There are few shows in recent memory that seem to have galvanised people as much as HBO and Sky Atlantic's Chernobyl has. While the show had been eagerly looked forward to in some quarters, it was difficult to imagine that a show, focusing essentially on the bureaucratic machinations of managing the fallout, figurative and literal, of a large-scale industrial accident, could have captured the imaginations of so many.
And yet, it seemed that following the screening of the second episode, Chernobyl had thrust itself into the centre of our collective consciousness. Millions of people were finding out for the first time the true extent of the catastrophic material, political and human cost of the Chernobyl disaster. Indeed, as is often the case with historical dramas such as this, it is the distance, the fact that the show has aired some 33 years after the disaster that has allowed it to flourish as it has.
This distance serves two purposes. Firstly, it allows greater clarity surrounding the events to emerge as testimonials, and initially suppressed information, come to light over the intervening years. This provides the creators of such a show with as much information and perspective as possible so that the true sequence of events, in all their complexity, may be best understood, and thus conveyed to the viewer. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, this distance ensures that the legacy of Chernobyl had been codified into some bite-sized socio-cultural narrative, which could then be torn apart.
The name 'Chernobyl' would almost certainly have been familiar to everyone who watched the show. It was a short-hand for nuclear disaster. However, given its historical distance, and the fact for most Western viewers, its consequences were predominantly known in the abstract, creating a show which viscerally, and brutally, tore-apart whatever trite, cursory understanding people may have had of the disaster made its impact all the more profound. For the series to have been so effective, it almost seemed necessary for the severity disaster itself to have passed largely from cultural memory.
"The cost of lies," are the last words spoken in the show and are the best summation of the show's core message that we have. The subject matter, the disaster itself, is almost secondary - not to disparage or attempt to lessen its colossal human costs - to the show's main point, human fallibility.
It is not a show that is inherently anti-nuclear, or anti-communist - nor by association a triumphalist espousal of the virtues of capitalist systems, as some have claimed. Rather it exhibits a vast case study on the corrupting influence of power and the belief by those in power that they are somehow able to shape truths and facts exterior to them. The Soviet regime insisted on building the type of reactors involved in the disaster, despite the fact that they were known to be unsafe. The Soviet authorities refused to acknowledge the severity of the accident, believing, briefly, that if they told no one about it, they would be able to hide what happened.
Science however, is an objective force. If there were flaws in the reactor design, any insistence that there weren't, was irrelevant. If radiation had been leaked into the atmosphere, any attempt to simply try suppress news of the disaster was irrelevant. The science involved constituted objective truths which could not be reshaped by the wishes of people or regimes. If the reactor could fail in such a way, it would fail in this way. If the radiation could be detected, it would be detected. It is, in a way, an exhibition that, where there is objective truth, it will ultimately prevail - for better or for worse.
In this sense, the show's creator, Craig Mazin, found it to hold up a mirror to the problems facing modern society with regards to how certain people attempt to warp the 'truth'. In a ranging interview with Slate magazine, Craig Mazin said that;
For a million reasons, this was not an anti-nuclear polemic. It’s anti–Soviet government, and it is anti-lie, and it is pro–human being. But anyone who thinks the point of this is that nuclear power is bad, is just, they’ve just missed it.
Similarly, anybody who thinks the point of this is that whatever the kind of right-wing counterbalance to communism is, this is proof that everyone should be on the far right … no, you’ve totally missed it. And there’s been a bit of that. I’m just like, “Oh no, no, I don’t like you, and I don’t like what you’re saying about my show, even though you’re praising it.” It’s not about left or right. It’s about humans, and the mistakes that humans make. We are, all of us, subject to that, because we are, all of us, human, and imperfect.
Indeed, while Craig Mazin admits that his primary goal, aside from creating a compelling and gripping television show, was to portray the events and consequences of the disaster with as much clarity as possible, he was all too aware that compressing years of history involving thousands of people into five episodes of a mini-series would inevitably result in compromise. He wanted to avoid the danger of creating easy, palatable narratives, involving scape-goats and a clear delineation between the 'culprits' and 'victims'. There is a Primo Levi quote, "the further events fade into the past, the more the construction of convenient truth grows and is perfected," that perhaps best sums this up.
By focusing on the true complexity of the disaster, resulting from myriad institutional and individual shortcomings, Mazin wanted to emphasise the often diffuse and far-reaching nature of culpability. With the current political predilection for similarly reductive and overly-simplistic narratives, his true aim seemed to be to show the importance of not being susceptible to believing stories sold to you, by institutional forces, simply because they are easier to believe than the truth.
You can’t present everything perfectly through narrative, but you can acknowledge it, and talk about it. I don’t think it undermines the narrative at all. I think a lot of people think it might. but to me it doesn’t. It makes it more interesting. It holds me accountable to the very same notion I’m putting forward, which is: Story is cool, but it’s not the full picture.
I don’t mean to say that narrative is toxin. I think that narrative has become weaponized. Narrative is a beautiful thing. It’s how you understand the world, it’s how we relate to each other, and it’s how we organize our own memories. It’s how we organize our understanding of the past of our species…
The problem is when we weaponize it. I see it in politics now: Nobody can run for president without having a story. The Soviets were masters of weaponized narration. And interestingly, they appear to have continued that tradition. The KGB is gone, but the FSB is here.