The opening lines of HBO’s “Chernobyl” miniseries set the tone for what’s at stake during its terrifying, unflinching look at the worst nuclear plant disaster in history:
‘What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies then we no longer recognize the truth at all.’
On April 26, 1986, two explosions rocked the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Soviet Ukraine. The devastating event released 400 times the amount of radioactive fallout than the bombing of Hiroshima and at one point threatened the lives of millions of Europeans as far away as Germany.
Creator Craig Mazin’s dramatization of the crisis features exceptional acting, writing, and direction. The show’s haunting atmosphere lingers far after the credits roll. It is an altogether wrenching account of the disaster and the countless lives affected. But beneath the show’s retelling of the explosion and its aftermath lies an investigation of the perils of unchecked government power.
The Soviet Union may have been already on its way to the dustbin of history by 1986, but the regime’s poisonous effects are on full display during the miniseries. “Chernobyl” offers a glimpse into the crippling effects of statism. When the truth is needed to save lives, it is stifled. When recklessly misguided authority figures need to be questioned, they are shielded by the fear they instill and the political positions they hold.
The Fight of the Truth Seekers
At its core, HBO’s “Chernobyl” is a tragic tale of heroic individuals fighting against a government designed by its nature to thwart any who oppose it. In their search for the cause of the catastrophe, scientists are tailed by the Soviet Union’s KGB secret police. Members of the very commission tasked with investigating the Chernobyl incident have their phones tapped. They’re brazenly threatened in public. They’re temporarily detained. The scientists and nuclear experts Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet regime needs to be free to uncover the truth are repeatedly stymied and silenced by their own government.
Young men who should be apprenticing are thrust into engineering positions they are unqualified to administer. Concerns over the stability and safety of vital nuclear equipment—most critically, Soviet-made RBMK reactors—are shrugged aside or buried in layer upon layer of bureaucratic red tape.
The dosimeters available to plant workers for measuring harmful radiation are woefully cheap and inadequate. They can detect up to 3.6 roentgens per hour. The worst-affected parts of the plant contained radiation levels of more than 20,000 r/h. Chernobyl’s higher-quality dosimeter, capable of detecting up to 1,000 r/h, is locked away in a safe and the first personnel to think of using it don’t have the key. When it’s finally found, it burns out the second it is turned on.
One of the most chilling early scenes of HBO’s series comes four hours after the initial explosion. A lone dissenting voice of the local Pripyat executive committee says the city should be evacuated. He is treated like Chicken Little and told by party men that radiation levels are “mild” and “limited to the plant itself.”
An elder of the committee, brilliantly played by Donald Sumpter, rises and tells the gathering, “When the people ask questions that are not in their own best interests, they should keep their minds on their labor and leave matters of the state to the state.” At the conclusion of his speech, he implores the men to seal the exits of the city and to have faith in Soviet socialism. For this, the committee rewards him with a standing ovation.
Chemistry professor Valery Legasov heads the Chernobyl investigative commission and is one of the brave few to speak the truth in a society crippled by fear and complacency: “To them, a just world is a sane world. There was nothing sane about Chernobyl. What happened there, what happened after, even the good we did, all of it…all of it…madness.”
The evacuation of Pripyat and the surrounding area should have begun in the early morning of April 26. Instead, it would not start until more than 37 hours after the explosion. The number of cancer deaths and long-term health effects caused by this costly delay is incalculable. Given that more than 49,000 residents lived in Pripyat, contemplating the unnecessary death toll is heartbreaking.
In a meeting with Soviet leadership, career party officials shrug off the amount of radiation at the plant as “the equivalent of a chest X-ray.” In reality, single pieces of graphite debris from the exploded reactor core contain radiation worth more than 4 million chest X-rays. When Jared Harris’s Legasov relays this startling fact to the government, he is labeled an “alarmist” and a “hysteric.” Legasov is one of the chief nuclear experts in the nation, yet his words fall on deaf ears. He is initially ignored simply because his reporting went against the approved lies of the communist leadership.
Fallout of the Modern Leviathan
Mazin’s “Chernobyl” depicts the nuclear and political fallout of what happens when an embarrassing disaster strikes in a one-party, authoritarian society. The Soviet Union is the communist, 1986 version of the all-powerful state Thomas Hobbes called for 300 years earlier in his work “Leviathan” (named after the biblical sea monster). For Hobbes, an absolute government was required to maintain law, order, and stability—unchecked by any separation of powers or mechanisms that would dilute the power of the state.
Taken out of the realm of theory and into the real world, Hobbes’s leviathan becomes so singularly focused on maintaining order that its highly regimented society is governed entirely through fear. Throughout “Chernobyl” we see fear of the state repeatedly drive good, smart men to doubt their instincts and follow nonsensical orders. Whether the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong’s China, or Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea, the results have been the same.
The nationality of the government leviathan is irrelevant—the size and control wielded by the statist monster is the ultimate issue. A theoretical North Korean response to a similar disaster as the one featured in “Chernobyl” is eminently predictable. Lies, obfuscation, and misinformation would abound. Outside help and assistance would be rejected, worsening the crisis. Those who would truthfully speak of the dire nature of the catastrophe would be suppressed, or worse. Like with Chernobyl, the blame would constantly shift, further clouding the truth.
The few North Korean scientists with the requisite knowledge to assess the situation would be ignored or silenced if the results weren’t what government officials wanted to hear. Many would understandably remain quiet to prevent reprisals against their family and loved ones. The more authority the government possesses, the harder it is to effectively fight back.
In a statist society, fear has a lot in common with radiation—it seeps into every crack of life. And like radiation, fear is a slow, painful killer. Bold heroes like Legasov are the exception in statist regimes, not the rule. When faced with the terrifying, omnipotent power of a leviathan like the U.S.S.R., resisting the state is difficult at best and a death sentence at worst.
Finding Hope Amidst the Despair
“Chernobyl” is at times hard to watch. This is partly due to its graphic depiction of the horrific effects of radiation sickness. But it is also difficult to witness the larger tragedy unfolding. Virtuous men and women lie trapped in a life-sucking, hopeless society—an evil empire dominated by dread and suspicion, governmental privilege, and crippling regulation. Few shows have been so bleak.
Still, “Chernobyl” offers its audience glimmers of hope. There is Emily Watson’s Ulana Khomyuk, who helps stop the spread of the disaster. There are the hundreds of miners who worked round-the-clock to prevent the poisoning of Ukraine’s water supply. Then, there are the three volunteers who really did venture into the heart of the facility at great risk to prevent a complete meltdown that would have killed millions.
Yet the heart of “Chernobyl” lies with Valery Legasov. It is through Harris’s moving portrayal of Professor Legasov that we are reminded of the personal human cost of the lies weaved by an authoritarian state—and that it is possible to stand up to tyranny and corruption, even though we know it may cost us everything.
Joshua Lawson is a graduate student at the Van Andel School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. He is pursuing a masters degree in American politics and political philosophy.