Chernobyl, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and truth in fiction

A review of Chernobyl, written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, a 2019 mini-series in five parts on HBO/Sky.

In an early scene of Chernobyl, a young pregnant woman living in a tower block in Pripyat, the city of 50,000 near Chernobyl where most of the reactor’s workers lived, gets up in the night. As she fumbles around in the dark we can see, through the window behind her, the glow from a distant fire. While her back is turned to it, we see the glow suddenly flare up. A strange blue ray of light beams up into the sky. A few seconds later the shock wave from an explosion shakes the tower block. The town’s dogs start barking. That was the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploding. The blue glow of light was the effect of ionisation of the atmosphere caused by the massive release of radioactive material. The shock wakes the woman’s husband, who is a firefighter; soon he is being called to put out the fire with water. He will die a horrific death two weeks later from acute radiation poisoning.

Jessie Buckley as Lyudmila Ignatenko and Adam Nagaitis as Vasily Ignatenko in the HBO mini-series Chernobyl

It is a frightening scene, and the story it initiates follows through the series, as amid the chaos and confusion of the next few weeks the woman, Lyudmila Ignatenko, loses her husband Vasily, then her baby, whose fatal dose of radiation may have come from being too close to her father in the hospital where he was dying. The firefighters’ bodies were believed to be so radioactive, they were buried in special lead coffins, and the graves concreted in. Vasily and Lyudmila Ignatenko are based on real individuals, as are many of the other central characters in this drama.

The real Lyudmila and Vasily Ignatenko

Chernobyl is fiction, though, not documentary, and fiction has its own rules and requirements. This series makes full use of dramatic licence in order to meet the demands of drama. Some of the characters are composites, representing myriad nameless figures in real life. The science of the disaster has been somewhat simplified, the timing of events telescoped, the dialogue reconstructed – and at times it is a little laboured and pretentious. Yet the whole thing rings true to the known facts. Enormous efforts have been made to reconstruct accurately the scene of the disaster – the scale of which is hard to imagine – from the few photographs and verbal descriptions of the scene before it was covered over in a concrete sarcophagus. The technology used by the firefighters, the constant cigarette-smoking, the general appearance and atmosphere of the purpose-built Soviet city of Pripyat, right down to the school uniforms worn by the children, have been meticulously re-created. It is convincing, and powerful.

Chernobyl Reactor Number 4 destroyed by explosion

The first part of the drama focuses on total unpreparedness of the workers called upon to deal with the situation. “Do you smell metal?” Vasily asks the other firefighters as they set up the hoses. “What the hell is this stuff?” asks one of his mates, picking up a piece of the rubble strewn about them. A few minutes later the friend is screaming in agony, as radiation burns destroy the hand he had used to pick up the piece of rubble. Some Pripyat residents gather on a railway overbridge to watch the fire from a distance, as dust falls like snow about them. Interspersed are scenes from within the reactor control centre, where the chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov flatly refuses to believe it when he is told by the operators that the reactor has exploded. “We did everything right,” one of the technicians whispers repeatedly to another. From the first moment, administrators and responsible figures at every level scramble to re-assure their superiors that it is a minor incident and everything is under control, while preparing to pin the blame on their inferiors.

Reactor control room a few moments after explosion – still from Chernobyl

As the hospitals begin filling up with firefighters and others suffering from radiation sickness, the scale of the disaster gradually makes itself known to those closest to it. Further from the scene, and higher up the chain of government command, the chief preoccupation is how to prevent news of the incident escaping. “We seal off the city, so no one can leave. We contain the spread of misinformation,” an elderly Stalinist official urges, to acclamation. (So tight was the control, in fact, that news of the disaster only leaked beyond the Soviet Union when elevated atmospheric radiation levels were detected in Sweden, a thousand miles distant.  In the meantime, people closer to the scene in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and the Baltic countries, kept in ignorance of the dangers, went about harvesting vegetables and drinking milk contaminated with radiation, vastly increasing the human toll of the disaster.)

As catastrophic as the Chernobyl disaster was, it could have been a thousand times worse, were it not for the heroism of workers who staked their lives in doing what the situation demanded without regard to their personal well-being.

