The International Year of Peace, 1986, was a great year for catastrophe. In the US, shady officials within the Reagan administration secretly sold arms to Iran and birthed the Iran–Contra Affair. From Nicaragua, the New York Times reported that the Sandinista National Liberation Front were gaining in size, speed and strength, and Reagan made his threat of US intervention more explicit. In Wackersdorf, West Germany, demonstrators lodged slingshots at riot police outside a nuclear waste reprocessing plant. And in the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic, the core of the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant exploded, registering a man-made catastrophe on level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Radioactivity shot into the atmosphere and swept in a poisonous cloud across Europe. The area, including the ghost town of Pripyat, will not be safe for habitation for another 20,000 years.
Before woke capitalism, before reality-TV presidents, before the existential threat of a hothouse Earth, the Chernobyl disaster was arguably the first Inconvenient Truth. Now it’s an unlikely ratings hit, with a five-part HBO-Sky miniseries created and directed by Craig Mazin (of the second and third Hangover films). ‘We did everything right,’ says power plant control-board technician Aleksandr Akimov, in one of many dramatisations and recreations of the explosion and its fallout. Stellan Skarsgård stars as the Russian bureaucrat imported to take charge of the cleanup, Jared Harris as Valery Legasov, the increasingly desperate physicist advising him, and Emily Watson as (the invented character) Ulana Khomyuk, a nuclear expert also trying to cut through the fog of lies. All speak English in their own accents, and the figure of Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik) floats ominously in the story’s background.
HBO’s Chernobyl was released in the same month as Australian researchers warned that global warming could spell the end of human civilisation as we know it by 2050. It is 2019, and we’re watching real life horror shows to unwind from a world so scary we can only process it through memes. Within this context, Chernobyl presents a safe harbour of knowledge – a world divided by capitalists and communists, goodies and baddies, bureaucrats and scientists – rather than hope for a new way of critically engaging with and changing this world. I suspect that life on the panoptic planet – before or after the Soviet Union’s fall – is more complicated than those binaries.
In 2019, Chernobyl presents a safe harbour of knowledge – a world divided by capitalists and communists, goodies and baddies, bureaucrats and scientists.
Much has been made of Chernobyl’s detailed recreation of the Soviet Union’s material culture. And yet beyond the impressive production details, Mazin can only imagine the Eastern Bloc as a serotonin-starved society of drabness, and refuses to present us with complexities that we can navigate on our own terms. As an Eastern Bloc story imagined by Westerners, Chernobyl plays out in archetype: the plucky coal miners conscripted to cool down the site, the stoic firefighters who were the doomed first responders, the obstinately Kafkaesque party officials – all sketched according to their demographic grouping. The show’s career communists exhibit no fleshy frailty and few individuated characteristics – with the exception of Stellan Skarsgård’s Boris Shcherbina, who is offered a shot at redemption, they are caricatured apparatchiks, one and the same. The stoic physicists possess equally opaque inner lives, operating mainly to serve their function within the story as tragic heroes in the American mould. The story’s total lack of curiosity in the truths and fictions of life in the Soviet Union – the reality of life under strictly controlled power hierarchies, with the presence of secret police, in a censored vacuum of information – is evident in that it shows no prelude to life before the disaster.
No, this homeland is simple, constructed, mythic, hewn with the blunt instruments and tyrannical Freudian porn sensibility of the disaster movie genre: eerie visions with the sound turned to silent and debris falling in slow-motion. It’s a brutally predictable, even boring armageddon, seen by the West, for the West. The production team learned little from the films of the Cold War era – not just the gloriously stereotypical big-budget stories like The Hunt for Red October (1990), but propagandistic telemovies like The Day After (1983) and Chernobyl: The Final Warning (1991), which offer infinitely rich, strange insights into that era’s apocalyptic thinking.
