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Chernobyl: Anatomy of Disaster

Some historical events are so momentous that the human mind finds it hard to comprehend their scale and complexity. The nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl falls into that category.

by Peter Rutland 21 June 2019

Until the hugely popular HBO/Sky TV series Chernobyl first aired, most people outside the former Eastern bloc had probably vaguely heard of Chernobyl, but few had ever pondered what exactly happened there in that spring of 1986.


The series does a tremendous service in bringing the event back into the public eye, and introducing a new generation to the risks of nuclear power and the nature of the Soviet system. A gripping drama of colossal visual power, it takes a few liberties with the truth for dramatic effect.


As someone who wrote a dissertation on the pathology of Soviet central planning, and spent months living in Moscow in 1982 and 1988, I was deeply impressed by the show’s ability to convey the logic and feel of Soviet bureaucracy and daily life.


The appeal of the series comes in part because it follows a tried-and-tested Hollywood narrative formula: ordinary people face extraordinary challenges and overcome them. The viewer experiences the events through the eyes of three sympathetic central characters – scientist Valery Legasov, Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina, and a fictional physicist Ulana Khomyuk, played by Emily Watson.


Some Kremlin-friendly media have dismissed the series as American propaganda, aimed at discrediting the Soviet past or undermining Russian efforts to export nuclear reactor technology. Director Aleksei Muradov, fresh from shooting a 12-part spy drama about Chernobyl which will air on the major Russian network NTV later this year, dismisses the HBO film as full of Cold War cliches, and compares it to the 1988 film Red Heat, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Russian police officer.


Chernobyl writer Chris Mazin explained in an interview that “the villain in this story is the Soviet system. But the hero of this story, collectively, are the Soviet people. I hope that they find pride in watching this.” His hopes seem to have been realized: most responses in Russian newspapers and social media are strongly positive. For example, Vladimir Mikhailov, a chemical warfare reservist from Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, who was drafted in to help with the clean-up, says that the series rings true, notwithstanding a few departures from the factual record. Major General Nikolai Tarakanov, the head of the civil defense response, told RT that he liked the way his character was portrayed in the film. Some Russians have expressed their embarrassment that it took a British-American film crew not only to tell the story but also to extol the heroism of ordinary firemen, residents, and soldiers.  


Bravery and Hubris


While the film effectively blames the Soviet system for the disaster, in portraying the heroism of many individuals willing to sacrifice themselves for the common good, it also (perhaps unwittingly) reinforces one of the central tenets of the Soviet regime. The same gargantuan state which caused the accident by building an unstable reactor in the first place was also able to mobilize the resources to contain its effects. Eighty heavy-lift helicopters were available within 24 hours, and 600,000 soldiers and workers were drafted in to carry out the containment and cleanup operations. This “positive” side of the Soviet leviathan is represented by the figure of Shcherbina, played by Stellan Skarsgard.


We now know that many of the efforts to extinguish the fire and prevent another explosion were brave, but ineffective – the vast majority of the material dropped by the helicopters missed the core, and the fire burned itself out before it reached the refrigeration chamber built by the miners.


The film also shows how the Soviet bureaucracy tried to suppress news of the accident and – crucially – delayed evacuating the nearby city of Pripyat for 36 hours, exposing its 35,000 residents to potentially lethal doses of radiation. One episode that the film does not recreate is the official May Day parade that went ahead in Kyiv, just 100 kilometers away, five days after the explosion – a decision for which Mikhail Gorbachev must bear responsibility. In a few hours, some people may have received a dose of radiation dozens of times higher than the maximum annual limit for nuclear workers.


The accident was a result of human error and a fatal combination of arrogance and ignorance – but also systemic flaws. These included both problems in the design of the reactor and structural pathologies of the Soviet system, such as the pressure to meet plan targets and unwillingness to question orders. The Soviet state preferred to have giant plants (because they were easier to plan), but building reactors that were 20 times the size of a U.S. reactor made it harder to control the fission processes within the core, and meant that once an accident did occur it would be even more terrible.


