Let’s Get Reel: Chernobyl

Drew Kaplan ’20, Editor-in-Chief

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HBO’s (relatively) recent show Chernobyl has been making waves across both American and British TV sets. Dramatizing the events of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union, the show does a masterful job not only of presenting a strong storyline, but it also gets to the heart of Soviet power dynamics and captures a sense of realism that makes it appear as almost straight out of a different time and culture. 

The show opens with the explosion itself. What had been intended as, of all things, a safety test, had become the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Immediately, higher ups work to “stop the spread of misinformation,” as phrased by Zharkov, an executive committee member in the city of Pripyat. 

As engineers scramble to assess the situation, all except Valery Legasov, played by Jared Harris, assert the taught truth that Soviet RBMK reactors do not explode, and therefore there had been no explosion at Reactor Four of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station.

Only Legasov is able to question this, alongside Ulana Khomyuk, a character invented by the show’s creator, Craig Mazin, to encapsulate all the other scientists who worked behind the scenes in 1986. 

As the response continues, Legasov begins to notice as the official story coming from the Soviet government and what he is observing on the ground do not line up. This becomes increasing clear as several radiation dosimeters burn out, confirming the radiation level is thousands of times beyond what the Soviet government has officially reported. 

Despite these false reports however, liquidators work around the clock to secure the site, brought in from across the Soviet Union. All information regarding the true level of contamination remained on a need to know basis. 

Despite the severity of the situation, Anatoly Dyatlov, played by Paul Ritter, addresses the key point succinctly; the government is not interested in the truth. Rather, the emphasis is on saving face to avoid an international embarrassment on the inferiority of Soviet nuclear technology. 

“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid” muses Legasov near the end of the series, remarking on the string of shortcomings, cover ups, and rush jobs that had led to Reactor Four at Chernobyl, like many other Soviet reactors, operating on a knife’s edge while the operators themselves were kept in the dark as to the true danger with which they toyed. Legasov’s remark sums up the hole one digs one’s self into while attempting to avoid a harsh reality. The increasing degree of contradictions on which the system depends eventually comes to consume the everything; Mikail Gorbachev referenced in 2006 that the collapse of the Soviet Union itself was precipitated by the collapse. 

Other than the historical and philosophic significance, the show itself is commendable in its accuracy and attention to detail. It does fall somewhat to the trope of portraying Dyatlov, Viktor Bryukahov, and Nikolai Fomin, higher ranking officials with the plant, as pure villains however. 

Whether they fully understand the weaknesses of Soviet reactor design, or were simply creatures of the Soviet system, is difficult to determine. Regardless, all characters displayed a strong degree of interpersonal realism. 

Chernobyl provides a disconcerting and enticing view into the disaster, while also providing a strong commentary on the state of affairs when lies become an accepted substitute for truth, and the costs of attempting to hide that truth. Overall, it’s definitely worth a watch.