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Ideas | Bathsheba Demuth

Chernobyl reminds us of the tragic cost of lies

A scene from HBO miniseries “Chernobyl.”
A scene from HBO miniseries “Chernobyl.” (Liam Daniel/HBO)

IN ONE OF the first scenes from the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl,” Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley) rises, nauseous from early pregnancy, in the wee morning hours of April 26th, 1986. The camera follows her through the familiar spaces of a Soviet apartment, each room with a different floral wallpaper, to the kitchen. As she walks past the window, we see in the background a bright flare on a distant rooftop. There is a pause, the sound following the light, then the room rattles from an explosion. Lyudmilla, like many of the characters we meet in Chernobyl, is not fictional. Decades after the accident, she told Svetlana Alexievich that she did not see Reactor Number Four of the Vladimir I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant explode. She saw the aftermath, “Just the flames. Everything was radiant.”

While Lyudmilla watched a column of fire and bluish-purple ionized air rise into the night, my husband was asleep 60 miles away: a toddler in a Kiev apartment. So it was with a particular, personal sort of anticipation that we watched “Chernobyl’s” five hours unfold. Some scenes felt like time travel; Craig Mazin, the show’s creator, rendered the material world of the Soviet 1980s with such care it was like seeing the kitchen utensils, playgrounds, school uniforms, and even the quality of the springtime light of my husband’s childhood.

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Many reviews have taken this emphasis on verisimilitude as reason to weigh each scene against the historical record: which characters were real, and which speeches fictions? But “Chernobyl” is a drama, not a documentary, both about a specific disaster and more general themes: heroism and human frailty, love and fear.

And watching in the spring of 2019, I found one allegorical reading hard to refuse. Each episode makes clear how it is possible to lie about radiation, but it is not possible to stop radiation with a lie. Atoms do not care how people prevaricate. More than 30 years and an entire political and economic system away from Chernobyl, we are watching many of our political and economic leaders lie about climate change, as if untruth has some new power to stop physics.

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There are many kinds of untruth in Chernobyl, and we are cued to pay attention to them: the first words, spoken by nuclear physicist Valery Lagasov (Jared Harris), are a question: “What is the cost of lies?” In the first episode, we see Anatoli Dyatlov, the engineer running the control room of Reactor Number Four, lie to himself and to his staff out of venality and cowardice, not wanting blame even as his colleagues described a maw of flame and heat, a nuclear chain reaction in the open air.

Dyatlov takes this lie to his superiors, who want to avoid culpability even as Dyatlov collapses, vomiting from radiation poisoning. The lie that Chernobyl poses no risk worms into the second episode, passed on by men not wanting to deliver bad news to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev, dodging international humiliation, takes that lie to the world.

In the third episode, Lyudmilla lies out of love. Her husband, a firefighter sent to the reactor minutes after it exploded, is dying. His body is highly radioactive; as radiation is particularly dangerous to the unborn and young children, the medical staff will ban her from his bedside unless she denies her pregnancy.

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But the largest lie, revealed in the final episode, was not the kind people told themselves out of care or fear. The Soviet ministers and high-level party members who oversaw nuclear power were aware that the RBMK-type reactor at Chernobyl contained an engineering defect: under the right conditions, a protocol meant to reduce the reaction in the core instead turned it into a detonator, igniting a runaway chain reaction. This information was concealed from plant operators. Anatoli Dyatlov denied that Chernobyl exploded in part to cover for his own mismanagement. He also did so because he was told an explosion was impossible.

Why the lie? Reengineering all the RBMK reactors active across the Soviet Union was expensive, inconvenient, and an admission that socialist engineering was fallible. It was ideologically unpalatable. The risks of deliberate ignorance were clear, but facing them was politically expensive. All reasons to ignore the known in the short term.

Thus at the heart of “Chernobyl” is not a lie for love, or timidity, but a lie for power. And this is where the allusions to our American present seem most apt. The Soviet Union in 1986 is not the United States in 2019. We have lobbyists, not the Communist Party; the First Amendment, not the KGB. But lies in the face of material realities still emanate from the powerful few, and they do so in service of maintaining that power.

