Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Chernobyl (The TV Series)

I have waited until last night's finale to comment on the fantastic five-part HBO series Chernobyl, a dramatization of the April 26, 1986, explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Soviet Ukraine and the tragic sequence of events that followed, as experienced in the lives of various dramatized characters. 

Chernobyl was perhaps the worst man-made technological disaster in history. Its consequences are still with us - its lasting legacy a contaminated area that will remain uninhabitable for thousands of years. Any account of this disaster raises serious questions about the dangers inherent in nuclear power, given that accidents can occur anywhere even under the best of circumstances.

But, of course, the Chernobyl accident didn't happen under the best of circumstances, but rather under some of the worst. What in fact happened is inseparable historically from the poisonous political and social system that then governed the Soviet Union. The series' portrayal pf the events that followed the accident is not an indictment of socialism or Marxism as such, but it is a powerful indictment of the mendacious and corrupt political and social system that ruled the Soviet Union for some 70 years in the name of socialist values and Marxist ideology.

The series begins with one of the principal characters killing himself on the anniversary of the accident and then goes back in time to the explosion itself, which it portrays in all its horror and horrific consequences, while also highlighting the ignorance and confusion of almost everyone exposed. Thus, the first episode ends with school children going about their ordinary routines, not noticing the bird that has just dropped dead due to the toxic radiation invisible but omnipresent in the atmosphere around them. It was, of course, the public discovery of radiation in the Eastern European and Scandinavian atmosphere outside the borders of the Soviet Union that forced the Moscow regime to acknowledge the problem which its bureaucratic instincts would have otherwise tried to keep silent about.

Chernobyl is grim and at times truly painful to watch, while also gripping in its dramatic intensity. (it does get bogged down at times in technical scientific talk, as those who understand what is happening struggle ti explain the situation and the immense danger to ignorant party apparatchiks.) Chernobyl is grimmer even than it might otherwise have to be because it is about the danger inherent in a society based on a lie and the fear which that causes in everyone in any position of authority, who must measure everything by its conformity to that lie above all else.. At the same time, the series poignantly highlights the self-sacrifice of so many ordinary citizens (Soviet soldiers, first responders, miners, etc.) whose decent humanity somehow survives their soul-destroying political and social system (which they are repeatedly shown to be cynical about), enabling them to behave truly heroically and thus at least make the disaster much less of a disaster than it otherwise might have become.

The Soviet Union is now long gone, although the contaminated Chernobyl site remains as its most long-lasting monument. And, while historically the series highlights the moral evil at the heart of the Soviet lie, its message speaks to any and all sorts of similar systems - social, political, or ideological, all sorts of belief systems and bureaucratic structures that sacrifice ordinary people for institutional preservation, that form people in fear, making it hard to tell the truth not just to those in authority but even perhaps to oneself. This sadly seems to be a basic human problem, which will likely not go away, any more than that toxic site in the Ukraine.

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