About Chernobyl and Everything Else
At last. A chance to talk about my two main areas of expertise, nuclear energy and late Cold War Soviet history. Kidding. Though I love science and my degree is in history, it would be a kindness to even call me a layman on either score. That said, I finally got through the first episode of Chernobyl last night, and I can’t remember being so twisted up inside. My fists were clenched. My teeth were grinding. Two scenes in particular affected me, offering destabilizing haymakers of sadness and anger. The following will not be a perambulation through happy town, and though it was inspired by the show, the episode is just a jumping off point for wider or at least more unwieldy topics. Not a review or a commentary on the work itself. But spoilers, I guess, for just the first installment.
Let’s get to the first scene I want to talk about. Pretty sure it’s dialogue free. We see a clutch of people from the nearby town watching the reactor fire from a distance. Kids are being kids, people are looking on, talking to each other, concerned but not freaking out. Some are holding hands. Other offer smiles of comfort and reassurance. Then you see this soot or ash start collecting in their hair. It’s not a lot, and it doesn’t even seem to bother them all that much. I think the particles whisking through the night air are meant to represent the radiation that is silently and invisibly ravaging their bodies, obviously unbeknownst to them.
A couple things here. First, radiation exposure is more horrifying than anything Stephen King could come up with. You can be receiving lethal doses and not even have a clue. This scene depicts it so eerily. Add in that it actually happened, and it’s hard to imagine being unmoved by the visuals. Something else. Maybe it’s so viscerally disturbing because there’s a truth about all life underneath it all. One could say we’re all just taking in the spectacle, living under a thin veil of distraction until one day something we can’t see and could never see comes along. I don’t mean to plant a flag on morbidity hill, but you get it. My interpretation is mine, and I might be off base. But I’m right.
Moving on to the second scene that hit me. All the Soviet big shots are trying to decide what the dump is going on. A bunch of ugly old dudes are facing the worst nuclear disaster in the history of the world, and the conversation is comprised mostly of denial and finger-pointing. This had me just about ready to punch through the screen, because I’m almost certain it’s close to the truth. Some really crusty apparatchik stands up to quell the arguing. You think, maybe he’ll be the voice of reason, the one to cut through the absolute insanity being spewed around the room. Instead, he doubles down. The safety of the people and the facts on the ground are secondary to the socialist state. He says that the people are to be quiet and stay where they are, because that’s what will best serve the hammer and sickle. I’ve never been so pissed at a show. Again, this was a real thing.
I know I’m nibbling around the edges, but here’s the main point. The second scene might be more terrifying than the first. In fact, I know it is. That countless people have died and been made to suffer because of some hypnotic allegiance to a bureaucracy is again, more horrific than anything Stephen King could come with. We learn the Chernobyl facility was actually named after Lenin, which makes these morons even more devoted to keeping its good name intact. Meanwhile, the nuclear reactor is not intact. But whatever. In the end they’ll be some brave individuals that will sacrifice everything to stem the catastrophe. Probably for their families or love of their fellow people. Or because they’re brave and honest and someone has to do it. I doubt their last thoughts were of party loyalty.
Two scenes. Two horrors. Two lessons. Sorry, a little heavy today. Cheers and see you after.