Chernobyl series review: The political cost of lies
– By Jaime Luis Zapata
Chernobyl is an HBO’s five parts miniseries that deals with the nuclear accident in the North of Ukraine, a state member of the USSR at its time. It focuses on the preceding hours of the worst incident of this nature in human history, the succeeding efforts of the Government officials to try to minimize the perception of the risk and on the rogue citizens that tried to deal with the problem for what it really was, a disaster that threatened all kind of life in the whole continent.
The first episode begins rather ominously with the following words:
What is the cost of lies? Its not that we will mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that, if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then? What else is left but to abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves instead with stories?
In this way it introduces the main theme: the need for a totalitarian government to not only hide the truth, but to create a version of events intended to be portrayed as truth, in order to manipulate the thinking and deliberation process of the citizens. This even at the cost of putting into risk the life of the population it rules over, all for the survival of the regime.
Truth is an enemy of dictatorship, but the way to handle this enemy is not to hide it, but to deform it into a political device for the extinction of critique and freedom of speech. This reminds us of a quote by Fyodor Dostoevsky in in his master work The Karamazov Brothers, published in 1880:
Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself.
A quote that can be applied to governments. The truth is a shield against the state, without which it turns into machine that oppresses and destroys anything that does not reply positively to its mere survival demands.
Almost all of the authority figures involved in minimizing what truly happened in Chernobyl incurred in what the political philosopher Eric Voegelin called the “eclipse of reality”, a process by which man pretends to substitute a reality that he does not like for a different one, more according to his views. Reality, though, cannot be changed, but this does not stop man from trying even harder, losing all sense of human limits in the process.
Thus, Anatoly Stepanovich Dyatlov, deputy chief-engineer of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, constantly tells his subordinates that they did not see any graphite, a clear evidence of a nuclear meltdown, and demands of them tasks that will mean a cruel death.
At the same time, in the situation room moments after the explosion, an elder Soviet official calls for the establishment of censorship, because it is in the best interest of the people, and for maintaining faith in Leninism. In fact, Marxism, at its core, as Voegelin argued, requires the prohibition of questions, as any question that goes beyond the system must address the definition of what a human being is, and this endangers one of the main grounds of the Soviet state: that man is not created and has no essence that exists before the state.
After this, man is reduced to a tool, a technical device, an instrument for the highest end of the survival of the regime. As Voegelin said in his treatise The Political Religions:
When the inner-worldly collective existence takes the place of God, the person becomes the link serving the sacral contents of the world, i.e., an instrument. The problem of the person’s conduct of life, its physical and spiritual existence, is only important in connection with the existence of the overall community.
Man then views himself as a tool, as a Hegelian machine-part working in the overall whole, and submits himself to the technical means with which he is integrated into the collective organization.
In the Chernobyl series, there are several examples of this. Just to mention one, in the second part there is a scene in which Valery Legasov, the main man behind the process of averting a complete disaster, asks Mikhail Gorbachev, with human shame, to send three men into contaminated waters in order to prevent a greater damage, with the risk that they will be dead within a week. The Soviet leader does not blink an eye and says that all victories inevitably come at a cost.
Episode three briefly introduces the theme of the police state. Legasov asks the KGB Chairman Charkov to mediate in favor of Ulana Khomyuk, a nuclear physicist that was detained by the police at a Moscow hospital, for interviewing the staff working at the nuclear station during the accident. Charkov says that he cannot do anything as even himself is being watched by the KGB, defining it as a circle of accountability. This episode also has a Soviet joke.
The fourth part still deals with the manipulation of truth for political purposes. When Khomyuk meets Dyatlov asking for what happened he replies: You think the right question will get you the truth? There is no truth. Ask the bosses whatever you want. You will get the lie, and I will get the bullet. At some other point, the staff in charge receives a Western robot for dealing with the graphite, but it is of no use as the Soviet Government gave the propaganda number of the radiation level, not the real one, which affects the robots functioning.
This part is also the most poetic of the series, it focuses on three soldiers of the unit sent to exterminate every animal assumed to be contaminated. When one young soldier asks a more experienced one where do the animals get their food he replies: They eat the chickens, then they eat each other. This is a deep allegory of one of the results of socialism: it ends with human fraternity.
Humans are here represented by the domestic animals. Socialism transforms fraternity into the zero point of civilization, the state of nature of all against all, where there is no law. The reaching point is extermination and genocide, symbolized by the bodies of pets being thrown into the common tomb, a clear reference to the Holocaust. State empowerment and deification lead to the denial of human dignity. When the state is god human life is disposable.
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The final episode refers to how individuals put their own political career above the welfare of the citizens. In order to reach productivity quotas, local Soviet authorities went above any safety requirements. The main reason for this is that in totalitarian states a perverse institutional arrangement leaves very few opportunities for ascending in the social scale, creating incentives for poor individuals to risk it all. Local Soviet authorities actions were key in the occurrence of the disaster because they wanted to obtain political benefit and climb up in the Communist Party ladder.
This episode also brings up a scene between Charkov and Legasov where the KGB Chairman insinuates that lying is a part of statecraft. Charkov also shows that there is a need for villains and heroes, all part of our truth.
This final part continues with the allegory of episode four. Legasov tells Boris Shcherbina, a Soviet officer that was key in fighting for the truth and the cleanup, that of all the ministers and all the deputies entire congregation of obedient fools- they mistakenly sent the one good man. At this moment a small worm is crawling up Shcherbina’s hand, symbolizing that life and fraternity are finally restored.
At the end of the Chernobyl series, there is a trial of those responsible for what happened. Intended only as a show for the legitimation of the Soviet state, it ends up rather differently. Legasov tells that the materials used in the reactor were highly unstable, and that the reason for its use was that they were cheaper, starting to criticize directly the Government.
The Soviet authorities warn Legasov that this will imply that the Soviet state was at fault, defending its godlike quality. But he goes on and says that the Government knew that the shutdown button could act as a detonator, but that this was kept from the staff working at the reactor when they were trying to report a complete test.
Legasov here suggests that the Soviet state is responsible, and sustains that secrets and lies are at its essence. When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it is even there. But it is still there. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid. That is how an RBMK reactor core explodes. Lies.
The final words of the series end with a question mark:
We are so focused on our search for truth, we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there, whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants. It doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time. And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl. Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: What is the cost of lies?
The answer could be: extinction of mankind itself.
Totalitarian governments establish an ideology that disfigures truth, leading to a system in which free speech ceases to exist, with the result that mankind becomes a tool. This did not only happened with Chernobylas the series shows, but also with the Aral Sea, as described by Ryszard Kapuscinski in Imperium. And it is currently going on in Venezuela in the Mining Arch of the Orinoco, a Government project that is endangering human life and the environment, all for the survival of Nicols Maduro’s dictatorship.