What HBO’s “Chernobyl”, and What It Did Terribly Wrong

Svetlana Alexandrievich, a Russian-language Belarusian writer, claimed that her book on Chernobyl was the one she found the easiest to report. (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. Alexievich also interviewed people about their experiences with the Second World War, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Alexievich discovered that there were common narratives and habits of speaking for all these events and periods in Russian History. These stories overshadowed actual personal experiences and private memories. Because the story had not been told, survivors were able to access their own stories much more easily when Alexievich asked them about Chernobyl. Soviet media provided very little information on the disaster. There was no literature, movies, or music. There was nothing.

Alexievich’s Chernobyl book was published in Russian in 1997. This was more than ten years after the Chernobyl reactor exploded in the most devastating nuclear accident in human history. The most striking thing about Chernobyl was the fact that the narrative vacuum has persisted for so long. Alexievich’s book on Chernobyl came to prominence in Russia and the West only after she won the Nobel Prize. There have been many stories about the tourist industry in the area. A BBC documentary was made, as well as an American-Ukrainian documentary. Two books, one written by a historian, and the second by a journalist have tried to tell the complete documentary story about the disaster. The fifth and final episode of HBO’s “Chernobyl” aired on Monday. It tells a fictionalized version. Because it’s a television and well-received television, the Cancelled TV Series will likely fill the void left by the book. This is not a good sign.

Before I go into the details of what went wrong with the series, let me first acknowledge what it did right. Johan Renck directed “Chernobyl”, which was written and produced by Craig Mazin and shows the Soviet Union’s material culture with a level of accuracy not seen before on Western television or film. Clothes and objects seem straight from nineteen-eighties Ukraine and Moscow. There are small errors, such as schoolchildren wearing holiday uniforms on non-holidays or teens carrying school bags for their little ones, but these are minor issues. Soviet-born Americans, and Soviet-born Russians, have been blogging and tweeting in amazement at how accurately the Soviet environment has been reproduced. One thing that is notable in this regard is the apparent ignorance of the huge divisions between socioeconomic classes within the Soviet Union. In the series Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), an Academy of Sciences member lives in almost the same level of squalor in Pripyat, Ukraine. Legasov would have lived in a completely different type of squalor to the fireman.

This is the biggest problem with the series: it fails to accurately depict Soviet power relationships. There are some exceptions. These flashes of brilliance shed light on the strange workings of Soviet hierarchies. The first episode shows Zharkov (Donald Sumpter) delivering a chilling speech to his fellow citizens during an emergency meeting at the Pripyat ispolkom. “No one is allowed to leave. Also, cut off the phone lines. Stop the spread of misinformation. That’s how we prevent people from undermining their labor.” This statement is everything: the bureaucratic indirectness that Soviet speech embodies, the privileging “fruits of labor” above the people who made them, and the complete disregard for human life.

A scene in the final episode of “Chernobyl,” also features a perfect representation of the Soviet system. Three men are being tried for their involvement in the disaster. A member of the Central Committee overrules a judge. The prosecutor then asks for direction. This was exactly how Soviet courts functioned: they followed the orders of the Central Committee and the prosecutor had more power than the judge.

The series is often filled with folly and caricature, aside from the striking moments. Boris Shcherbina, a member of the Central Committee (Stellan Skarsgard), threatens Legasov with having him shot if he does not explain how a nuclear reactor works in Episode 2. Many people in the series appear to fear being shot. This is incorrect. Summary executions or delayed executions under the orders of one apparatchik were not common in Soviet society after the nineteen-thirties. Most Soviets did not fear punishment or guns and did as they were instructed.

The many scenes in which heroic scientists face intransigent bureaucrats are similarly repetitive and absurd. They also criticize the Soviet system for decision-making. Legasov, for instance, asks rhetorically in Episode 3: “Forgive me, maybe I’ve spent too many hours in my laboratory, or maybe I’m just dumb.” This is how it works. Uninformed and arbitrary decisions that could cost thousands of lives, made by some career Party man, or some apparatchik.” Yes, this is the way it works. And no, he wasn’t in his lab for so long that he didn’t know that this was how it works. He wouldn’t have ever had a lab if he didn’t know how it works.

Soviet life was defined by resignation. Resignation is depressing and difficult to see. The creators of Chernobyl imagined confrontation in a world where it was impossible. In doing so, they crossed the line between creating fiction and fabricating lies. Ulyana Khomyuk, a Belarusian scientist (Emily Watson), is more confrontational than Legasov. In Episode 2, she tells an apparatchik that “I am a nuclear scientist.” She said that she had worked in a shoe factory before becoming Deputy Secretary. The second is that the apparatchik may have worked in a shoe factory. However, he wasn’t a cobbler. He has climbed the Party ladder which might have started at the factory. But, it was in an office and not on the floor. The apparatchik, or, better, the cartoon of the apparatchik, pours himself a glass vodka from a carafe and replies, “Yes, we worked in a shoe factory.” In what seems to be the middle, he toasts: “To all the workers of the globe.” There is no carafe or vodka at the workplace, and there is no brag about “I’m in control.”

Khomyuk is the biggest fiction in this scene. She is not like other characters. According to the closing titles she represents the dozens of scientists who assisted Legasov in investigating the cause of the catastrophe. Khomyuk seems to be everything Hollywood dreams of. Khomyuk is a truth-seeker. The first time she sees us, she already knows that something is wrong and is grasping the details quickly, unlike the dense men who need hours to absorb it all. She is also a truth-seeker. She interviews many people, some of whom are dying from radiation exposure, and then digs up a scientific article that has been blocked. Then she figures out what exactly happened, minute after minute. Gorbachev is also present at the meeting and she is immediately arrested. All of this is impossible and is a bit cliched. Khomyuk’s fictional story isn’t the problem. It is that she represents fictional expert knowledge. The Soviet system of propaganda, censorship and other censorship was not designed to spread a specific message, but rather to make learning difficult, replace facts with mush, or give the state without a face a monopoly over defining an ever-shifting reality.