Chernobyl’s lessons

Socialism, an economic system with an unbroken record of failure, still succeeds in attracting adherents. One recent poll reveals that among members of Generation Z, slightly more have a positive reaction to socialism (61%) than to capitalism (58%).

In our hemisphere, Cuba and Venezuela stand out as stark monuments to the miseries inflicted by socialism. In Cuba, thousands of opponents were put “up against the wall” to be shot by firing squads, and thousands more are in prison today. In Venezuela, the government recently ordered the military to run over its own people, as they protested in the streets. But this is not what young people have in mind when they profess admiration for socialism. And, in fairness, they have a point. All socialist systems fail, but not all socialist regimes murder and imprison their people.

A better illustration of how socialism works — or doesn’t work — appears in the HBO miniseries Chernobyl.

The city of Chernobyl is not Havana or Caracas. Rather, it brings to mind the reaction of the heroine in Ayn Rand’s We the Living  upon first hearing the words of the “Internationale”: “They were not intoxicating as wine, they were not terrifying as blood. They were gray as dishwater.” Chernobyl is a dishwater city. The buildings are decaying. Paint peels from the walls.  Everything rusts and corrodes. Men’s suits, even those of high ranking government officials, are dowdy and ill-fitting.

These physical attributes match the mental characteristics of the Party apparatchiks who run the place. These are gray dishwater men, whose primary purpose in life is to avoid doing anything for which they might possibly be blamed.

The Soviet socialist system depicted in Chernobyl is built on lies. Everyone lies. The nuclear power plant accident is a culmination of lies. The plant is certified as completed when it is not. A test requiring it to be powered down cannot be safely conducted because a nearby industrial plant needs the power to be maintained so it can inflate its production quotas. Faulty radiation sensors are intentionally used so that plant personnel can lie to local Party leaders about the amount of radioactivity released, and the local leaders can lie to their masters in Moscow. A robotic vehicle sent by the West Germans to help remove lethal debris from the site malfunctions almost immediately — because Soviet officials, who know that they have been lied to about the amount of radiation, have lied in turn to the West Germans.

The central lie in this historically truthful story is the design defect of the RBMK reactor, which effectively converts a shut-down mechanism into a detonator when the system is underpowered. The protagonist, scientist Valery Legasov, discovers this flaw in a suppressed article (whose author has been demoted and disciplined). Legasov enters into a devil’s bargain. In return for lying to the International Atomic Energy Commission investigators in Vienna, and pinning the blame exclusively on operator error, he is promised a Hero of the Soviet Union award, and promotion to Director of the Kurchatov Institute. More importantly, he is assured that the 16 other RBMK reactors still in operation will be retrofitted.

But this, too, turns out to be a lie. The government is more interested in shielding itself from blame than it is in shielding the populace from radiation. Before any retrofitting can take place, there must be a show trial. And it must take place in the city of Chernobyl itself, to foster the misimpression that the place is now safe. “We will have our heroes, we will have our villains, we will have our truth,” Charkov, a senior KGB official, tells Legasov. “After that, we can deal with our reactors.”

“Our truth.” This statement gets to the heart of socialism’s defects. In a socialist society, the government owns the means of production. To some, this means ownership only of industrial assets: factories, shipyards, mines. They see no conflict between government ownership of such assets on the one hand, and freedom of speech on the other. But a government that owns the means of production also owns the press and all forms of communication. Such a government can control what the people will hear, and what the people will know. Or at least what they will think they know. In a socialist society, the government can own the truth.

Young people who admire socialism assume that their leaders will be virtuous, and will refrain from exercising such control. But throughout history, all socialist societies have built and maintained their power through lies. The biggest lie has been that socialist societies are happy, and that those outside are envious. In actuality, of course, the opposite has always been the case. No socialist society has ever had to build barriers to prevent outsiders from barging in. But nearly all socialist societies have been compelled to build barriers – walls, barbed wire, guard towers – to prevent their people from getting out.

Legasov learns about socialism’s control of the truth when, to Charkov’s horror, he uses the Chernobyl show trial to expose the designs defect in the RBMK reactor. This brings the trial to a screeching halt. Legasov is led away by KGB agents, and expects that he “will get the bullet.” But Charkov dismisses his fears. “It would be embarrassing to kill you now,” he tells Legasov. “And for what? Your testimony today will not be accepted by the State. It will not be disseminated in the press. It never happened.”

There is no need to waste a bullet in a society where the State owns the truth.

Some see Chernobyl as an attack on nuclear power. It is not. “The lesson of Chernobyl isn’t that modern nuclear power is dangerous,” Craig Mazin, the series creator, has said. “The lesson is that lying, arrogance, and suppression of criticism are dangerous.”

Others have assumed that any show about government lying must constitute an attack on Donald Trump. Mazin himself has made it clear that he’s no fan of the president.  But Trump’s mendacity is an individual personality trait. It is not the flaw of a system because there is no such thing as a Trumpist ideological or economic doctrine.

But there is an ideology and an economic system known as socialism, and mendacity is at its core. We see this not only in full-bore socialist systems such as the old Soviet Union, but even in its nascent forms.

When the Obama administration was at work pitching the Affordable Care Act to a skeptical public and Congress, it was not trying to foist wholesale socialism. But it was trying to sell the public on a program that exerted unprecedented government control over one sixth of the national economy. They were promoting, not socialism, but only socialism in embryo. But in doing even that, they displayed the same casual attitude toward the truth displayed by the purer socialist characters in Chernobyl. And for the same reason. They earnestly believed that they possessed superior knowledge as to what was best for the people, and therefore they were justified in lying to the people.

One of the primary architects of the program was MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber. At an academic panel, Gruber disclosed how he and his colleagues intentionally misrepresented how the mandate would be paid for, to avoid a determination by the Congressional Budget Office that it was a tax.

“This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure that the CBO did not score the mandate as taxes. If the CBO scores the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. In terms of risk-rated subsidies, if you had a law which explicitly said that healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it would not have passed….. Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. You can’t do it politically, you just literally cannot do it…  And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass. I wish you could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.”

His words bear comparison to the words of a grizzled old Party veteran named Zharkov in the series. When the local Soviet committeemen are debating what to tell the public about the explosion, one young member, horrified by the sight of plant workers vomiting on the ground, argues that the people must be told the truth and prepared for evacuation. As panic grips the room, Zharkov rises and delivers this speech:

“Sometimes, we forget. Sometimes, we fall prey to fear. But our faith in Soviet socialism will always be rewarded. Always. The State tells us the situation is not dangerous. Have faith. The State tells us they do not want a panic. Listen well. True, when the people see police, they will be scared. But it is my experience that when the people ask questions that are not in their own best interest, they should simply be told to keep their minds on their labour– and to leave matters of the State to the State. We seal off the city. No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how you keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labour.”

Gruber is not Zharkov, and Obamacare is not Chernobyl. But in their paired speeches, we see the same spirit based on the same supposed moral superiority. These are men prepared to lie and dissemble in the service of the public good –which only they are qualified to discern clearly.

This control of the truth, rather than the bloody tyranny of Cuba or Venezuela, is the real essence of socialism. And it manifests itself whether the system is merely budding or in full flower.

The Chernobyl miniseries garnered historic ratings. It would be a good thing if those young people surveyed as favoring socialism over capitalism were among the millions watching.

About the Author
Lawrence J. Siskind is an attorney practicing law in San Francisco, California. He blogs at