In a climate of pervasive secrecy, the operators in the control room had not been informed about previous accidents at RBMK-type reactors, including one at the Chernobyl no. 4 unit itself. There was no way that the operators could have known that pushing the emergency shutdown button might cause the reactor to explode. These design flaws to some degree exculpate the main “villain” of the piece, deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, who pushed ahead with a scheduled test of the backup power system, in violation of some of the protocols. The authorities covered up the design flaws and blamed the accident on human error, sentencing three of the engineers to long jail terms. This explanation was accepted by most of the international community, including the International Atomic Energy Agency.


Explaining how a nuclear reactor works and why the RBMK reactors installed at Chernobyl were inherently unstable is no easy matter. Indeed, one of the main lessons of the HBO film is that this technology is so complex, and so powerful, that it is beyond humanity’s ability to understand and control all of its ramifications. But in a brilliantly scripted speech in the final courtroom episode, Legasov (Jared Harris) succinctly explains why the reactor melted down, with use of a hokey visual aid. Pop scientist Scott Manley argues that “The TV show is better than practically any documentary I have seen on the subject” (and check out his video if you want to learn more about xenon poisoning and the positive void coefficient).


Why Chernobyl Still Matters


The success of the series is all the more remarkable given that neither the writer nor the director had any background in historical or documentary film. Mazin was a comedy screenwriter and the Swedish Johan Renck was a former rock star and music video producer who directed three episodes of the hit TV show Breaking Bad (showing a penchant for the dark side). Mazin was inspired by the interviews with survivors in the book Voices of Chernobyl, by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, and she has praised the series.


Two important new books on the Chernobyl disaster, by journalist Andrew Higginbotham and Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy, came out too late to be used by Mazin, but they are invaluable for viewers who want to learn more. Plokhy puts the accident into its historical context, while Higginbotham digs deeper into the human tragedy. For example, Higginbotham relates that Leonid Toptunov, the 25-year-old control panel engineer, did not get any sleep during the day before the explosion because his son was sick and his wife had to go to work. He went back to the plant for the night shift having been awake for 36 hours. At 1:30 a.m., during the safety test, he failed to set the correct power level and the system defaulted to zero. These details did not make it into the TV series.


Plokhy has said about the HBO film that “it’s probably as close as anyone ever got to the reality of Chernobyl,” though Higginbotham has cautioned that “there is a lot of fictionalization and exaggeration for dramatic effect.”


Some of the initial reviews in the Western press were skeptical, criticizing relatively trivial aspects such as the use of actors speaking British-accented English. The New York Times television reviewer dismissed the show as a “reductionist” and “melodramatic” disaster movie;  one of the paper’s science writers picked at the factual errors. For example, the real Legasov did not give a speech in the trial denouncing the Soviet system, and he never uttered the phrase “What is the cost of lies?” that Mazin sees as the show’s motto.


The explosion at Chernobyl’s no. 4 reactor released 400 times more radiation than the Hiroshima atom bomb, and 10 times more than the Fukushima accident. Officially, only 31 people died as a direct result of the explosion, but the real number will never be known in consequence of the official efforts to suppress data collection.


The accident spawned a new genre of “Chernobyl literature,” with many of the liquidators writing memoirs to capture their life-changing experiences. The best Russian cinematic treatment is the 2011 movie Innocent Saturday by Alexander Mindadze: most of the film depicts the 16 weddings that took place in Pripyat on the day after the explosion. There are a number of popular video games set in the evacuated zone, and they have contributed to the boom in international tourism to the location, with 100,000 visitors expected this year. The Chernobyl disaster is no laughing matter, though memes are helping viewers process the enormity of its implications.


Chernobyl was a political and psychological turning point. Soviet citizens became more afraid of a nuclear accident than they were of the KGB. The accident accelerated Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost or press openness. That led to an upsurge of political mobilization (especially in the Baltic states and the Caucasus) which culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union just five years later.


The HBO series will enter the select group of films that indelibly captured an event and themselves became part of history, such as NBC’s Holocaust series (1978), which had a profound impact in both the United States and Germany, and ABC’s The Day After (1983), about nuclear war. For Russia, the closest equivalent would probably be Sergei Eisenstein’s patriotic blockbuster Alexander Nevsky, which established the medieval prince as Russia’s all-time hero.

Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
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