Once it was determined that the reactor had exploded, the means adopted to halt the continuing release of radioactive smoke was to dump boron and sand on the fire from helicopters. (Boron tends to absorb neutrons, slowing the nuclear fission still going on in the remaining uranium fuel). This eventually succeeded in limiting the emission of toxic smoke, but at the cost of building up heat, and accelerating the tendency towards meltdown, where the remaining fuel begins burning through the concrete underneath. There was a danger of even bigger explosions and environmental contamination if this molten material ever came into contact with groundwater.

Dumping sand and boron on the fire by helicopter – still from Chernobyl

The most immediate danger was water from the firefighters’ hoses that had accumulated in a flooded basement underneath the reactor. To clear it out, three reactor workers who knew the layout of the plant were needed to enter the basement in diving gear, wade through chest-deep radioactive water, and find and open a valve. It would quite likely cost them their lives.

One of the best scenes shows the meeting where the scientists explain the situation to the workers, describe the problem, and call for volunteers for this hazardous mission. At first they try to keep the workers ignorant of the true dangers and cheerfully promise them material rewards – but by this time the workers have had enough of being lied to, and react with anger. Eventually the scientists appeal to the sense of social responsibility of the workers to ‘do what needs to be done’ – and they get their volunteers.

To prevent a melt-down in the longer term, it was decided to place a heat-exchange mechanism involving liquid nitrogen in the earth underneath the destroyed reactor. A group of coal miners from Tula – well-accustomed to dangerous working conditions – was recruited for the task of excavating a tunnel under the reactor, once again at grave risk to their own personal safety. Because of the unstable situation right above them, they were not able to use machinery, and had to dig the tunnel by pick and shovel, in conditions of extreme heat. The miners are somewhat overdrawn and caricatured, but depicted respectfully for all that. (In the end, the meltdown halted at the concrete floor, and so the liquid nitrogen mechanism was not used.)

Tula coal miners recruited to tunnel under the stricken reactor – still from HBO series

The focus of the drama then shifts to the efforts of some scientists to break through the cover-up and figure out what happened – since such a reactor explosion was widely believed to be an impossibility. Here the story becomes less terrifying, but even more interesting. The hero of this story is Valery Legasov, a senior nuclear-chemist at a Moscow scientific institute and trusted party man, but one who harbours deep suspicions about the overly optimistic reports coming from the local officials. Legasov is sent by the top Soviet leadership to investigate and give scientific advice on mitigating the disaster. There is also a more unlikely hero, Boris Shcherbina, a career bureaucrat sent to keep an eye on Legasov. Both of these characters were real people.

Legasov eventually concludes that the key to the explosion, which happened just after the operators initiated the emergency shutdown process, lies with a design flaw which had already been reported years earlier in a similar reactor. In that case, the scientist reporting the problem had been sacked, and his report suppressed, for fear of damaging the reputation of Soviet nuclear industry. Legasov himself had known of this report, and its suppression. Gradually, against a lifetime of habit, Shcherbina is also won to understand something of the depth of the problem, and even its social causes, and as he does, he uses his authority to help widen the cracks in the monolith of denial.

Left: Jared Harris as Valery Legasov. Right: the real Valery Legasov

There is a dramatic moment in the scene of the courtroom where the three top officials of the reactor are being tried for their responsibility for the disaster. Legasov is the primary witness, and both the judges and the prosecutors are anxious not to allow him any opportunity to speak about anything other than the actions of the three accused. Just as the judge hastily cuts off Legasov’s testimony before he has finished, Shcherbina stands and says ‘Let him finish!” Shcherbina is present in the court only as a witness – but he is also a top official of the Soviet government. Judge and prosecutor exchange worried glances and nods: they dare not over-rule such a high official. Legasov gets to finish his testimony.

Left: Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Shcherbina Right: the real Boris Shcherbina

In this part of the story the artistic licence is more sweeping, but not less truthful.

