Resignation was the defining condition of Soviet life

Tuesday, June 25th, 2019

Masha Gessen explains what HBO’s Chernobyl got right and wrong:

Before I get to what the series got so terribly wrong, I should acknowledge what it got right. In “Chernobyl,” which was created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, the material culture of the Soviet Union is reproduced with an accuracy that has never before been seen in Western television or film—or, for that matter, in Russian television or film. Clothes, objects, and light itself seem to come straight out of nineteen-eighties Ukraine, Belarus, and Moscow. (There are tiny errors, like a holiday uniform worn by schoolchildren on a non-holiday, or teen-agers carrying little kids’ school bags, but this is truly splitting hairs.) Soviet-born Americans—and, indeed, Soviet-born Russians—have been tweeting and blogging in awe at the uncanny precision with which the physical surroundings of Soviet people have been reproduced. The one noticeable mistake in this respect concerns the series makers’ apparent ignorance of the vast divisions between different socioeconomic classes in the Soviet Union: in the series, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a member of the Academy of Sciences, lives in nearly the same kind of squalor as a fireman in the Ukrainian town of Pripyat. In fact, Legasov would have lived in an entirely different kind of squalor than the fireman did.

Herein lies one of the series’ biggest flaws: its failure to accurately portray Soviet relationships of power. There are exceptions, flashes of brilliance that shed light on the bizarre workings of Soviet hierarchies. In the first episode, for example, during an emergency meeting of the Pripyat ispolkom, the town’s governing council, an elder statesman, Zharkov (Donald Sumpter), delivers a chilling, and chillingly accurate, speech, urging his compatriots to “have faith.” “We seal off the city,” Zharkov says. “No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labor.” This statement has everything: the bureaucratic indirectness of Soviet speech, the privileging of “fruits of labor” over the people who created them, and, of course, the utter disregard for human life.

The final episode of “Chernobyl” also contains a scene that encapsulates the Soviet system perfectly. During the trial of three men who have been deemed responsible for the disaster, a member of the Central Committee overrules the judge, who then looks to the prosecutor for direction—and the prosecutor gives that direction with a nod. This is exactly how Soviet courts worked: they did the bidding of the Central Committee, and the prosecutor wielded more power than the judge.

Unfortunately, apart from these striking moments, the series often veers between caricature and folly. In Episode 2, for example, the Central Committee member Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) threatens to have Legasov shot if he doesn’t tell him how a nuclear reactor works. There are a lot of people throughout the series who appear to act out of fear of being shot. This is inaccurate: summary executions, or even delayed executions on orders of a single apparatchik, were not a feature of Soviet life after the nineteen-thirties. By and large, Soviet people did what they were told without being threatened with guns or any punishment.

Similarly repetitive and ridiculous are the many scenes of heroic scientists confronting intransigent bureaucrats by explicitly criticizing the Soviet system of decision-making. In Episode 3, for example, Legasov asks, rhetorically, “Forgive me—maybe I’ve just spent too much time in my lab, or maybe I’m just stupid. Is this really the way it all works? An uninformed, arbitrary decision that will cost who knows how many lives that is made by some apparatchik, some career Party man?” Yes, of course this is the way it works, and, no, he hasn’t been in his lab so long that he didn’t realize that this is how it works. The fact of the matter is, if he didn’t know how it worked, he would never have had a lab.

Resignation was the defining condition of Soviet life. But resignation is a depressing and untelegenic spectacle. So the creators of “Chernobyl” imagine confrontation where confrontation was unthinkable—and, in doing so, they cross the line from conjuring a fiction to creating a lie. The Belarusian scientist Ulyana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) is even more confrontational than Legasov. “I am a nuclear physicist,” she tells an apparatchik, in Episode 2. “Before you were Deputy Secretary, you worked in a shoe factory.” First, she’d never say this. Second, the apparatchik might have worked at a shoe factory, but, if he was an apparatchik, he was no cobbler; he has come up the Party ladder, which might indeed have begun at the factory—but in an office, not on the factory floor. The apparatchik—or, more accurately, the caricature of the apparatchik—pours himself a glass of vodka from a carafe that sits on his desk and responds, “Yes, I worked in a shoe factory. And now I’m in charge.” He toasts, in what appears to be the middle of the day: “To the workers of the world.” No. No carafe, no vodka in the workplace in front of a hostile stranger, and no boasting “I’m in charge.”

