Chernobyl: if you're not watching it, why aren't you?

9 Jun 2019

I was characteristically late to the party with Chernobyl, Sky’s five-part mini-series, the last episode of which aired last week. It was a mix of word of mouth and its claim to be the highest rated show of all time on IMDb which finally encouraged me to check it out. And boy, was it worth it.


Where do you start with the praise? Some of Britain’s (and Europe’s) finest actors lead the cast, including Jared Harris, Emily Watson, and Paul Ritter. I would personally single out Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Shcherbina, a Soviet party man who is assigned by his boss, Mikhail Gorbachev, to deal with the crisis, as the strongest character. Upon learning from nuclear physicist Valery Legasov (Harris) that his visit to the site of the explosion will ultimately cost them both of their lives, Shcherbina transforms from an uncaring party apparatchik into a man who devotes everything he has to tackling the fallout.


Shcherbina and Legasov lead an almost war-like effort to put the fire out and deal with the resulting contamination after Chernobyl’s fourth reacting explodes on April 26, 1986. The first episode opens with the seconds after the explosion, the full explanation saved until the finale to give the denouement the drama it needs. Yet the audience already knows something is gravely wrong with the operation of the plant and that, in effect, a cover-up begins before the fire brigade is even called.


Unlike many current television shows that have mined real life for juicy drama, the producers of Chernobyl have put an extremely high value on historical accuracy. Those firefighters did indeed stand metres away from an open nuclear reactor and pointlessly try to douse it with water. A group of spectators from a nearby bridge in a town, now abandoned, with the equally infamous name of Pripyat, did all die from radiation poisoning just months later. And the tortured Valery Legasov did kill himself two years to the day after the explosion, most likely wracked with the guilt of his knowledge that he wasn’t allowed to share.


There are some minor faults, I will admit. There are a series of scenes in which men tasked with cleaning up the exclusion zone must shoot and then cremate an abandoned town’s worth of household pets, as Britain did when we went to war with Germany in 1939. They feel slightly superfluous and could have been condensed into one scene, and will doubtless bring tears to your eyes if you consider yourself a pet lover. And you will have to get over everyone speaking with English accents while referring to each other as ‘Comrade’ and swilling vodka from the bottle.


Yet all of this can be overlooked for one very simple reason, and that is the show’s message. In the weeks and months following the incident, and, as we learn, before it took place, there was an extraordinary culture of lying, deceit, and secrecy within the Soviet state, as if an entire country has forgotten how to be honest. Illustrating this are some extraordinary scenes where bosses at the plant flatly tell their staff to their faces that they have not seen evidence that the core had exploded and that the reactor was, therefore, leaking radiation into the air – something they had witnessed with their own eyes. It reminded me of Orwell’s line about fascism acting like a boot stamping on your face. Anatoly Dyatlov (Ritter) and his endemically corrupt colleagues attempted to stamp on the truth at every possible opportunity.


This was not technically fascism, of course, but Soviet communism, although by this stage – this was just a few years before the whole edifice collapsed almost overnight – there is a sense that everything has degenerated to an extent that it is beyond repair, with honesty being one of the many casualties. One character points out that the Soviet Union is deeply insecure, ‘obsessed with not being embarrassed,’ something that manifests itself in a refusal to ask the United States for a machine that will help clear the roof of the deadly reactor. By the mid-1980s, this was a society that struggled to deal with an internal crisis let alone fight a war which fortunately never went nuclear itself.


Without giving too much away, in the final episode we see Harris's character wrestle with his decision to tell his nation the highly embarrassing reasons why the reactor did explode and therefore unveil the staggering deceit which led to the incident. 'Every time we lie,' he says during the inquest, 'it incurs a debt to the truth.' Chernobyl is what happens when these debts build up to such an extent that they must be released, like radiation, out into the open. With Gorbachev beginning his glasnost and perestroika policies not long after the clean-up began, there is a strong case to be made that Chernobyl was the final nail in the lead-lined coffin for the Soviet system.


Insufferable fanboy though I am, I sincerely hope there will be no second season (I can’t possibly think what they would do for a storyline). Hopefully, the talents of the show’s production team will be used for a new project on an entirely different subject. Meanwhile, those five raw, gripping episodes will stand as a true classic, with an important contemporary theme carefully crafted through them. If you’re not watching it, seriously, why aren’t you? 


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