OPINION: How HBO's 'Chernobyl' lied to us. And why we should still praise it

HBO, 2019
Admit it: when you watch Chernobyl, you can’t help but be in awe of its production. All that money working to turn the world’s biggest nuclear tragedy into a cinematic feast for the eyes. Not all is right with the show’s  sloppy execution. But what it does get right should make us all sit up and think.

‘Chernobyl’s’ truthfulness, the sheer scale of the undertaking - the actors, the genuine landscapes, clothes, mannerisms, the distinct lack of over-the-top caricatures, to say nothing of all that 1980s equipment - serves to convince the viewer that we’re no longer in a Cold War, forever remembered for its silver screen excesses.

But we still are, albeit unintentionally, as Chernobyl reveals. And that’s why the things the creators get away with are that much more dangerous to the foreign viewer’s perception of our country: you don’t know where reality ends and fantasy begins. It’s all extremely genuine, heartbreaking, cathartic. I wept. Everyone I know who’s seen the show wept.

The HBO miniseries’ creator Craig Mazin knew what he was doing. He had access to freely circulating historical accounts, but chose to be very selective with his portrayal of the Soviet people, paint us as not simply incompetent - or a nation willing to sacrifice people for sloppily explained reasons - but sometimes weirdly Western in behavior.

That’s not to say that the USSR wasn’t an inhospitable place to work in. Mazin’s Chernobyl masterfully demonstrates a situation that even the Russians consider to be the turning point in the story of the Soviet Union’s collapse: the cover-ups, the criminal negligence in service of an isolationist idea, the gigantic human cost and the utter bureaucratic complacency that had undoubtedly led to the nuclear catastrophe happening in the first place. It’s how he gets there that pulls the viewer’s attention slightly away from the invisible monster that is radiation, and towards the real monster - the Soviet Union. Without further ado, let’s dissect some of ‘Chernobyl’s’ more major flaws.


1. The sheer scale of Soviet incompetence

Mazin has the Soviet superiors (everyone, from the plant’s engineers, all the way to military apparatchiks) act in direct contravention of established operating procedure - to say nothing of the mindless ‘communist’ posturing the first three episodes are littered with, including the bizarre episode 1 speech from an aged ‘Voldermort’ apparatchik that all the higher-ups will be handsomely compensated for condemning some 50,000 inhabitants of the city of Pripyat to a slow death from radiation-related illnesses.

Yes - Chernobyl’s reactors weren’t perfect, and their secret flaws had arrogantly been concealed from even the operators themselves. True to science, those fatal flaws are aptly documented in episode 4: one such flaw was the sudden spike in energy output that occurs when all of the borum rods are entirely extracted from the reactor to lower its energy output, then, when inserted back in - lead in the first second to the output multiplying by a factor of 20. This, as we now know, is what had caused the explosion at Reactor 4 - an RBMK design used in Soviet Russia. What comes next plays a bit like the comedy ‘A Night at the Museum’ (2006), except with everyone’s skin peeling off to the sounds of blood-curdling human agony.

Where science is concerned, Chernobyl shines (almost shines: radioactive particles do not color the air blue - they may color liquids, when they are bombarded with neutrons e.g. coolant water inside a reactor core). Where humanity and Soviet reality are - it sometimes falls flat in the most unnecessary of places. And Soviet technical incompetence on the ground is a sort of entry point for the viewer to make assumptions about how all areas of life were generally run in the USSR.

It has to be admitted, there are dozens of accounts that testify to the haphazard treatment of nuclear energy by the Soviets: the whole project was riddled with dangers. But some of the series’ evil-doers, such as deputy chief-engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (the despotic antagonist in the control room, who is behind the fatal chain of decisions that made everything worse) are shown to be too unprofessional, too cartoonish. The creators, for all their research, really don’t understand (or don’t want to understand) who the Russians are as a people.

2. The idea that disobeying your superiors is worse than death

Dyatlov - ever the belligerent maniac - bosses his underlings around like they are powerless weaklings. If they don’t, the viewer won’t grasp just how ruthless the Soviets were, and how scary it was to be court-marshalled - even if disobeying meant saving lives - including one’s own - from a slower death than a bullet to the head.

