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Chernobyl HBO: Seeing In The Dark

The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognise the truth at all.

Valery Legasov, nuclear physicist

Nothing prepares you for the existential dread Chernobyl HBO (2019) conjures within a heartbeat of tuning into its eerie glow. I gave it a good while to settle in my mind after its final, I knew I’d want to write about it (as would anyone with an inkling of interest in the art form) – but not while I was still in its grasp. Within one month of collective aftershock, it became a global phenomenon. And ongoing.

If I could pick anything I’ve seen on screen to exemplify how Persean the medium of the moving image inherently is, this would be it. The only way to look at Chernobyl is through a rear-view mirror, the complex ocular shield of the camera – otherwise we’d be staring at Medusa’s face, unprotected. An open nuclear reactor core burning our synapses through sheer magnitude of existential incomprehension.

As of the moment of writing this, it’s also the highest audience-rated TV series in history on IMDb, and even though, inevitably, journos, tourists & true believers are already dismantling the fictionalised story – the authentic horror and intricate truth of it won’t be disappearing from our planetary consciousness any time soon.

It’s a piece of popular art that set the bar a mile high, offering the bleakest narrative possible, yet the audience rushed to meet it, like it was liquid oxygen, manna for their brains. An apocalyptic serialised memento mori.

Watching Chernobyl turned out to be an experience I could only describe as ultra-reality, the densest sensation one can process while in the naturally detached state of being in the simulacrum. This might be the case for a lot of people watching it, as anyone alive in Europe in spring of 1986 could have been potentially obliterated by the domino effect of its diabolical detail.

The most crucial of which was called the AZ-5 button, the off switch that became a detonator by miscalculation of a narcissistic system of government that was driven to hide its faults at all costs. How an escape hatch became a lock-down is the real story of Chernobyl, the frenzied secret bureaucracy and policing behind the beast: redacted information, misdirection, closed circles of power, incompetency on a gob-smacking scale, and a simple routine obscuring of facts to save face, an unfortunate human trait magnified to a size of a continent. A system so obsessed with preserving its rigid structure slowly killing off its living oxygen supply. 

The symbolism of a structure devouring its substance becomes more than apt when it comes to the logistics of totalitarianism of any persuasion or creed.  And the Soviet Union became a behemoth of denial & damage, a Sunset Boulevard of states, not because it was never great, but because it set itself up to be impeccably glorious, forever. Thus Chernobyl became a crucial (and indisputable) internal proof that the USSR was now irredeemably self-delusional. In a way, the Soviet system was more Hollywood than Hollywood, but the glamour was not the image, but the idea. The mind-boggling cost of lies and the amount of energy that became necessary to maintain the concept played out like a macabre allegory to a system failure so gargantuan that not even an ur-Machiavellian organisation like the KGB could manage to contain its aftermath.

The concept, however, started out much better than it ever saw itself to be. Applied communism was definitely not the cause of Chernobyl meltdown, as a ideology trolls would have it, but a hijacked ideology might have been. The fact that this particular brand of totalitarianism hosted itself on a inherently humanistic worldview made it even more sinister, and tragically – more enduring. The silver lining (if there can even be one) was that the point was not entirely lost, merely went dormant due to collective gaslighting, which bred fear, compliance, and inertia, as making people crazy is wont to do. But the idea of the importance of the communal, the individual willingness to do what’s right no matter the personal cost – the sacrifice the people of Russia and Ukraine, and across the USSR, gave unflinchingly, is so astounding, that the answer must be in something that was left pure, unsoiled by the structural lie. Craig Mazin, the showrunner of Chernobyl HBO, offered an excellent view on this heroic reversal in his Scriptnotes podcast following each episode: Chernobyl, he says, might have only been possible in the USSR, such as it was, and on such a scale – however it could only have been resolved in the USSR, such as it was, and on such a scale.

The human spirit always defeats the system fail-safe. Because it allows for its redemption.