The spectacle of disaster genre conventions eventually give way to the tropes of American legal shows, as the show trial of the power plant’s managers plays out in episode five with damning inevitability and righteous monologues (‘Lies!’ cries out Legasov). It’s a shame that Mazin has pursued such a literal interpretation with boilerplate tropes, because the opacity and might of the Iron Curtain was such that the truth of Chernobyl stayed (and indeed remains) hidden – or simply wasn’t believed, even in the West. The American ABC network resorted to reporting from outside the Eastern Bloc, investigating radiation ranging from ‘mild’ to ‘illegally high’ as an invisible cloud of fallout spread across Poland to Scandinavia. Experts quoted in Australian papers wondered if initial estimates of tens of thousands of eventual radiation deaths ‘may somehow be mistaken.’ In 1987, a local report on the secret show trial found that ‘not one word has emerged from the proceedings in an improvised courthouse.’ And by 1988, the Canberra Times was still quoting the official Soviet death toll of 31 deaths.
Consider that the conspiracy meant that no-one knew of the more than 500,000 civilian and military personnel enlisted to clean up and contain the fallout. Nor did they know of Operation Cyclone – an astonishingly ill-advised military mission to halt the movement of the silent radioactive cloud by shooting silver iodide to release it as rain, which merely created a hyper-infected, second exclusion zone in Belarus. Still, we will never know the extent of casualties, immediate deaths, strange cancers and environmental toxicity.
Chernobyl mimics the fearmongering sensibility of 90s disaster films, while binding itself to the gritty, realistic expectations of contemporary prestige TV.
On screen, the disaster genre wasn’t always so inert. In fact, the 1990s was the decade of the disaster film. Culturally, the 1990s began with the downfall of the Berlin Wall, and ended with 9/11 – it was a discretely and beautifully contained decade in which capitalism was temporarily victorious. The red threat had waned, and something else had to take its place in the Western imagination. It was the end of history, and the new movie villain was, variously, an alien invasion (Independence Day, 1996), comets (Deep Impact, 1998), asteroids (Armageddon, 1998), geology (Volcano and Dante’s Peak, both 1997) and freak weather systems (Twister, 1996). These were adventure films that pulsed to the skilled, time-tested beats of epic Hollywood storytelling. HBO’s Chernobyl mimics the fearmongering sensibility of these films, while binding itself to the expectations of contemporary prestige TV – of gritty, realistic and dark storytelling.
I see little in the show that holds the apparitional power of the real footage of the helicopter crash over Chernobyl. But I am in the minority. Audiences in the west have clutched at Chernobyl as if they are drowning. After all, the US arguably has no true superpower rival now, and environmental disaster has eclipsed class inequality or conventional war (which themselves have not dissolved) as the most worrying political issue. Mazin draws on all these end-of-days ideas, supplanting our own responsibility for environmental and political disaster into fantasy and the past. In its slavishly detailed Eastern Bloc worldbuilding, Chernobyl envisions a society that doesn’t have our own contemporary hyper-capitalist issues, and is delimited by the traumas of the 20th century. It’s serious escapism with an ostensible twist of political reality, so that even as we watch in horror, we can recuse ourselves from facing the crises of the present – and from ourselves.
When the West dreams, as a culture, it seems to dream of nothing at all.
And now the show’s success – the oft-repeated but meaningless incantation that it is now IMDb’s highest-rating series – is the new cultural wrapper around the old story of atrophying governments’ indifference and obfuscation. If Chernobyl is a new siren song for the West, and Valery Legasov and Ulana Khomyuk are its prophet-warriors, then the cultural impact of socialism – even corrupted, Stalinist socialism – can only be fathomed by looking at the negative spaces where socialism never existed. Chernobyl really shows that the Western imagination is fascinated by the failures of socialism and other forms of political power, other systems of government.
When the West dreams, as a culture, it seems to dream of nothing at all. We certainly don’t dream of being on the edge of a great adventure, or even of being alive. We dream of more, past, distant apocalypses as TV candy.
The conflicting and dishonest historical accounts produced by the Soviets and the survivors remain seething with creative and dramatic potential. I like to imagine the contaminated exclusion area around Chernobyl – which those in the Ukraine poetically call the Zone – and how it would feel walking through it today. A post-industrial space of the anthropocene, the Zone is where the dead kept on living. It is depopulated, rewilded, green, bristling with prowling gray wolves – and what else? Amphibious jellyfish? Gilled, walking beasts? Ferns that will never fossilise? A nanosecond has passed since then, historically. Look up – it’s 2019.
Chernobyl is currently streaming on Foxtel Now.