The biggest fiction in this scene, though, is Khomyuk herself. Unlike other characters, she is made up—according to the closing titles, she represents dozens of scientists who helped Legasov investigate the cause of the disaster. Khomyuk appears to embody every possible Hollywood fantasy. She is a truth-knower: the first time we see her, she is already figuring out that something has gone terribly wrong, and she is grasping it terribly fast, unlike the dense men at the actual scene of the disaster, who seem to need hours to take it in. She is also a truth-seeker: she interviews dozens of people (some of them as they are dying of radiation exposure), digs up a scientific paper that has been censored, and figures out exactly what happened, minute by minute. She also gets herself arrested and then immediately seated at a meeting on the disaster, led by Gorbachev. None of this is possible, and all of it is hackneyed. The problem is not just that Khomyuk is a fiction; it’s that the kind of expert knowledge she represents is a fiction. The Soviet system of propaganda and censorship existed not so much for the purpose of spreading a particular message as for the purpose of making learning impossible, replacing facts with mush, and handing the faceless state a monopoly on defining an ever-shifting reality.

In the absence of a Chernobyl narrative, the makers of the series have used the outlines of a disaster movie. There are a few terrible men who bring the disaster about, and a few brave and all-knowing ones, who ultimately save Europe from becoming uninhabitable and who tell the world the truth. It is true that Europe survived; it is not true that anyone got to the truth, or told it.


  1. Adar says:

    “Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a member of the Academy of Sciences, lives in nearly the same kind of squalor as a fireman in the Ukrainian town of Pripyat.”

    Better we all suffer in misery rather than a few have more than others.

  2. Kirk says:

    Hollywood always has to have its narrative, its hero tropes. Even if they have no real place, they’re going to create these characters because that’s how they tell the story to us.

    And, it’s the dangerous thing about Hollywood and all the rest of the entertainment complex: They model a behavior and reality set that doesn’t really exist, and people keep looking for that in real life.

    Human beings are monkey-see, monkey-do pattern-recognition and pattern-reproduction machines, in a lot of respects. You encounter a situation, your subconscious goes back to like situations that you’ve observed, reads the script of that moment in time, evaluates it, picks the role you’re playing, and you start acting it out.

    You see this all the time in families; the kids exhibit the same behaviors as the parents did, when they’re adults in their own relationships, following the same basic scripts mom and dad modeled. If they work, all to the good–If they don’t…?

    You also see it in the military, where guys who are put into positions where they’ve got no experience start modeling what they might have seen in movies and TV. The odd thing is, they may well have been in and observed positive “scripts” for how to deal with situations they get into, but for some damn reason, the negative ones that they might have seen in an entertainment are the ones that stick.

    One of these things that I’ve often observed and puzzled at is the “stickiness” of bad information. People hear, for example, from “Unkah Mikey, the Vietnam veteran” that Mattel made a close replica toy of the M16, and that Unkah Mikey had one as a kid. Ten years later, that’s conflated into “Mattel made the M16, and my Uncle Mike, the Vietnam War Hero, had one in the ‘Nam…”. No matter what you do, no matter what information you present in refutation, and even if Uncle Mike shows up and tells PFC Timmay that no, he did not have a roll-marked M16 in Vietnam, PFC Timmay is still gonna believe and pass on that old soldier’s story about the Mattel M16.

    And, as a trainer or instructor…? LOL… Dude, just learn to deal with it. There’s a law of nature, when it comes to bad information, and you’re never going to be able to overcome it. I will be damned if I understand why, either–It doesn’t seem to be correlated with much of anything, and stems from multiple sources with multiple means of transmission. Analyzing the how and the why of what people remember and then what they seemingly deliberately forget in the name of narrative and/or fantasy is something that will drive rational men mad.

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