When on 26 April 1986, at 01:23:40 (Moscow Summer Time), comrade Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter, brilliant in wrath and impertinence), the scientist in charge of the safety test that brought on Armageddon, pushed the inner workings of a Ukrainian nuclear reactor to its absolute natural limits, ordered by his superiors, and convinced by the rule book he has a fool-proof escape route, he more closely resembled a tyrant in crisis, than a scientist performing an extremely high-wire task. His motivations seemed deeply personal, revealing a self-destructive wiring that incinerates everything around when it overheats. There is a discrete scene at the very beginning of episode one, in which Dyatlov gets a glimpse of pieces of ominous graphite on the ground below. For a scientist this would present absolute proof that the core is gone – it is the only place where graphite could be found. However, Dyatlov goes back to the control room, and proceeds to refuse the mere possibility of this being true, intimidating his staff, calling anyone who contradicts him delusional, consequently sending his crew to their gruesome deaths. Alexandr Akimov (Sam Troughton) and Leonid Toptunov (Robert Emms) sent to turn on the emergency cooling pumps, manually, survive long enough for their testimonies to help solve the mystery of the explosion – before dying in a Moscow hospital, their bodies mutilated by decomposing tissue. 

Interestingly, Dyatlov, lives on for another decade. 

This series of scenes seems key to the labyrinth. The actual accounts of people working with the man are the most contradictory in terms of dramatisation. Extremely arrogant professional slipping into criminal negligence was probably more the case than batshit insane. It seems that being insufferable makes for a great villain, an all-around perfect scapegoat. In truth, it gives good metaphor. The Minotaur does not believe itself to be the monster. 

I found the trajectory of comrade Dyatlov possibly the most systemic of them all, which is why he was also the KGB’s ultimate fall guy. He has no arc, being the narcissist he is, he ends where he begins – adamant that he is not guilty. And, in truth, he wasn’t. The system itself was the villain. He was merely its particularly fitting cog.

In contrast to the the two fools, his ridiculously inept and dangerously deceptive bosses, ending up on trial with him, Bryukhanov (Con O’Neill) and Fomin (Adrian Rawlins), Dyatlov understood that.

Most terror is instigated out of distorted perception triggering overblown self-defense.

Something incredibly cruel  happens when reality becomes this negotiable. Still vivid in my mind is the image of the children of Pripyat, the town nearest to the Chernobyl nuclear plant, staring meekly at the black smoke in the sky, going about their business the day after, while children a thousand miles away, in West Germany, are publicly instructed not to go outside due radiation levels in clouds travelling from Ukraine. Kronos devouring his own. Ilya Repin’s painting of a horrified Ivan the Terrible cradling his son after killing him, as visual cue whenever the camera visits the Kremlin.

The entire region continues with May Day parades. Only a few question this – their gut reaction has been numbed by decades of hypnosis.

If you ever wondered what happens when millions of people are brainwashed for years, this is what happens. No one is ready for, or aware of anything real, because the perception of reality is manufactured. This might even be a standard for ad hoc civilisations, especially ones centred around a cult of personality (living, dead or divine). Chernobyl’s human chain reaction is symbolic for our ever-present tendency to disconnect from instinct and intuition, and plug into what the Gnostics called archonic forms – mental constructs which we literally give life to through prolonged adherence to their increasingly unhinged structures.

USSR presented here is merely the Geiger counter for an inner radioactivity, a collective tendency towards unawareness. Toxic constructs thrive because we allow them to. Left unattended, they become lethal, and macabre in their deadliness.

When the firemen are sent to the site, they have no protective equipment, no safety instructions – yet, the entire country is constantly on alert from US attack. At the plant emergency meeting, a Party old-timer instructs cutting all phone lines and sealing off the city – top priority now is to preserve Leninism, at all costs. The radiation measurements the inept plant officials send to the Central Committee in Moscow are the maximum measurements of a small dosimeter – 3.6 Roentgen, not the later established Hiroshima-level of 15000 Roentgen, two nuclear bombs of radiation per hour. Keeping the bosses from getting upset is paramount. Plant personnel’s skin is peeling off from radiation exposure, and they are still sent off by officials to stare at an open nuclear reactor core in order to assess the damage.

Everyone in charge seems entirely deranged.

And then we arrive in superhero land. The superpower in question being willing awareness.

