Fresh off the series’ Emmy win for Outstanding Limited Series, we take a look at how HBO’s Chernobyl makes us reconsider how we think about “The Truth”.
Growing up in the shadow of American media has given me a stilted view of Russian and Soviet history. From the patriotic cheese of “Rocky IV” to the tales of espionage and intrigue in “The Hunt for Red October”, we have been led to believe that Eastern Europe is the homeland of villains who are dastardly at best and incompetent at worst. Today, some people still believe that the fall of the Soviet Union was the inevitable victory of the “good guys” from the West over the “bad guys” from the East, a gross oversimplification that some media is still eager to support. The tenuous relationship that exists between Western depictions of the Soviet Union and the reality of life in Eastern Europe’s communist bloc is what makes HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries so refreshing.
“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”Jared Harris as Valery Legasov in “Chernobyl”
Set between April 26, 1986 and April 27, 1987, Chernobyl follows events set in motion immediately following the explosion of reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat (now in modern-day Ukraine). The disaster, which exposed hundreds of thousands of people in Eastern Europe to frightening levels of radiation, is framed in a way that balances the truth of the incident with the portrayal of the explosion in Soviet media. Rather than presenting the subject matter in a fully-realized, academic light, the series only provides viewers with as much information as characters on-screen have access to at any particular moment. When plant engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) remarks that the level of radiation in the aftermath of the explosion, 3.6 roentgen, is “not great, not terrible”, we are not immediately given context as to what roentgen measures (the exposure of x-rays and gamma rays) or what would constitute an alarming measurement. Even the soundtrack, which maintains a constant sense of unease throughout the six-episode miniseries, leaves the viewer in the dark as to when misfortune will appear on-screen.
The narrative structure adopted in Chernobyl mirrors the cultural climate in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. After decades of extreme government censorship of the press, the Soviet Union adopted a policy of openness or “glasnost” as part of a larger restructuring, collectively known as “perestroika”, aimed at maintaining parity with the West. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, however, Soviet media repeatedly under-reported the damage and risk of exposure to radiation, even as Western scientists as far away as Scandinavia reported alarming levels entering the atmosphere. In Chernobyl, viewers are reassured by characters that the situation is under control, contrary to the scenes of fire and destruction on display. It isn’t until later in the series, when expert scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) is introduced, that the scale and impact of damage becomes apparent to the viewer.
What sets Chernobyl apart from other historical dramas is the effort to capture the Soviet Union in this brief moment as accurately as possible. In particular, Chernobyl‘s cinematography does a masterful job at showcasing the cost of the cleanup in contrast to the measured takes of its characters. The portrayal of radiation poisoning turns the viewers’ stomachs, with the camera lingering long enough on victims to evoke sympathy as well as horror. The effort goes beyond the actual series, with the writers collaborating on a podcast that explores each scene in every episode to give viewers insight as to how some events are framed. The filmmakers are open about any inaccuracies in the series, including the fictional character Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a composite of the many scientists who contributed to the cleanup.
Chernobyl is an eerily accurate representation of a long-changed era. The miniseries does a phenomenal job of placing the viewer in the action, equipping those of us who grew up after the fall of the Berlin Wall with the tools to understand why people acted and thought the way they did in 1986. Outside of time travel, Chernobyl is the closest people can get to life in the Soviet Union.