▲ TV Series “Chernobyl” Poster. PROVIDED BY PINTEREST
A peacefully flying bird suddenly falls, has a seizure, and dies. This is a scene from the television (TV) series “Chernobyl.” The bird dies because of a nuclear plant explosion that released excessive radiation into the air, contaminating the surrounding environment and turning a city into a wasteland. The release of “Chernobyl” is timely because Japan has recently decided to release radioactive water into the ocean and countries bordering the Pacific Ocean worry about the damage it may cause. The Japanese incident has spurred further discussion about nuclear facilities and radioactivity and spotlights the damage that they may cause.
“Chernobyl” is an Home Box Office (HBO) miniseries drama directed by Johan Renck and written by Craig Mazin. At the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, “Chernobyl” won for Outstanding Limited Series, Outstanding Directing, and Outstanding Writing. It is a historical drama that uses the Chernobyl nuclear disaster as subject matter. The TV series focuses more on what happened after the explosion, particularly the damage and follow-up measures that were taken after the disaster. Over five episodes, it shows how unaware the government officials were regarding the danger of nuclear plants and details the aftermath of them denying their responsibility for the accident.
The TV series starts with the question “What is the cost of lies?” Then, the scene converts into 1986, Pripyat, and there, the worst nuclear disaster in history happened. According to National Geographic, it is assumed that “At least 28 people initially died from the accident and more than 100 people were injured.” The contamination was severe, with a rating of seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale, which is the maximum possible, and the radioactivity spread globally on the wind. The series realistically reflects the accident through nuclear physicist Valery Legasov’s investigation process. From the second episode, the series starts to answer the question posed at the beginning by revealing what happened after the Chernobyl disaster.
V i s i t i n g t h e C h e r n o b y l Exclusion Zone
The production team for the show traveled to the Chernobyl exclusion zone in person to inject more reality into the production. There, they recorded real sounds from the nuclear plant, which are frequently incorporated into the background music for the series, not only adding reality to the movie but also building tension. This is especially effective in the scenes of workers entering the nuclear plant after the disaster. Every single note of the music was produced from the recorded sounds, and the music effectively illustrates the spread of the radiation which is hard to visualize.
Mazin mentioned in an interview with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Guru that he heavily researched the accident, working from books, news articles, and government documents to find out exactly what happened at that time. Mazin wanted the series to reveal how the situation happened in great detail. Therefore, he chose Lithuania as the key site for filming because it has a similar atmosphere to Pripyat. Moreover, reading the book Voices from Chernobyl, which is a collection of first-person accounts, he realized the size of the human cost of the accident and remarked on it during the production.
The Cost of Lies
The movie’s answer to the question “What is the cost of lies?” is massive sacrifice. To deal with the aftermath of the disaster, a large number of innocent lives were ruined. Firefighters received radiation burns while tackling the burning Chernobyl plant. Some of the plant workers had to dive into radiationcontaminated water. Coal miners had to dig under the Chernobyl plant without any protection. Soldiers had to kill all of the contaminated animals, and people living near the city of Pripyat had to leave their homes.
Although the state did not provide much information, the men who were mobilized by the state would have probably known how dangerous the work was by intuition. This is illustrated by politician Boris Shcherbina, who was in charge of the response to Chernobyl, who said of the mobilized coal miners, “These men work in the dark. They see everything.” Despite people not being fully informed, they do have an idea that they are being used as collateral. This is the irony that the TV series highlights. Those who were not responsible were sacrificed to solve the problem while those who should have been held responsible kept lying to maintain power.
Responsibilities for the Disaster
Legasov was in charge of the restoration after the disaster. He not only had to find a way to deal with the unprecedented disaster, but he sometimes criticized the decisionmaking process of the state at the time. For example, Legasov criticized the follow-up measures introduced by the government. In the show, he raises his objections to “An uninformed, arbitrary decision that will cost who knows how many lives made by some apparatchik, some career party man?” He criticized the system of the Soviet state, where commands were only made by a few party men, thus excluding the opinions of others. However, initially, Legasov bent to the will of the state and concealed the truth at the beginning. There is a scene in the show where Legasov expresses his feelings about this, saying, “I’m not good at this, Boris. The lying.” The viewers thus witness to his inner conflict. Finally, due to the persuasion of Ulana Komyuk, a fellow nuclear scientist who investigated what happened in the Chernobyl disaster, Legasov told the truth in the trial. Nevertheless, his guilt persisted, leading him to commit suicide on April 27, 1988.
The Soviet state keeps denying their responsibility throughout the series, saying, “Because the efforts of the Soviet nuclear industry are considered key state secrets, it is important that we ensure this incident has no adverse consequences.” The state was obsessed about not appearing weak or at fault. They concealed the truth to maintain their standing in international society. Anatoly Dyatlov, the chief engineer of the plant, was also reluctant to tell the truth. He continued to deny his responsibility for the accident, and during the Chernobyl trial, he even claimed that Legasov was lying.
After the release of the TV series, Russian tabloids criticized it, claiming that it was biased. Despite the controversy, the TV series has been acknowledged elsewhere as a well-made drama because it reconstructs the disaster based on facts, though it does take some liberties and adds fictional characters to streamline the story. It allows the viewers to consider how the Chernobyl disaster happened and how dangerous uninformed top-down decision-making is. Lastly, the TV series warns viewers not to repeat this manmade catastrophe.