Chernobyl – Politics of Disaster
Written by: Miloš Petrik
Translated by: Aleksandra Stojković
In May of this year, it looked as if the cable network HBO decided to prove the existence of cosmic justice: to their disgruntled viewers, disappointed by the sloppily put together ending of That Show™, they presented the highly acclaimed Chernobyl.
This article will contain some spoilers, so be warned. In case you’ve never met anyone who used to know someone who had heard this one time of someone who had once falsely claimed to have read a book or something, you may perhaps be surprised by some details in this mini-series. Some of you may judge the preceding paragraph as just empty wit, but the task of the creator of this planetary hit was made all the more difficult for that very reason. Everyone knows what happened in 1986 in Chernobyl. How can one make a nearly perfect show on a technical level which makes people want to watch it more than thirty years after the event it describes? Ask Craig Mazin. The scriptwriter of such hits as Senseless, Scary Movie 3 & 4 and The Hangover Part II, is, as it turns out, also capable of masterfully presenting a well-known event as something entirely new, making applied physics relatively understandable to the average viewer without dumbing it down, and dramatizing a story about systemic lies and incompetence with certain – more or less justified – creative deviations from the historic truth.
We all know the story: The Soviet Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant experienced a disaster. This was all somehow fixed, even thoughsome issues persist. Great. But where is the drama in that?
Where isn’t it? Is there a bigger gamble than “it can’t happen here”?
The plant’s night shift managed to, through a combination of incompetence, lack of information and carelessness, cause an event which had never happened before, and has never happened since on this Earth. The International scale of nuclear disaster notes only one comparable event – Fukushima 2011. When the people responsible for the disaster paid their toll to enter the history books, they refused to believe it themselves. This important delusion espoused for unknown reasons was extended for as long as possible. The opinion of the author is that the scriptwriter wanted to answer the question why?
The show follows the disaster itself, while retaining some focus on its causes, as well as the later efforts of curbing the disaster. The hero is Dr Valery A. Legasov, portrayed by the unjustifiably unadored Jared Harris. This nuclear physics engineer was put in charge of evaluating and stabilizing the situation. The historical Leagasov was conflicted about the way that the government dealt with the disaster, which is the reason he committed suicide, but in this interpretation the scriptwriter, along with a certain tragic aspect, gives him a sort of nobility and integrity which may not have had a basis in reality.
Legasov at first comes into conflict with the man in charge of the investigation, Boris Yevdokimovich Shcherbina (portrayed by the consistently great Stellan Skarsgård). At first, Shcherbina is almost naively convinced that the official version of events is the truth, but very quickly he grasps the seriousness of the situation. Dramaturgically speaking, Legasov is an idealist whose fatalism only grows, while Shcherbina is presented as a ruthless operative who gets things done, lending by the end some of his political skill to Legasov, so the tragedy wouldn’t be repeated.
From the cast we had a stand out performance by Jessie Buckley in the role of Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the wife of a military firefighter who is one of the first to come into contact with the disaster while dousing the flames at the plant, thinking it to be a simple fire. Her story concerns the brutal and tragic ignorance of exactly what they are faced with.
Chernobyl was not intended to be a 100% truthful account of the real disaster, but despite it, the efforts to make the show believable are noticeable. Legasov is presented as a fighter for truth and justice, an entirely inappropriate representation having in mind the political and social circumstances of that time. Still, the fact remains that the real Legasov was dissatisfied with the actions of his government, and it is also a fact that the average citizen who was affected by the disaster could not rely on their – at best secretive, and at worst false and incapable – government.
The series Chernobyl, as mentioned, is not a documentary, but everyone who worked on it put in great effort in order for it to be credible, to the minutest detail: costume, set design, licence plates, telephone rings. All of these are truly an achievement. One may believe it a flaw whenever the facts were abandoned for a more dramatic approach in the show – and maybe it should be considered a flaw – but it was not a big enough one for it to cheapen the impact and quality of the programme. Those who are interested in the “other side” can turn to Youtube – original interviews and documentaries are a dime a dozen.
