Saturday, 26 April 1986. In Pripyat, Ukraine, the ninth nuclear city of the extinct USSR -founded on February 4, 1970, as an urban complex for the workers and families of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant-, the 50.000 inhabitants of the city don’t even imagine that in nine days they will have to leave their hometown forever.
What happened back in those days has been carefully reconstructed in HBO’s Chernobyl TV series, winner of Golden Globes and Emmys. The series, written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, has been cataloged by many critics as one of the best in history. In five vibrant episodes, the world’s worst nuclear disaster is narrated through the stories of the people who caused the disaster, the ones who responded to it, and the victims.
The script is based primarily on ‘Voices from Chernobyl’ by Belarusian Nobel laureate, Svetlana Alexievich. She has said: “Truth is communal.” That’s why her book is a historical reconstruction based on those many voices: the workers, the firefighters, the liquidators, the bureaucrats, the families; all of them narrate their stories and take us on a journey through one of the most frightening moments in the history of mankind. Let’s take a look at those voices.
Two of the most important characters in Alexievich’s narration are firefighter Vasili Ignatenko and his pregnant wife, Lyudmilla. These two characters are the protagonists of a nuclear love story and a tragedy. Lyudmilla witnesses Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploding past midnight, unaware that, just a few hours later, her loved husband will be in the middle of an inferno.
But this is not a drama. It is a powerful story that comes as a reflection of reality. As Alexievich puts it: “Show me a fantasy novel about Chernobyl–there isn’t one! Because reality is more fantastic.” That’s why Chernobyl is one of the most fantastic yet realistic stories ever. It is a tale of profound humanity that seems a work of fiction.
One of the pillars of tragedy is portraying the human condition: characters are presented with a dilemma and few choices, and decisions and their consequences are tragedies themselves. An example of this is Anatoly Dyatlov, the deputy chief engineer at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. On the day of the explosion, in reactor 4, Anatoly was conducting a safety test. His team was pushing the reactor to its limits, and at some point, he was confronted with a crucial decision. In just a few seconds the history of mankind was changed forever. So goes the tragedy.
Dyatlov is another voice of the disaster. Some may say he was incompetent. Some say he’s responsible for the tragedy. However, the truth, as usual, is much more complex. As Alexievich shows us: “It’s certainly true that Chernobyl, while an accident in the sense that no one intentionally set it off, was also the deliberate product of a culture of cronyism, laziness, and a deep-seated indifference toward the general population.” It is a secret to no one that the Soviet system was plagued with poor design and incompetence. Thus, it is not surprising that the result of this system was not only mediocrity. The system fed on lies to keep going. Alexievich goes on: “In the week after the accident, while refusing to admit to the world that anything really serious had gone wrong, the Soviets poured thousands of men into the breach. . . ” Negligence and denial at their best.
This leads us to the other protagonists of the catastrophe: the soviet bureaucrats and scientists. After the accident, the government sent Boris Shcherbina, the Council of Ministers’ deputy chairman, to the site. He was the person responsible for the state’s response to the disaster. The character is portrayed by Stellan Skarsgård, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance. Shcherbina was a career bureaucrat that was confronted by an unprecedented situation that, like everything going on in the series, forces his humanity to the limits.
Although various voices make up the narrative of Chernobyl, one stands out. The main character of the series is without a doubt Valery Legasov, portrayed by Jared Harris, winner of a Golden Globe for his performance. At the time, he was the deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute and was appointed by the government as the chief of the commission investigating the Chernobyl disaster. Legasov arrived at the site on short notice after 24 hours. He was confronted by a catastrophe like nothing humanity had ever seen before.
In a moment Legasov transformed into a sort of apocalyptic Atlas, condemned by the gods to carry the weight of planet Earth over his shoulders. This is the guy who deserves a monument in every country around the world, the scientist who put away fear and used science, common sense, and a deep compromise with ethics and humanity to rescue the world from the brink of apocalypse.
Just a few days from the tragedy, Soviet Union officials denied the threat to the public and started a mass cover-up. In the middle of these wrongdoings, Legasov confronted the Soviet Communist Party and forced them to evacuate Pripyat and its surroundings, thus saving millions of lives. Legasov wrote, “I knew that the town had been evacuated forever, but I couldn’t find the moral strength to tell it to the people.”
Amidst the failure of the liquidation methods employed in the first days, Legasov had to confront unimaginable decisions. With failing systems in the reactor, the scientist was confronted by the possibility of a giant nuclear explosion that would have made Europe and parts of Asia uninhabitable forever. He even faced the terrible decision of sending humans into the plant to stop the catastrophe from happening. Luckily, the results were positive, given the magnitude of the incident. In simple terms, Legasov saved parts of Europe, the Soviet Union, and why not, the world, from extinction.
The series begins with Legasov recording a sort of testament before he hanged himself on the anniversary of the disaster. His last words are a testimony of the irresponsibility of politicians and the deep moral and ethical compromise of scientists for the truth:
“To be a scientist is to be naive. We are so focused on our search for the truth we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants, it doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time. And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl. Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: What is the cost of lies?”