It is unlikely that the division between the truth-seeking scientists on the one hand and the responsibility-deflecting bureaucrats on the other was as sharply defined as it is presented here. Yet it is a fact that as the scale of the disaster emerged, from somewhere within the broad corrupt bureaucratic layer, principally from among the scientists, emerged a few honourable individuals, who placed the search for the truth about the causes, and the necessity of mitigating the effects, saving lives and preventing a recurrence, higher than their own personal self-interest – that is, higher than their need to deflect responsibility from themselves. Had that not been the case, the scapegoating of the three reactor officials would have been successful and we would still be guessing what actually happened. The character of Legasov in the drama stands for those scientists, as does the entirely fictional character of Ulyana Khomyuk. They deserve this recognition.

Towards the end, the last President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev – who in 1991 found himself as head of a state that no longer existed – is quoted as saying that the Chernobyl disaster was the main cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Demonstrating the same willful blindness as the bureaucrats depicted in the series, Gorbachev fails to see the deeper connection between these two events – for fundamentally, cause and effect were the other way round. It was the advanced social decay in the Soviet Union that was the principal cause of the disaster.

Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan, Geneva 1985. Photo: Gary Hershorn, Reuters

The malaise affecting the Soviet Union was many-sided. It was characterised especially by the arrogant contempt of the bureaucracy towards the workers, expressed in the bullying and humiliation of all those lower on the ladder. On the workers’ side, atomised and powerless as they were, there was a corresponding attitude of resignation before those overlords, and extreme alienation. This attitude took the form of a passive cynicism and often, dark humour (briefly depicted here in the bitter jokes among the coal miners.)

The culture of corruption and individual self-seeking that was nurtured by the regime, the routine lying, the combination of bribes and threats as their means of getting their way, the scapegoating of underlings for any problems – and the consequent reluctance of anyone to take responsibility for anything – these things were essential features of this regime at all levels. These constituted the necessary social context for this disaster. Not the least aspect of this malaise was an attitude of contempt towards the non-Russian nationalities in the Soviet ‘family,’ including Ukraine, Belarus, and the other small nations most directly affected – reflected in the authorities’ criminal slowness to evacuate Pripyat.  For these Russian chauvinists, the death of a few thousand Ukrainians by radiation poisoning was less important than the reputation of Soviet industry. When eventually the city was evacuated, the operation displayed the same lying, brutish methods. They knew no other way.

There is a scene where one of the reactor technicians refuses to follow an instruction from the reactor’s chief engineer, Dyatlov, because it is unsafe. Dyatlov threatens him with dismissal if he fails to carry out the instruction, and adds that he will ensure that the technician will never be hired again anywhere in the Soviet electricity industry.  Workers around the world will recognise this situation from their own experience – how many workers the world over get threatened with the sack for refusing to undertake unsafe actions! But the difference in the case of the Stalinist state was the enormous power wielded by those making such threats, when the state is the sole employer.

Scene in reactor control centre before explosion – bullying supervisor Dyatlov (played by Paul Ritter) second from right

All the bureaucratic layers are corrupted to some degree. There is another biting scene where Legasov is confronted by the all-powerful head of the government spy agency, the KGB. The top spy is furious that Legasov has indicted the government itself for its role in covering up the known design flaws in the reactor – despite the generous promises of promotion and medals that were offered to him earlier on condition that he stuck to the official story. The KGB man threatens Legasov that his testimony will be suppressed and ignored, but more importantly, he uses Legasov’s own past complicity in the bureaucratic system against him. “You’re no hero, you’re one of us more than you like to think,” he sneers, pointing out that in his previous position at a Soviet science institute Legasov had obstructed the promotion of Jewish scientists, among other things. As far as the KGB man is concerned, the damage has already been done, but he wants to make sure nonetheless that he destroys Legasov morally and spiritually. And he succeeds.

KGB boss confronts Legasov – still from Chernobyl

Without these psychological and political elements, the pattern of extremely irresponsible disregard for safety demonstrated by the reactor workers on that night is simply inexplicable. The way this series depicts these psychological elements – which can be done better in fictional form than in any documentary – is the chief merit of Chernobyl. Whatever its weaknesses, exaggerations, omissions, and inaccuracies – and there is no shortage of reviews and criticisms pointing out where it departs from this or that detail of fact – this is a colossal achievement.