We are reintroduced to the man we saw commit suicide at the very beginning of episode one, a few years following the catastrophe, after secretly stashing tapes of his testimony, and waiting for the clock to strike Chernobyl meltdown time before hanging himself. Vladimir Legasov (Jared Harris, his character study straight out of Chekhov), the scientist assigned the task of dealing with the Chernobyl explosion aftermath, had been a rules man, obedient to the Party, opportunistic even, but possessing a consciousness necessary to breach protocol when crisis reached boiling point. Legasov has an almost reflex bravery, speaking truth to power sometimes despite himself. Once he took on the task of assessing the damage, he knew it was a path of no return, which gave him unbeatable momentum. That kind of inner conviction exposed a strong redemptive streak in the obstinate, imperious Party official Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård, black-diamond-perfect), an up-to-that-point procedural apparatchik who became Legasov’s trusted wing man in a mission that would ultimately claim both their lives.

Once people knew the stakes, courage ceased to become a byproduct of bravado, just a matter of personal choice.

When true damage was measured by steely Vladimir Pikalov (Mark Lewis Jones), lone wolf general driving a truck into the abandoned site, getting as close as he can to an open core nuclear reactor fire so he can record the radiation, Gorbachev (David Dencik) and the Central Committee were finally told the figures. They were also told the possible consequences. Ones which were so unbelievable, and so apocalyptic, that they bordered with lunacy. An actual end of days.

Along with the real-life key actors, the writers chose to give one voice of reason to all the scientists that worked with Legasov, and Ulana Khomyuk, nuclear physicist from Belarus (Emily Watson, the heart of anything she’s in) appears, clear minded, in time to clean up any residue hubris from her male counterparts, thereby saving at least one continent from extinction. She also investigates the trajectory of the accident, meticulously and doggedly, dodging her KGB shadow overlords step by step.

Finally, down in the galleys, there are the multitudes, all with a face, if not a name, because that’s how it is, and that’s how the show rolls. Why it works.

Key among them is Lyudmila Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley, raw and vulnerable), the widow of firefighter Vasily (Adam Nagaitis), whose story features formidably in Voices from Chernobyl by Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich. Her devotion, compassion, and fearlessness in emotion, bordering on foolishness, was a masterclass in depicting what real love looks like in an extreme circumstance. It seems telling that her character inspired both audience adoration and audience ire. There is something about complete selflessness in a self-centered post-post-modern world that triggers irrational contempt. Probably because it makes one face the uncomfortable truth of how much cowardice is now spun as self-care.

The procession of heroes continues with military helicopter pilots doing runs over a burning nuclear core, dropping boron and sand to extinguish the fire, to the three plant workers, engineers Alexei Ananenko (Baltasar Breki Samper), and Valeri Bespalov (Philip Barantini), and shift supervisor Boris Baranov (Oscar Dyekjær Giese), who went into the radioactive pool below the reactor, to drain the pipes of water. Lest the further meltdown create a steam explosion wiping out half of Europe within 48 hours. When the entire crew was called up and offered bonuses for an obscure yet clearly suicidal task, no one seemed to budge. Then Shcherbina told them the truth, and the three volunteered, immediately.

To prevent further cataclysm from the meltdown – a contaminated groundwater supply leading to the Dnieper River, and all the way to the Black Sea, miners were summoned to dig a tunnel under the reactor to build a protective foundation. And they worked around the clock in unimaginable heat for weeks, a throbbing open core oozing lethal radioactivity above their heads. The dramatisation of a government official (Michael Colgan) visiting a coal mine to enlist the miners’ help – pushing them to comply with bureaucracy-speak – and the no-bullshit miner crew chief Glukhov (Alex Ferns) immediately taking him down ten notches, was gold. The man in the blue suit then humbly offers the truth. If they do not get on board, there will be no Black Sea. The miners, of course, step up without so much as a blink, amicably slapping the man with their coal black hands: Now you look like the minister of coal.

Shcherbina advises Legasov to never lie to them: these men work in the dark, they see everything.

Gracefully, there is tons of black comedy in the Chernobyl series. The kind of gallows humour that saves our sanity when all joy dies.