Everyone in Control Room 4 keeps telling Dyatlov that the reactor went kaput. The deputy chief-engineer keeps insisting that it’s only the water tank. Not true, according to numerous records, including from Dyatlov himself (in Russian). He would’ve been in the perfect position to be among the first to see that it wasn’t the cooling water tank that was going bust. And he did realize it minutes later. Only the shift manager from Reactor No.3 doubted the truth - not Dyatlov. Although a harsh man, eerily similar to his portrayal on the show, Dyatlov was also a professional - not a maniac who lied through his teeth to save his skin. Yet, the fictional Dyatlov is shown minutes later in the bunker with the career apparatchiks doing just that!

Moreover, the real Dyatlov never screamed obscenities at his underlings, nor considered them too unprofessional for the job.

Dyatlov also went as far as to admit that using the AZ-5 button - the emergency shutdown that lowers the borum rods into the cooling water to stabilize the power output - was a mistake. But his decision to reverse it was several seconds too late. And he was not equipped with adequate information on the reactor to act otherwise. Credit where credit is due: he does have an outburst in episode 5, where he reveals that. But it plays out as distinctly un-Sovietlike and hysterical. However, let’s chalk that up to creative license (Mazin himself admitted in a podcast that the trial did not happen that way).

Still, on the fateful night of April 26, 1986, the control room of Reactor 4 was veering between dilettantism and fear of speaking up. Soviet professionals are depicted as mindless lemmings following orders out of fear. This brings me to my next point.

3. The idea that the Soviets only perform heroic deeds with a gun to their head

Of all the things I’d like to mention, this is the most serious, in my view. Throughout the show we see everyone from miners to mobilized civilians offered money to do what’s necessary: 500 rubles, 800 rubles, 1000 rubles… and lots of vodka, of course! (Russians are guzzling litres of firewater throughout the series, even though they would’ve known that it’s red wine you’re supposed to drink to counteract the effects of radiation). Mazin - a New Yorker - appears to think that Soviets are motivated by money even at death’s door. I won’t make any judgment about Americans here, but what other experience could Mazin be relying on for his story?

The same can be said of Akimov and the two other engineers in control room 4. They are such cowards that it takes a tyrannical Dyatlov to order them to turn some levers in the cooling room. They oblige, wading knee-deep through radioactive water that will surely kill them. But they do it out of sheer fear for their careers?

Moving on: an hour or so later, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant director Viktor Bryukhanov decides to send chief operations engineer Anatoly Sitnikov to the roof of reactor 4 to ascertain the scope of the damage - and Sitnikov...refuses? To bring you even closer to the edge of your seat, there are armed guards waiting just outside the door - you know, just in case one of the Chernobyl suits does something unpredictable and needs to be shot or restrained. The soldier is of course much more compliant than Sitnikov - who’s meant to be the professional in the room - and has no trouble escorting him up there to see if the lid of the core had indeed been blown off. Amazingly, when Sitnikv comes back down, they still think he’s delusional?!

It bugs me that Mazin opted to show the bravery of some Soviet people - and not others. Is it because only those men are brave who are given orders with a gun to their heads? You see, that’s how all sacrifice happened in the USSR. That’s why the 600,000 men who saved all of Europe by committing slow suicide in the subsequent cleanup of hazardous materials were only heroes because it was the USSR. You have to coerce them at gunpoint. As is depicted in the later scene with the Tula coal miners.

And speaking of the miners: some of the surviving ones were taken aback by the depiction of their selfless act as incentivized by monetary reward. My question to Mazin is - why did you have to show the entire nation as a bunch of greedy people who don’t understand their priorities?

One particular scene got some laughs out of people - when they send a coal minister in a suit to talk the 300 miners into digging a tunnel under the reactor. That would never happen in reality. You don’t address people 10 rungs below your level. And you don’t have to point a gun at them, for God’s sake.