Just in the weeks “Chernobyl” was airing on HBO, the Trump administration blocked State Department intelligence analyst Rod Schoonover from providing written testimony on the risks of climate change to Congress, because “the science did not match the Trump administration’s views,” according to the New York Times. The head of the US Geological Survey, James Reilly, reportedly began restricting the agency’s climate-change forecasts to no farther out than 2040, after which impacts from increased carbon dioxide levels will become most severe. The Department of Energy issued a press release rebranding natural gas as “freedom gas” and “molecules of freedom.”

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Picture taken June 02, 1986 at the control panel of the 1st power unit of Chernobyl nuclear plant of two technicians who worked at the reactor No 4 when it blasted on April 26, 1986, producing the world's worst nuclear accident of the 20th century.
Picture taken June 02, 1986 at the control panel of the 1st power unit of Chernobyl nuclear plant of two technicians who worked at the reactor No 4 when it blasted on April 26, 1986, producing the world's worst nuclear accident of the 20th century.(STF/AFP/Getty Images)

ALL OF THESE actions will benefit fossil fuel companies and a political status quo uninterested in changing our economic reliance on burning carbon. So too will moves to deregulate other kinds of pollution, as proposed by Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency, based on the assertions of controversial scientist Ed Calabrese. A past recipient of funds from Exxon Mobil, Dow Chemical, and other industry giants, Calabrese believes that small doses of radiation, mercury, and similar toxics is beneficial to people and ecosystems.

My in-laws were told the same thing after Chernobyl. My husband’s grandfather, a nuclear engineer, walked Kiev’s streets with a Geiger counter at night. He came home with clothes too radioactive to wear again; particles from the plant had drifted into the city, making the asphalt a hundred times more radioactive than before Reactor Number Four exploded. But in the days after the accident, my in-laws remember the authorities stating that radiation drifting in from Chernobyl’s nuclear plume was good for their health.

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Stating something is true, because it helps your funders or your Party, is different from it being so. Pretending there is no future after 2040 does not undo what harms we bring on our descendents. Downplaying the severity of climate change, as the Republican Party recently did, does not reduce the urgency of making a political future in which reduced carbon emissions are paramount.

What is the cost of such evasions and lies? “Chernobyl” argues it is future lives. In a dramatization of Lyudmilla Ignatenko’s testimony, we see her in the hospital after giving birth. Her husband has died, horribly, of radiation poisoning months before. Her baby daughter dies after four hours. As one of Mazin’s characters explains, echoing Ignatenko’s own understanding of what happened to her infant, the baby absorbed the radiation Lyudmilla was exposed to on the radiation ward, making the Soviet Union “a country where children have to die to save their mothers.”

Chernobyl, in “Chernobyl,” reverses the natural care passed down from parents to children. In this interpretation, that is both a Soviet artifact, particular to its bureaucracy and the incentives of socialist ideals, and the result of sclerotic power — of institutions disinclined to change in the face of facts. It is hard not to see, in the decisions to risk the future for the present, shades of Exxon Mobile and Chevron and Shell where we know executives who face no democratic or legal account — at least not yet — pushed disinformation for the sake of their bottom line, and did so for decades. They made up the raw lies now filtering into our political discourse. They do not look so different, in age or gender or disposition toward general human welfare, than Gorbachev and his councilors in the hours after Chernobyl exploded. Nor does our current cabinet.

The danger of untruth, Valery Legasov says in Mazin’s script, is that “if we hear enough lies we no longer recognize the truth.” It is a warning against complacency, against the seduction of easy narratives when what is required is acquiescing to the reality of physical fact, be it faulty engineering or a future filled with the new risks — of disease, flooding, drought, hurricanes, and the social ills that follow — that are forecast in a rapidly warming world. Our children will inherit our obfuscations, produced out of cowardice or avarice or for political gain. It is possible to lie about climate change. But it is not possible to stop climate change with a lie.

Undated picture sent by Soviet television of a man injured in the blast of No. 4 reactor of Ukrainian Chernobyl nuclear plant, the world's worst nuclear accident of the 20th century.
Undated picture sent by Soviet television of a man injured in the blast of No. 4 reactor of Ukrainian Chernobyl nuclear plant, the world's worst nuclear accident of the 20th century. (AFP/Getty Images)

Bathsheba Demuth is an Assistant Professor of History and Environment and Society at Brown University, and author of “Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait,” forthcoming in August.