In every statement there is at least a grain of truth, and this applies as well to Gorbachev’s claim that Chernobyl brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cause and effect have a dialectical relationship, and switch places at key turning points. While it was the Soviet malaise that caused the disaster at Chernobyl, the disaster, in turn, combined with the botched cover-up that followed, revealed this malaise to the world, and robbed the Stalinist regime of its last shreds of political credibility.  The rottenness of the Soviet regime stood exposed before the peoples of the Soviet Union themselves; it lost its moral mandate to rule. Chernobyl triggered and hastened, rather than caused, the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Within a few years of the Chernobyl disaster the Soviet Union had fractured along national lines; a few more years later capitalism had been fully restored across the whole of its former territory. The Stalinist kleptocracy finally cast off its pretensions to speak in the name of communism and the workers’ revolution of 1917. It took the nationalised industries into the private ownership of whatever bureaucrats could lay claim to them, enriching themselves with this stolen wealth and transforming themselves into a fully-fledged bourgeoisie.

The liberation of the oppressed nations from the Soviet ‘prison house of nations’ was undoubtedly an advance, albeit a very partial one. They remain under continuing threat from the Russian oppressor, as the events of Ukraine in 2014 and Belarus today demonstrate. But the restoration of capitalism did not bring with it capitalist democracy. Much of the old repressive apparatus – the police and prisons, the armed forces, the political machinery and news media, the spying and political-murder apparatus – were carried over, weakened but otherwise little changed.

The hypocritically anti-worker “Soviet” police state of Gorbachev, leaning ever more heavily on market mechanisms to regulate its economy, and resting on a mass Stalinist party as the backbone of the bureaucracy, its eyes and ears, was transformed into… a brazenly anti-worker dictatorship of capital, resting instead on a revived Orthodox church, mobilisations of rightist thugs, an obedient news media, the murder and imprisonment of dissenters, the unchallenged prerogatives of the market, and the personal popularity of a Bonapartist strongman.

This was hardly a great step forward for the working class. Nor was it a great setback. The real catastrophe, the historic blow against the working class, had taken place decades earlier, in the paroxysm of counter-revolutionary violence that lasted from the late 1920s through to the early 1950s. That was when the working class was driven out of political power, and its vanguard murdered, as the Stalinist bureaucracy took the reins of the world’s first workers’ state.

The restoration of capitalist property relations by itself does nothing to reduce the likelihood of further Chernobyls – as proved yet again by the disaster at Fukushima in capitalist Japan. Even as the toxic cloud from Chernobyl was drifting over Europe, the capitalist governments in Western Europe were lying to their own citizens about the extent of the danger and dragging their feet over taking steps to reduce their exposure to radioactive poisons – in much the same way, and for much the same reasons as the Soviet government. Meanwhile, in the United States, where only a few years earlier there had been a radiation leak and partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island reactor in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the news media coverage of the disaster in the Soviet Union could only be described as gleeful.  

The sole serious act of solidarity with the afflicted peoples of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia came from Cuba, on the other side of the globe, the only workers’ and farmers’ government in the world. Beginning in the early 1990s, the Cuban government offered the use of its hospitals to treat the children of people affected by exposure to radiation. At the Pediatric Hospital in Tarará, on the outskirts of Havana, some 25,000 Ukrainian, Belarussian and Russian children and teenagers, many suffering horrific birth defects and cancers, were taken for treatment not provided in their own countries, and welcomed together with their parents into the Cuban community for a period of years. This programme was undertaken at the same moment that Cuba itself began a period of extreme economic difficulty, as the sudden ending of trade with the Soviet Union resulted in an 80% decline in Cuba’s imports and exports and a 35% drop in GDP.  It was an exemplary act of selfless international solidarity. (An excellent documentary on this programme broadcast on Cuban TV in 2006 can be seen here with English subtitles.)

Ultimately, the most important effect of the collapse of the Soviet Union was the weakening of the barriers to travel and emigration which the Stalinist regime had imposed on the toilers of those countries, and the re-integration of the working class of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and all the other former Soviet ‘republics’ into the world working class. If the Chernobyl disaster and its long aftermath teaches us anything, it is that workers’ fight for safety on the job is inextricably connected to the fight for protection of the natural environment, that both of these are inseparable from the fight of workers to join in unions and organise to defend their class interests. And that this is nothing if not an international fight.

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