drop sand and boron into the reactor core. Army reservists scour the countryside shooting irradiated wild animals, livestock and pets. Soldiers run onto the roof of building Number 4 to shovel radioactive graphite and building debris back down into the reactor corps even as they are bombarded by levels of radiation hundreds of times greater than the safe limit of exposure.

Jared Harris (King George in The Crown) portrays the most important among these heroes and Chernobyl’s protagonist: Dr. Valery Legasov, director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. He works in Chernobyl’s radioactive fog even as it lops decades off his life expectancy. By his side is Boris Scherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), deputy chair of the Council of Ministers, who too braves the radiation at Chernobyl as he marshals the state’s massive resources to contain the disaster.

While Legasov and Scherbina labor at Chernobyl, Dr. Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) investigates the reactor explosion, reviewing documents and interviewing the control room engineers as they lay dying grotesquely from radiation poisoning. Khomyuk is a composite character deftly created by writer  Mazin to represent the work of dozens of Soviet scientists who fought to bring out the truth.

Because Soviet Socialism is never wrong, the state decides human error must be to blame for the Chernobyl disaster. Chernobyl’s final episode recounts the trial of the plant’s director, Victor Bryuchanov, Chief Engineer Nikoali Fomin, and Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoyl Dyatlov, who was running the control room the night of the blast. Bryuchanov is merely a bureaucrat, while Dyatlov is a stand-in for the notorious Soviet managerial style: degrading, browbeating, humiliating. Indeed, Dyatlov bullied the control room personnel into conducting the dangerous low-power safety test that brought about the Positive Void Coefficient and RBMK core explosion.

In the trial, Dr. Legasov gives his expert testimony. Here Jared Harris is more professor than actor as he describes the meltdown’s technical details, and he shines. At the end of his testimony, Legasov discloses the fatal flaw in the RBMK reactor, against the wishes of the state. Afterwards, he is locked in a room with  a fictional character named Charkov, deputy director of the KGB. Charkov tells Legasov that he has lost his job as director of the Kurchatov Institute and that the credit for his impressive work in nuclear power will go to others. He tells Legasov, "You will remain so immaterial to the world around you that when you finally do die it will be exceedingly hard to know that you ever lived at all."

When Legasov asked, "And if I refuse?" Charkov jokes, "Why worry about something that isn’t going to happen?"

"That’s perfect," Legasov replies. "They should put that on our money."

Today, the Soviet state is gone, but Legasov’s legacy lives on. The joke's on Charkov.

The film's website also includes a link to the full scripts and a podcast with the director and writer.

You Might Also Like

Chernobyl: 20 Years On
  • March 01, 2006

Chernobyl: 20 Years On

On April 26, 1986, the Number 4 reactor core at Chernobyl exploded, spewing radiation across Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and much of Europe. It is still the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history. What lessons has Russia learned, and what is the current state of the Russian nuclear power industry?
Contemplating Chernobyl
  • May 01, 2011

Contemplating Chernobyl

Just as Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus were preparing to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the deadly Chernobyl nuclear accident (April 26, 1986), the world faced a harrowing reminder of the possibility of nuclear catastrophe, as Japan’s Fukushima plant experienced multiple partial meltdowns, spewing radioactive material into the air and water.
Chernobyl: The State Secret
  • April 26, 2016

Chernobyl: The State Secret

30 years ago today, the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant had a meltdown: "Flames, sparks, and chunks of burning material went flying... These were red-hot pieces of nuclear fuel and graphite..."

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567