I put “Chernobyl” on my watch list months ago since I only add HBO to my cable occasionally. This time at home is allowing me the opportunity to watch such well-received fare. This article enriched my experience as it allowed me to see the compromises made in the show that misrepresent the Russian culture of the time. A portrait that’s terribly inaccurate can leave misleading impressions — which is exactly what this writer says this award-winning show did. Worth reading if you’ve already seen it or if you’re planning on watching.
What HBO’s “Chernobyl” Got Right, and What It Got Terribly Wrong
Masha Gessen June 04, 2019
Svetlana Alexievich, the Russian-language Belarusian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 2015, for her work with oral history, has said that the book she found easiest to report was her book about Chernobyl. (Its English title, depending on the translation, is “Voices from Chernobyl” or “Chernobyl Prayer.”) The reason, she said, was that none of her interlocutors—people who lived in the area affected by the disaster—knew how they were supposed to talk about it. For her other books, Alexievich interviewed people about their experience of the Second World War, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. For all of these other events and periods in Russian history, there were widely adopted narratives, habits of speaking that, Alexievich found, had a way of overshadowing actual personal experience and private memory. But when she asked survivors about Chernobyl they accessed their own stories more easily, because the story hadn’t been told. The Soviet media disseminated very little information about the disaster. There were no books or movies or songs. There was a vacuum.
Alexievich’s book about Chernobyl was published in Russian in 1997, more than ten years after one of the reactors at the Chernobyl power plant exploded, in what was probably the worst nuclear accident in history. One of the most remarkable facts about Chernobyl is that the narrative vacuum had persisted for that long, and, in fact, it has persisted since: Alexievich’s book came to prominence, both in Russia and in the West, only following her Nobel Prize win. There have been stories in the media in Russia and abroad, many of them on the odd tourist industry that has sprung up in the disaster zone; there has been a BBC documentary and a bizarre American-Ukrainian documentary. But in the past year two books, one by a historian and the other by a journalist, have attempted to tell the definitive documentary story of the disaster. Finally, the HBO series “Chernobyl,” the fifth and final episode of which aired Monday, tells a fictionalized version. It being television, and very well-received television at that, it is the series, rather than the books, that will probably finally fill the vacuum where the story of Chernobyl should be. This is not a good thing.
Before I get to what the series got so terribly wrong, I should acknowledge what it got right. In “Chernobyl,” which was created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, the material culture of the Soviet Union is reproduced with an accuracy that has never before been seen in Western television or film—or, for that matter, in Russian television or film. Clothes, objects, and light itself seem to come straight out of nineteen-eighties Ukraine, Belarus, and Moscow. (There are tiny errors, like a holiday uniform worn by schoolchildren on a non-holiday, or teen-agers carrying little kids’ school bags, but this is truly splitting hairs.) Soviet-born Americans—and, indeed, Soviet-born Russians—have been tweeting and blogging in awe at the uncanny precision with which the physical surroundings of Soviet people have been reproduced. The one noticeable mistake in this respect concerns the series makers’ apparent ignorance of the vast divisions between different socioeconomic classes in the Soviet Union: in the series, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a member of the Academy of Sciences, lives in nearly the same kind of squalor as a fireman in the Ukrainian town of Pripyat. In fact, Legasov would have lived in an entirely different kind of squalor than the fireman did.
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.
Resignation was the defining condition of Soviet life. But resignation is a depressing and untelegenic spectacle. So the creators of “Chernobyl” imagine confrontation where confrontation was unthinkable—and, in doing so, they cross the line from conjuring a fiction to creating a lie. The Belarusian scientist Ulyana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) is even more confrontational than Legasov. “I am a nuclear physicist,” she tells an apparatchik, in Episode 2. “Before you were Deputy Secretary, you worked in a shoe factory.” First, she’d never say this. Second, the apparatchik might have worked at a shoe factory, but, if he was an apparatchik, he was no cobbler; he has come up the Party ladder, which might indeed have begun at the factory—but in an office, not on the factory floor. The apparatchik—or, more accurately, the caricature of the apparatchik—pours himself a glass of vodka from a carafe that sits on his desk and responds, “Yes, I worked in a shoe factory. And now I’m in charge.” He toasts, in what appears to be the middle of the day: “To the workers of the world.” No. No carafe, no vodka in the workplace in front of a hostile stranger, and no boasting “I’m in charge.”
