You may have already heard high praise for “Chernobyl,” and I’d like to add my bit to the mountain of acclaim. I do this for the urgent lessons it offers our twisted world today — and also as an homage to my late mother, who this weekend passed away.
The HBO (and Sky TV) miniseries describes events around the April 1986 nuclear plant disaster in what is now Ukraine, which I heard vague reports about at the time as a graduate student in New York City.
I’d heard some praise over the years about the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, from my immigrant mother. I was certainly inclined to disbelieve, but like most people I had little true idea how both misconceived and brittle that cartoon empire actually was.
The miniseries paints a shocking picture of a system where untruth is a currency and knowledge is routinely ignored. Does this sound familiar?
At one point a leading scientist warns the main apparatchik of a district that something terrible has happened at one of the four plants at Chernobyl. He dismisses it; she insists. “I prefer my opinion to yours,” he snaps. That reminds me of something about the current zeitgeist, I must say. In the scene the poor scientist protests that she is a nuclear expert, whereas he’d worked in a shoe factory before. “Yes,” he replies, unfazed. “And look where I am now.”
At another juncture, with many thousands probably dead and much of Europe endangered by radioactive fallout, we are informed that “the official position of the state is that global nuclear catastrophe is not possible in the Soviet Union.” That is presented as something that seems to matter.
Hardy local investigators discover what really caused the disaster. It was (spoiler alert) not merely that Chernobyl officials (soon to be scapegoated) pushed ahead recklessly with a test that should have scrapped after early ominous signs. Even more importantly, they simply had not realized that a supposed fail-safe mechanism was fatally flawed because of cost-cutting decisions which had been previously discovered but expertly covered up, and which existed at plants all over the country.
This is finally revealed in closed court by a key character played by Brit thespian Jared Harris (some will fondly recall him as the equally tragic Lane Pryce in “Mad Men”) who employs a beautiful turn of phrase in illustrating the powerful impact of bullshit.
“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth,” he says. “Sooner or later, that debt is paid.”
It may seem bizarre that almost all the actors in the series playing Russians (except for stellar Swede Stellan Skargard) have pronounced British accents. It is easy to lose focus and think the calamity in question is a train outage at Kings Cross. But on the other hand, no one can recite like these guys.
I first arrived in the Communist world during the uprisings in Eastern Europe and moved on to the Soviet Union shortly before it quite spectacularly collapsed. I saw the debt that had built up in the form of a society where nobody believed anything presented by authorities anymore. Oh, my lord: that debt was paid in full.
Mikhail Gorbachev, who ruled the Soviet Union at the time of Chernobyl, later said that the nuclear disaster was why the whole system in time fell apart. He was, sadly typically, seeing a tree and not the forest. It was the system’s collapse that caused Chernobyl, and not the other way around. I interviewed Gorbachev some years ago and found no nostalgia for communism, though. He joked about whether I might get him more advertising gigs, like one he snagged with Pizza Hut.
In the miniseries, at a meeting of top officials with the then-formidable Gorbachev, the only character who is a scientist and therefore has a clue struggles to be allowed to speak. But eventually he has his say, to not enough but some effect. That sounds about right, of Gorbachev, to me.
I wonder whether a climate scientist would even get that far around the table with Donald Trump. Can anyone seriously think Trump would listen thoughtfully to an expert who presented views that were at loggerheads with the U.S. president’s political base? An expert, say, with a reasoned view on gun control, or NATO, on taxation and tariffs, on the Iran nuclear deal — or on global warming?
Global warming, benignly rebranded as “climate change,” has the potential to cause more damage than Chernobyl ever did. I am not detecting, outside the American right, many signs of a serious debate. A case in point is the Associated Press, where I for decades toiled and which avoids political positions like the plague. AP has client media from all sides and faces too much competition to risk offending half of them. We did analysis, but cautiously, and opinion almost never (the exceptions were book and movie reviews, and even then at slight discomfort). Yet even AP decided there is expert consensus that global warming is caused by human activity (or as the scientists themselves would say, “anthropogenic”). Most serious publications followed, and yet the deniers in America persist.
(As we contemplate the inundation of all coastal regions and the slow incineration of the Earth, we may find some solace in the discovery that the revelations of Chernobyl are being denied by climate change deniers.)
Israel is guilty of ignoring inconvenient truths as well. It cannot have escaped most people that almost all (not all, but truly almost all) of the senior people in charge of the country’s security oppose not only Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but the policies of the right in general as regards the occupation of the West Bank (and Gaza, before). This is not purely for moral reasons but largely due to the fact that half the population in these combined territories plus Israel is Palestinian, and so the inevitable mathematical outcome of allowing everything to meld together is either a non-Jewish or non-democratic country. The right and its supporters bombard the people with propaganda meant to counter this, and it works just well enough to keep them feasting at the public trough.
Why does this type of thing work at all? For the same reason that the “Leave” campaign won the 2016 “Brexit” referendum on the UK’s relations with the European Union despite its epic deployment of nonsense (conveniently rounded up here). I respect wanting to prevent immigration badly enough to trash your economy, but legions of people did not vote for that outcome; they just shut out information contrary to what they preferred to hear. As leading Leaver Michael Gove put it then, the people “have had enough of experts.”
He was right up to a point: Expert consensus seems not to help an argument prevail these days to the extent that one might expect and that planetary survival might require. It is happening all over the world, fittingly including today’s Russia itself. The reasons for it are many, and the global elite class (and in some cases the experts themselves) are not free from blame. But my position is clear: Only an imbecile walks off a cliff because someone says God wants them to, or because the U.S. National Rifle Association perhaps does not believe in gravity.
What does all this have to do with my mother, you ask?
She was a child in Romania during World War II, and indeed barely survived the Iasi pogrom, whereby Romanian fascists backed by German soldiers massacred many thousands of the Jews of that town. Half the 800,000 Jews of Romania were killed in that war, in fact. Iasi was on the Soviet border, and in her recollection it was the Soviet component of the Allies that won the war for her; she was perhaps absurdly but very touchingly grateful to them.
She studied Russian as a child in school and was given opportunities under Romanian communism to become a young chemical engineer. But she found the way and the wit to get out of dodge with my father in 1960, before the sky caved in.
Back then one could still believe the world’s two dominant systems were locked in an equal race to the moon. On top of that, her life experience had given her a contrarian streak that chafed a little at capitalist dogma. “At least under communism there is no unemployment,” she ranted in our suburb near Philadelphia (while, sadly, for a time unemployed).
But my mother also had a lifelong attachment to her best attainable version of the truth (down to the absence of any filter, some have been known to say). By the time Chernobyl came around, she knew.
My friends and I felt justifiably superior back about America’s place back then. The Soviet Union was sick. Are we ourselves so healthy, today?
My mother lost her mental connection to the world some years ago, before passing away on July 6. But I have no doubt where she would have stood.
Rest in peace, Etilia Petreanu. May we find a tenth of the resilience that animated you. I disagreed with some of what you said, but you left behind no debt.