4. The secret bunker meeting never happened. Neither did the blockade of Pripyat!

One of the cornerstones of the series is the ruthless Soviet decision-making that does everything in its power to conserve the Soviet image, while getting all the communist party suits a hefty pay raise in the process (you see, they’re even lousy at being communists - let alone their jobs). Not only did the meeting in the middle of the night not happen, but we are shown a room of morons who - under communist hypnosis - opt to blockade the nearby city of Pripyat, with all their wives and children, so as not to incur the wrath of ‘The Party’. Right...

In fact, it was Bryukhanov (who on the show claims that evacuation is not necessary) who first suggests getting the hell out of Pripyat. But in Mazin’s imagination, he’s too much of a career partyman to do that. So, condemning your family, along with 47,500 other people, is somehow a more palatable option. Everyone applauds the glory of the Soviet Union at the meeting.

Are we to believe that the Soviet apparatchiks were, in fact, a merry bunch of people? Of course not. The Soviet Union had no compunction about committing tens, even hundreds of thousands of people to certain death over a victory. But this was never done out of stupidity. Chernobyl has been polling so successfully with viewers precisely because some scenes appear true to form. That’s why a lot of the behaviors that are so out of character for actual Soviets slip under your radar so easily.

The truth: no order to blockade the city was ever issued. People were leaving in droves! What is Mazin talking about? This is textbook history.

Oh, and remember the evil Vice-Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Boris Scherbina, played by Stellan Skarsgard? In the fictional Chernobyl, everyone begs him to begin the evacuation of the city, but he doesn’t budge. In reality, that whole scene where people have to leave their belongings and queue in front of the busses taking them to Chernigov all happen on April 27 - mere hours after the explosion. Don’t ask me: ask the hundreds of survivors. The evacuation was carried out efficiently.

Why almost getting it right is more dangerous than straight-up lying

Like I’ve said, Mazin’s Chernobyl does lift the veil on some painful truths that Russians have to face up to. I just wish they weren’t ‘convenient’ truths for the Western filmmaker. It is the selectiveness of this accurate portrayal that allows Western audiences to forgive their respective governments for continuing to dehumanize and hound our country. It feels authentic.

Had Chernobyl happened in a country allied with the U.S. or the EU, none of this would have been necessary. We could all cry together. Instead, what is a global tragedy meant to unite us all against future nuclear energy negligence as a sort of refresher course on the perceived villainy of America’s chosen modern-day enemy - Russia. And from this standpoint, Russians are going to have a hard time forgiving. I wouldn’t take the heartlessness of Chernobyl’s characters at face value.

Here’s where Mazin’s Chernobyl deserves the highest praise

Regardless of the muddled timeline of Valery Legasov’s confessions, it is true: had it not been for the bravery and self-sacrifice of his, and others like him, the three remaining reactors would have faced the same fate sooner or later. Russia simply must face up to the fact that we were willing to ruin a man for essentially saving our asses, as well as all of Europe.

The criminal bureaucracy of late-era Soviet Union is, thankfully, in the past. Issues, however, remain with how we do things to this day: the nepotism, the brown-nosing, the fear of your superiors - all are still commonplace in the feudal society that is modern Russia. The American viewer’s frustration with our former USSR can and should be forgiven. Who are we to complain when many among us still believe it’s ok to sacrifice quality in the interest of protecting the interests of a few in a given professional environment? I’m not talking politics here, but the overall way in which we conduct our work - from law firms to factories to media to even garbage disposal companies - doesn’t matter. Americans at least act like they care (although their respective propaganda bubbles are much more craftily maintained than ours), whereas the Russian mentality of just letting go and hanging your head in despair whenever you’re faced with such obstacles persists to this day.

History buffs can complain all they want about the overdramatized portrayal of the career partymen in HBO’s Chernobyl. The truth doesn’t care. We still haven’t learned to value collective output above the interests of a small minority of individuals working in that collective. And in the eyes of the modern Russian viewer, Mazin’s story unwittingly seizes upon something very close to home.

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