The biggest fiction in this scene, though, is Khomyuk herself. Unlike other characters, she is made up—according to the closing titles, she represents dozens of scientists who helped Legasov investigate the cause of the disaster. Khomyuk appears to embody every possible Hollywood fantasy. She is a truth-knower: the first time we see her, she is already figuring out that something has gone terribly wrong, and she is grasping it terribly fast, unlike the dense men at the actual scene of the disaster, who seem to need hours to take it in. She is also a truth-seeker: she interviews dozens of people (some of them as they are dying of radiation exposure), digs up a scientific paper that has been censored, and figures out exactly what happened, minute by minute. She also gets herself arrested and then immediately seated at a meeting on the disaster, led by Gorbachev. None of this is possible, and all of it is hackneyed. The problem is not just that Khomyuk is a fiction; it’s that the kind of expert knowledge she represents is a fiction. The Soviet system of propaganda and censorship existed not so much for the purpose of spreading a particular message as for the purpose of making learning impossible, replacing facts with mush, and handing the faceless state a monopoly on defining an ever-shifting reality.
In the absence of a Chernobyl narrative, the makers of the series have used the outlines of a disaster movie. There are a few terrible men who bring the disaster about, and a few brave and all-knowing ones, who ultimately save Europe from becoming uninhabitable and who tell the world the truth. It is true that Europe survived; it is not true that anyone got to the truth, or told it.
The Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy’s 2018 book on Chernobyl reconstructs the sequence of events and assigns blame. In effect, Plokhy argues, it was the Soviet system that created Chernobyl and made the explosion inevitable. Glimmers of this understanding appear in the HBO series, too. In the final episode, Legasov, testifying as a witness, tells a Soviet court that the disaster happened because the tips of the control rods were made of graphite, which sped up the reaction, when the control rod was supposed to slow it down. When asked, by the prosecutor, why the reactor was designed this way, Legasov cites the same reason that other safety precautions are ignored and other corners are cut: “It’s cheaper.” He seems to be damning the whole system.
More often, however, we are given to believe that the three men who were put on trial—and especially one of them, a particularly unattractive villain by the name of Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter)—are to blame. We see him strong-arming younger, better men into actions that will ultimately lead to catastrophe. All because, it seems, he wants a promotion. In fact, it wasn’t the carrot of a single promotion, or even several promotions, and it wasn’t one nasty and abusive boss. It was the system, made up primarily of pliant men and women, that cut its own corners, ignored its own precautions, and ultimately blew up its own nuclear reactor for no good reason except that this was how things were done. The viewer is invited to fantasize that, if not for Dyatlov, the better men would have done the right thing and the fatal flaw in the reactor, and the system itself, might have remained latent. This is a lie.
It would be harder to show a system digging its own grave instead of an ambitious, evil man causing the disaster. In the same way, it’s harder to see dozens of scientists looking for clues when you can just create a single fantasy character who will have all the good disaster-fighting traits. This is the great-men (and one woman) narrative of history, where it’s a few steps, a few decisions, made by a few men that matter, rather than the mess that humans make and from which they suffer.
It was the stories of those who suffered that most interested Alexievich. The series actually makes use of one of the stories in her book: the story of Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley), who broke the rules by staying with her firefighter husband in the hospital until he died, even though she was pregnant. (She lied about it.) Her baby lived for four hours after birth; she had apparently absorbed the radiation, saving her mother’s life. Ignatenko’s monologue in Alexievich’s book is some of the most memorable reading I have ever done. (I once asked Alexievich if people actually talk like that; she agreed that the quality of Ignatenko’s speech was “Shakespearean.”) In the series, though, Ignatenko’s story is partly shown and partly told by Khomyuk. In the great-men version of history, only the powerful have speaking parts. Even the house pets left in the “exclusion zone” after people are evacuated are shown through the eyes of men who are sent there to execute them. We never see these pets through the eyes of their owners. We hardly see any of the evacuees at all, and we are given only one indication that some people resisted and refused to leave: an old woman who, at the beginning of Episode 4, obstinately continues milking her cow after she is repeatedly ordered to move.
Testifying in court during the final episode, 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.” One would think that a vacuum created by lies could be filled by truth. Instead, it is filled by an entirely fictional, fantastical trial at which a large group of people—scientists, we are told—are given an accurate assessment of events in an accessible, brilliant speech, the likes of which Soviet courts didn’t feature.
Legasov gets the last word. He speaks of “the gift of Chernobyl: where I once would fear the cost of truth, I only ask”—the screen fades to black—“what is the cost of lies?” One might say that the cost of lies is more lies. One might say that these are fantasies, embellishments, shortcuts, and even translations. Whatever they are, they are not the truth.
Masha Gessen, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is the author of eleven books, including “Surviving Autocracy” and “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which won the National Book Award in 2017.Read more »