It is unclear why the convention of East Europeans in shows speaking with “an accent” was abandoned, but it certainly helps with the credibility of the show. You will be hard-pressed to hear a comical “Russian” accent; the entire (eclectic) cast speaks with their natural accents. This clearly affects the acting, making it less contrived and less approaching caricature. In the end, the Soviet Union was a multinational country where the official language was spoken in many different ways. If the language of the show is English, there is simply no sense in inventing new accents and pronunciations for it – there are already quite enough of them.
Truth be told, if anyone truly cares for the truth, the stabilization of the accident itself went much better and more efficiently than portrayed, but this doesn’t change the crux of the matter: irresponsible people caused the disaster, and their betters were the ones who were supposed to fix it.
One more thing to lump in with the incorrect and distorted facts is the trial: historical nitpickers will notice that neither Legasov nor Shcherbina attended the hearings; along with that, the author personally finds fault with the lack of knowledge of the Soviet legal system, but is willing to overlook it since the judges aren’t given a presence in the story. It is left to the viewer to form their own opinion.
One shall turn a blind eye (with a reproachful eyebrow raise) to the americanization of the continental legal system, one will accept even Legasov and Shcherbina’s argument of the case (although mostly because this is portrayed masterfully by Harris and Skasgård). One, though, must be accepted as a fact of the case even in the USSR: the government betrayed its citizens. Let us move away a bit from history and look at the bigger picture: isn’t this just a fictional narrative? What happens when citizens aren’t able to rely on their government? What do we do when a person turns on the radio, and instead of a warning to not leave their house, all they hear is classical music?
One more thing must be mentioned, and it is a critique found on Serbia social media: that the show is anti-Russian propaganda.
How then, are we to understand that all the negative characters are Ukrainian, and not in fact Russian? Even if we accept that in the eyes of a Western viewer those two are one and the same – which really underestimates even the Western viewer – how are we then to understand that most of the good guys are Russian? How are we to understand the deep respect we have towards the people in charge of fixing the situation, but also towards the firefighters, the soldiers and the miners as shown by the creators of the show? Eastern Europeans are neither comical nor mean: when they’re nasty, they’re nasty. When they are heroes, they are heroes to the end, as much as a person can be one.
The three volunteers who delved under the reactor to drain the water, the miners who dug tunnels under the reactor in order to make room for the cooling system and the “biorobots” who removed radioactive graphite, sometimes with shovels and sometimes with their bare hands, all deserve human respect and compassion, and have received a nod of respect throughout the programme.
In Serbia, Russophiles can be divided into two types: the ones who like Vladimir Vystotsky and Bulat Okudzhava, Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevsky and the ones who really only appreciate and understand Russia through topless pictures of Vladimir Putin on herseback and the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. Can you guess which one of these two types dislikes the show?
One of the historical figures involved, Nikolai D. Tarakanov (portrayed by Ralph Ineson), rated the show quite highly for the accurate portrayal of the events in an interview with Russia Today. He began this interview with the same sentence as we will end this review with: “Chernobyl never leaves you.”
Miloš Petrik is a lawyer from Belgrade who left a glamorous job in the lawyer’s office for the glamorous job in the media business, and a glamorous job in the media for a glamorous job in the production of computer games. He was published in several domestic and foreign magazines and anthologies, collaborated with Radio Beograd 202, participated several times as a screenwriter at the exhibition of the International Salon of Comics in Belgrade, and wrote a collection of stories “Grey Chronicle” published by the Association of Fantasy Lovers “Lazar Komarčić”. Lately, he is engaged in literary translation. He likes food, beer, ties and games of all kinds. He is married and lives in Belgrade.
Translator Aleksandra Stojković, born August 23rd 1995, lives and attends University of Belgrade. She is currently in her final year of studies in the Faculty of Philology of the University of Belgrade, department of English. She works as a freelance translator and voice actress. She loves stories in all their forms, whether they be comic books, video games, movies or television shows.