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Chernobyl and the battle between truth and lies

The new television series is as much about the suppression of truth as nuclear disaster.

I resisted HBO’s Chernobyl for far too long, even as it ensnared the household’s other half and carried on its agonising way towards being, possibly, the highest-rating television series ever. I knew how that story went: from bad to worse. Too depressing.

So, I’ve come late to this brilliant, scalding dramatisation of the most catastrophic nuclear accident – one of the worst accidents of any kind, surely – in human history. In fact, the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, threatened to put a serious hold on human history in a large swathe of the world.

See scientist Valery Legasov, surrounded by denial, ignorance and epic ass-covering, attempt patiently to explain the implications of the explosion: “It means the core is open. It means the fire we’re watching with our own eyes is giving off nearly twice the radiation released by the bomb in Hiroshima. And that’s every single hour … So, 40 bombs worth by now … And it will not stop. Not in a week, not in a month. It will burn and spread its poison until the entire continent is dead.”

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Played with tormented, flawed humanity by the wonderful Jared Harris, Legasov quickly learns to keep the panic out of his voice lest the wilfully deluded bureaucrats he’s dealing with, more concerned with the honour of the Party than the human souls it’s supposed to represent, throw him out of a helicopter. We learn about boron, graphite and “positive void coefficient”.

The story also unfolds through the painstaking accretion of devastating detail. People bring children to a bridge to see the burning reactor – just a roof fire, they’ve been told – as radioactive ash rains down on them. After a belated evacuation, a young, traumatised recruit is sent to destroy abandoned pets – cats, dogs with their puppies. It’s easy to shoot them, he’s told by a soldier. “They’re happy to see you.” The hands of nurses who carry the protective clothing of doomed firefighters to the basement of the hospital are burnt by radiation (those clothes are still there, over three decades later, still emitting radiation).

Chernobyl is about the battle between truth and lies, blind ideology and science, though it pays to remember that science gave us nuclear fission in the first place, without much of a plan about what to do it when it all went to hell. Legasov is a real-life figure. So is Boris Shcherbina (the excellent Stellan Skarsgård), a politician who comes to see Legasov’s point. Nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk, played as you’d expect by Emily Watson – what a cast – is a composite character representing scientists who suffered for their dissent over the secrets, lies and cover-ups that propelled the disaster.

The series finale is a ripper. To tell truth to power can mean being shunned by friends and colleagues, acting on orders, so becoming an unperson. There is a moment in the episode when it is clear that totalitarianism isn’t a form of government but a cult. It’s not a spoiler – it’s in the first episode and on record – to note that, two years after the accident, Legasov tapes everything he knows for posterity, then kills himself.

“We live in a time when people seem to be re-embracing the corrosive notion that what we want to be true is more important than what is true,” Chernobyl’s creator and writer, Craig Mazin, has said. As The Handmaid’s Tale is not just a story set in some terrifying, fantastic dystopian future, Chernobyl is not just about a nuclear accident from the past now safely interred in concrete. Both dramas are set in places where citizens are too afraid of the state – and their friends and neighbours – to speak. Both urgently remind us that we don’t want to live there.

CHERNOBYL, available on Sky Go, Sky On Demand & Neon.

This article was first published in the June 15, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.