On its northern hemisphere release in May, the HBO–Sky Atlantic miniseries Chernobyl toppled Game of Thrones from its prime position on the ratings charts. This strange popularity contest between a spectacular Gothic epic and a dramatised documentary is prompting some vexed speculations. If even the most cogent of fantasy worlds fails to resolve its catastrophes in a way we find satisfying, what is to be learned from sustained dramatic engagement with a real-world cataclysm?
The central figure in Chernobyl (screening in Australia on Foxtel) is Valery Legasov, a nuclear physicist sent to assess the reactor immediately following the initial explosion on 26 April 1986. Jared Harris portrays him as a committed professional who becomes the voice of conscience within a corrupt regime, dominating the final episode with his testimony at the criminal trial of Chernobyl personnel in July 1987.
Legasov’s speech, aimed at the cohort of observers from scientific institutions who constituted an unofficial jury, overstepped the bounds of what the Politburo was prepared to hear. The rest of his story is all too predictable. Made a “former person” and relegated to obscurity, his interventions were largely wiped from the record. Shortly after the second anniversary of the meltdown, he committed suicide.
One of the few remaining traces of his presence is a brief interview on NBC’s News Today at the time of the August 1986 conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, to which he was sent as chief Soviet delegate, still bearing the Kremlin seal of approval. The American interviewer is keen to ask the leading questions: “Are you saying as much as you know?” and “Should all the reactors be closed?”
To the first question he responds that the detailed report he has submitted “tried to produce precisely the kind of material that would enable the experts to consider the measures and draw conclusions for the future.” As for closing the other sixteen reactors of the same design, he shrugs. (Yes, he really does shrug, in a slow, inexpressive movement.) It’s the first thing that occurs to anyone unfamiliar with the history of the breakdown, he says. “Experts” — a word he uses repeatedly — understand things differently.
Legasov’s expression is impenetrable throughout, that of a technocrat reciting an authorised doctrine. The fuller story of his involvement suggests that there was a complex, principled human being behind the mask, and therein was a key challenge for scriptwriter Craig Mazin and actor Jared Harris. Mazin avoids the obvious choices: there’s no attempt to portray Legasov as a family man, although he had a wife and daughter who stood by him throughout the ordeal. Instead, he sits alone in a dismal little apartment, with a cat as his sole companion.
The real-life Legasov was also a man of some national standing, an esteemed party loyalist who held a senior position at the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. There was potential for high drama in the authority figure torn between symbolism and realism: a version of Thomas More behind the iron curtain. Instead, he is introduced as a conscripted subordinate, a thorn in the side of party official Boris Shcherbina, the man entrusted with the political management of the crisis.
Harris, who excels in the role of the ordinary man cast onto the frontline of history (as he did as the reluctant monarch George VI in The Crown), plays Legasov as someone driven by a stubborn fixation on technological accuracy rather than by any moral commitment to “the truth.” That comes later, as an evolution of his growing insight into the causes of the catastrophe. This psychological evolution, subtle and gradual, forms a central line of tension through the five episodes.
As Shcherbina, Stellan Skarsgård is a perfect dramatic counterpart to Harris. Harris is light-voiced, slightly built and unobtrusive; Skarsgård, a solid, conspicuous figure in the landscape of devastation, speaks as if he has swallowed a handful of gravel. Yet it is Shcherbina who gives way, the realist in him called out by the sheer scale of what he is witnessing.
According to Craig Mazin, this is a story “about the cost of lies and the dangers of narrative.” The culpability of a state apparatus built on a false narrative is a central theme, but herein lies the danger of another one-dimensional narrative — that of Chernobyl as the symbol of a failed state and its fallout. Those following the story in Western media, Mazin says, “had no sense of how multilayered the situation was.” So the series also sets out to show the forms of genuine heroism exhibited by the Soviet citizenry.
In the opening episode, viewers are subjected to an almost minute-by-minute re-enactment of the unfolding disaster as it is experienced by those in the control room, where a test experiment goes wrong. The quintessential irony is that they are running a safety test. But those pressing the buttons and pulling the levers are under pressure from a bullying supervisor who has himself been leant on by a superior determined to complete the required procedures in an arbitrarily imposed timeframe. And so the machinery of the state has an impact on the technologies of the reactor: it is almost as if the escalating rage of the supervisor is feeding directly into the system, driving the rapidly scrolling numbers on the electronic counter.
Then, in one of the most vividly realised scenes, miners from Tula are called on to dig a channel underneath the core and install a liquid nitrogen coolant. The coal industries minister emerges from his vehicle dressed in a pale blue suit and faces a group of forty-five men whose skin and clothing are permeated with coal dust. It’s a stand-off of the starkest kind. He issues an order; the leader of the miners stonewalls. Why should they do this? The minister signs to the two armed guards behind him, and threatens to shoot. The miner shrugs, “You haven’t got enough bullets for all of us.” The impasse is broken when the miners understand what is at stake and accept their role, each of them leaving a black hand print on the minister’s suit as they pass him to board the convoy to Chernobyl.
This is dramaturgy, not realism, but the actual courage of those miners is well attested, and the scene serves to convey another dimension of the “Soviet Union.” There was an extent to which it remained true to its name among the people, if not in its many levels of government.
Aware as they may have been of the dangers of narrative, the series creators also deal in it by infusing the dramatisation with conventional forms of stirring and sentimental encounter. Emily Watson’s role as Ulana Khomyuk, a nuclear physicist who enters the fray to offer a challenge to Legasov’s diagnosis, is a fictional composite. With her natural candour, Watson invests the character with rather too much moral colouring, especially when she incites Legasov to go out there and tell it like it is in the trial hearing. Was it really like that?
The final episode, in which scenes from the courtroom are intercut with flashbacks to the opening scene in the control room of the reactor, turns into a kind of show trial of the Soviet state. It is dominated by Legasov, whose lecture on the factors leading up to the meltdown turns at the last minute into a grand denunciation of the culture of lies in which they are all embroiled. “To be a scientist is to be naive… The truth doesn’t care about our governments, ideologies, religions. It will lie in wait for all time and this at last is the gift of Chernobyl. I once would fear the cost of truth. Now I only ask, ‘What is the cost of lies?’”
In the 1980s, Soviet Russia was, in the eyes of the Western world, the prototype for the failed state. Four decades on, Legasov’s words ring out as a statement for our times, an indictment of the fraudulent political cultures now well advanced in Western democracies. The global financial crisis might be seen as the capitalist equivalent of the Chernobyl meltdown, but what, ultimately, were the consequences? With the ascent of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson’s likely instatement as prime minister, we’re still waiting for the truth to catch up. It may be that the popularity of Chernobyl is a reflection of wishful thinking. If only the truth actually would come home to roost. •