Lessons from Chernobyl

By: Reyshimar Arguelles

I WOULDN’T mind watching a horror film or two, but when it comes to getting my fill of authentic and disturbing terror, I will have to turn to history.

From Auschwitz to the September 11 attacks, history is rife with moments that may disgust you or make you question why humankind is so great – or both. And this is because these scenes weren’t drafted onto a screenplay and acted out by thespians. These are moments in real life that are worth examining, not because we need to remember, but because we need to chart our path towards a better future. It’s only understandable that a combination of bad decisions and human folly could lead to problems becoming worse over time.

Of course, we weren’t there when the Titanic sank or the Tiananmen Square massacre took place. But at least we had storytellers who could paint an oblique picture of what actually transpired during humanity’s most horrific moments.

In recent memory, the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986 has been ingrained in the minds of many who have witnessed the event, seeing it as a testament to the consequences of man’s attempt at taming the atom.

It was the worst nuclear disaster in human history, next to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Fukushima disaster of 2010. But what made Chernobyl so harrowing wasn’t just the severe toll it inflicted on a large swath of the western Soviet Union. It was, in fact, the utter indifference that the Soviet bureaucracy showed throughout the events following the explosion and the subsequent meltdown.

Both these dimensions of the accident were thoroughly explored in the HBO mini-series Chernobyl. It’s not likely that a historical series gets attention, but this show was anything but another boring history lecture. Masterfully written and infused with a haunting score and a carefully selected cast, the series was a cinematic spectacle in its own right, having all the right elements in place to paint a picture of just how utterly heartless bureaucratism could get in the face of a disaster that affected the lives of millions.

The series starts with the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and, from there, things would take a turn for the worse as Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov shrugged off the incident as a minor explosion. This despite the fact that the firefighters who arrived at the scene succumbed to radiation sickness.

Attempts at covering up the incident did nothing to allay the fears of a more deadly disaster that was about to happen. And despite the advice of nuclear scientist Valery Legasov who pointed out the sheer extremity of the problem, the Soviet higher ups continued to downplay the situation even as high amounts of radiation were recorded as far as Scandinavia.

The Soviet Union continued to stand by its belief that its nuclear reactors were better than those of its Western rivals. The level of hubris its leadership exhibited could explain why Moscow was so reluctant to release any information that could give the slightest mention of a meltdown. Soviet embassies denied that the situation was getting any worse, insisting that the accident in Chernobyl was under control and that cleanup efforts were underway, a ruse which did not convince the West at all. Even Soviet citizens themselves were kept in the dark.

For sure, the Soviet leadership was only intent in securing what little shred of legitimacy it is able to save at the expense of millions of people who were exposed to lethal amounts of radiation from the meltdown.

The mini-series did justice to those who had died and those who are left alive to tell the truth of what really happened in the spring of 1986. Though certain moments were slightly modified for dramatic effect, this didn’t do much to water down the message that the Chernobyl meltdown sought to impart: Whether it’s a nuclear disaster or the issue of sovereignty over disputed waters, governments will save their reputations first before the lives of the people who trust them.

Now, who wouldn’t be disturbed by that?