And the fourth episode in the series of five was death of everything, in the most literal way, as an army of liquidators methodically erased life in a thousand mile radius. Pripyat now a ghost town, all crops in the area destroyed – as well as all wildlife, including animals left behind in cities, as evacuees were not allowed to take their beloved pets. Scenes of razing and shooting are intimate and unbearable to watch, as we follow a trio of mismatched soldiers, two hardened Afghanistan war veterans, Bacho (Fares Fares) and Garo (Alexej Manvelov), and one terrified young man named Pavel (Barry Keoghan), pressing on us the gravity of the point of no return, a zone where all relevant choice is gone, and only personal morals remain. Bacho tells the rookie that if he sees animals left to suffer, he will shoot him, personally.

Accepting circumstances, our mortality, then walking into the unknown, doing what must be done, is the emotional bottom line of Chernobyl, not in a sentimental or ideological way, but as a simple statement of fact, as life itself.

This philosophical thread runs throughout the story, surfacing in key moments, when the darkness threatens to envelop all.

The tensest 90 seconds I probably ever witnessed on screen thus came unchallenged by rational thought, as the disorientation the narrative produced in the beginning seemed to lead to only one harrowing path of action. Soldiers were recruited to manually remove the pieces of radioactive graphite from one of the plant rooftops, and shovel them into the bowels of hell below, i.e. the cracked core of the reactor, enabling the building of a further shield enveloping the plant, containing the radiation in the years to come. This particular spot was so incredibly dangerous to tread, machinery was rendered useless, that only ‘bio robots’ could achieve the task. Ninety seconds of such radioactivity is the maximum amount a human body could endure in a lifetime, and not be decomposing from inner flames withing weeks. Somber and cool headed, Nikolai Tarakanov (Ralph Ineson), the general in charge of Chernobyl liquidation operations, addresses squad after squad of men set to enter the rooftop, ‘the most dangerous place on Earth’, giving them a pep talk that borders on maternal. The camera follows one man, real time, in his frenzied quest to do as much as he can within the time-frame. And he fails, as he trips on the debris, overrunning the clock for just a few seconds. For him, a lifetime.

Finally, there is the court scene. The damage is assessed and the lethal chain of events exposed. The brilliance of it is that it takes its time, allowing for our emotional back-log to catch up with the brutal facts. Legasov, having had his day at an international conference in Vienna, and mentioning everything but a crucial piece of systemic information, is greeted beforehand by KGB Chairman Charkov (Alan Williams), with back-handed praise for his ‘statecraft’. However, his colleague Ulana Khomyuk calls him out, and Legasov is swayed. He has nothing left to fear, the radiation in his bones will kill him within years, he endured greater pressure than most men would ever have to endure, yet the fear the state has instilled in its citizens through pervasive surveillance and casual yet implied intimidation sets itself incredibly deep, like a dead virus activated at command, defying logic or even conscious contrary intention of its host. Such is the trauma induced by prolonged abuse, personal or institutional, and emerging from it takes connecting to all a human’s really got – their indestructible essence.

After his speech exposing the system’s failure to protect its citizens due to obscuring of inconvenient errors in design, and plain cheapness in manufacture (the banality of evil blatant and faceless), Legasov is, of course, a dead man walking. The KGB decides not to execute him for his treason, but let him wither in his final years, without working in his field, cut off from colleagues and friends. A materialist worldview which, ironically, perfected the killing of the soul.

However, Legasov decides to go down on his own terms. Redeemed. It turns out – also posthumously quoted by the world as a man who once saved it.

As conclusion to this lengthy road of a review through the valley of death, a text I detoured from for several weeks, and inevitably finished in metaphysical key – I’d say that a mini series about truth and lies, writ by an American, directed by a Swede (Johan Renck), acted mostly by Brits, depicting the Soviets, ended up as art. And it could have so easily slipped into spin, which, considering the political climate we live in today, would have given it instant noise. And all of us that lived in a version of Eastern-block socialism and can smell bad intentions under the glossiest of Western garbs could have given it grief for all the details it got wrong. But we did not. Because it was truthful. We can still register truth. And that’s its greatest achievement.

Author: ©Milana Vujkov

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