Chernobyl: Revisiting the disaster with the HBO series to understand how utopianism led to the gargantuan failure

MK Raghavendra

Jun 23, 2019 09:15:33 IST

The HBO television miniseries Chernobyl has broken many records and is higher rated than other shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. It pertains to the nuclear disaster in April 1986 at Chernobyl nuclear plant near Pripyat, Ukraine, inquiring into the causes and describing the subsequent clean-up efforts. The miniseries uses mainly British actors speaking a British kind of English and while this is disconcerting initially, the authenticity of the detail overpowers this aspect and the effort is deeply engaging. As may be anticipated Chernobyl has its propagandist side in which the Soviet establishment under Mikhail Gorbachev is shown to be functioning under a web of lies. Gorbachev later attributed the collapse of the Soviet Union to Chernobyl because it showed the system for what it really was. A world power must not only be a world power but must also appear to be one, and Chernobyl seriously undermined that. Since Chernobyl, there has been a similar disaster in Japan but it is unlikely to generate the same interest since Japan is not as interesting politically as the Soviet Union was.

Chernobyl is in five parts and the first begins with a monologue from key nuclear physicist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) two years after the disaster, just before the moment when he kills himself by hanging. The scene then shifts to the minutes before the disaster with Anatoly Dyatlov, assistant chief engineer at Chernobyl, bullying assistants into doing things they must not be doing because of his own arrogance, leading to the explosion he does not accept as serious until the seriousness becomes too hard not to acknowledge. The curious aspect of the explosion is that it should theoretically not have occurred at all and this is what led to the overconfidence on Dyatlov’s part that he passed downwards to subordinates, who died later. Within hours of the disaster, the Soviet government appointed Valery Legasov to investigate, Legasov being the only one willing to speak out on the gravity of the matter in Gorbachev’s presence. Legasov is placed under Boris Scherbina, (Stellan Skarsgård) deputy chairman of the council of ministers. Scherbina is initially hostile to Legasov but begins to trust his opinion after seeing things on the ground more clearly, Legasov’s expectations coming true. Within a few hours, they come to realise that their own lives will be cut drastically short by exposure to radiation.

Chernobyl: Revisiting the disaster with the HBO series to understand how utopianism led to the gargantuan failure

A still from the HBO series

Two aspects stand out in the miniseries and the first is the unwillingness of officialdom to accept the truth about Chernobyl because it would involve accepting uncomfortable truths about the state. One, in fact, loses count of the number of occasions when misplaced optimism leads – or almost leads – to further disasters. The second aspect has to do with ordinary workers volunteering for work they know will be fatal. Although the Soviet state was deeply discredited, the public still had memories of what they had been through together and the sense of common nationhood made such unbelievable sacrifices possible. But it was also true, as the miniseries brings out, that such sacrifices were routinely demanded by the state. The Soviet Union did not have the financial wherewithal to become a scientific power but it did become a giant by simply risking more lives; an instance would be the relative absence of safety measures that might have cost a great deal of money. It is generally asserted that all human lives are equally valuable but cultures place different values on them. The Soviet Union which lost millions of lives in WWII saw human lives as a fairly low-cost commodity. On the flip side, the willingness to sacrifice people also makes Russia a dangerous military adversary.

Regarding why a ‘theoretically impossible’ explosion took place at Chernobyl in April 1986, Dyatlov had insisted on taking the power output to an unviable figure to accommodate demands from the industries required to meet output quotas and this led to a spike in reactivity. He had expected that if this happened the boron control rods could be inserted into the core to stop the reaction and this is what he ordered. When Legasov sets the investigation into motion he discovers something deliberately hidden; when the control rods are inserted into the core what comes into contact first is graphite and not boron. Under the crisis conditions created by Dyatlov that fateful night this caused the nuclear reaction to surge further and set the graphite on fire; the shutting down effectively caused the explosion. This lacuna in reactor design was known but the report had been suppressed for political reasons.

In this phrase ‘political reasons’ we detect a relation between ideology and a catastrophe like the one at Chernobyl. The Soviet Union was constructed according to utopian principles, ie the belief that a system constructed according to a political ideology aimed at the good of a people will necessarily be beneficial. But what happens in practice is that political belief replaces practicality as motivation. To give an illustration, when one travelled in Germany around 2000 one noticed a distinct degradation of nature in certain parts and this was apparent only in the regions formerly under communist rule. The argument here is that since communism was beneficial in theory whatever ecological damage was done under it could be explained away as still for the ‘good of the people’.

Overwhelming importance to ideology means that subscribing to it, even if not in earnest, carries a deemed moral value. When the workers in Chernobyl risk their lives for the country their reasoned patriotism owes less to utopianism than shared historical experience. But the easier ‘morality’ associated with state utopianism is different in that it is easily opportunistic, assisting party apparatchiks into the institutions of the state. In Chernobyl we see minister Scherbina countermanding Legasov although he needs to have nuclear fission explained to him. Even in India, when Mrs Gandhi feigned ideological devotion, one recollects, she tried to fill the judiciary with ‘committed’ judges favouring social change over merely deserving ones, ie: chose them on ‘moral grounds’. Regimes not strictly following a utopian ideology can find no moral justification for those ‘morally correct’ to have authority over competent professionals.

For a system to be effective it cannot allow ‘state morality’ to override effectiveness but that is what utopian ideologies set in motion. It is comforting – as Chernobyl does – to see the disaster as with no implications outside the USSR but whatever has just been said holds true for all kinds of intended utopias. Utopias are ‘theory down’ in that they try to remake the world according to a pre-existent ideal and they do unintended harm when the world resists being thus remade. Hindutva in India is arguably utopian because it places a demonstrated love of the nation above all other virtues. Instead of Marxist theory, it uses Sanathana Dharma as the preconceived ideal. Religious patriotism is the harnessing force for the good of Indians – though perhaps less stable than the Soviet kind. As evidence, Yogi Adityanath is reportedly making it mandatory in Uttar Pradesh for students to undertake a nationalism test and a hypothetical question is what might happen if students without the capabilities became ‘skilled professionals’ on the basis of their patriotic feelings. Cow policy is dictated by the same utopianism and also points to an impending disaster, though perhaps not as drastic as Chernobyl. Utopias by definition are well-intentioned but good intentions have done more harm to the world than deliberate evil.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.

Updated Date: Jun 24, 2019 07:51:40 IST