“Containing the Spread of Misinformation”: “Chernobyl” and Historic Truth

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”.

By Daniel Rose

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.    

Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) coordinate cleanup at Chernobyl.
Photo: IndieWire

“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.

Conservation and Construction in the Limestone City

Canada’s first capital is home to historic buildings and a housing crisis. How does this affect Kingston’s tourism and city planning?

By Daniel Rose

On a recent visit to Fort Henry, I struck up a conversation with two visitors from Philadelphia who were astonished by Kingston’s historic charm. From enclaves of private homes in the downtown core dating back to the early 19th century to historic sites such as Kingston Penitentiary, they were surprised that the changing needs of the city hadn’t led to more mishaps. One remarked that, “In Philly, we’d have bulldozed half the city fifty years ago for a freeway, so good on ya!”

The British Whig building, an amalgamation of the Ontario Bank Building (constructed in 1894) and the Daily British Whig Building (constructed in 1895). Photo: Daniel Rose

As Canada’s first capital and home to the highest concentration of museums per capita in the country, Kingstonians often take their immersion in the country’s history for granted. When my family moved to Kingston in 1998, we visited local museums to get a handle on the city. Once we settled in, I didn’t return to most of them for almost twenty years! Many historic areas are more commonly used as points of reference when giving direction to the visiting tourists (or “seeds” as some old-timers call them) that descend upon the city every year. 

For residents, the historic city brings a significant challenge: the lowest vacancy rate in Ontario. Sites along the waterfront, such as the old train yards on “block D”, remained vacant for decades for fear of stirring up industrial waste. Other swathes of the city cater to the need for university and college student housing. There is no easy fix – per municipal regulations, new downtown buildings must maintain Kingston’s skyline. As a result, iconic locations such as the S&R building incorporate their original façade with a modern interior. These changes have not come without drawbacks, as affordable businesses are replaced with upscale boutiques. Once home to a budget department store, the S&R building is now a posh mixed office and retail space, while block D is now luxury condos and hotels.

The Smith-Robinson Building, formerly home to S&R Department Store. Photo: Waymark

One place where concerns for housing and heritage preservation meet is the land around Kingston Pen and the Prison for Women (P4W). Kingston Pen, opened in 1835 as Canada’s first penitentiary, housed offenders of all ages, genders and backgrounds over its 178 years of operation, while P4W was the only prison for women doing sentences longer than two years in Canada from 1934-2000. Ironically, neither site was considered part of the City of Kingston until the 1960s!  

The North Gate of Kingston Penitentiary, 2018. Photo: Daniel Rose

Each site has changed since closing.  Queen’s University purchased P4W in 2008, demolishing the perimeter wall and additions to the original structure. In 2018, a private developer purchased P4W with the intent of building residential, office and commercial properties incorporating the prison. Meanwhile, Kingston Pen is still owned by Corrections Canada, with a partnership with a local parks commission bringing in thousands of visitors every year to attend guided tours featuring testimony from retired staff.

How can places of significant national heritage with a complicated legacy incorporate the memorializing nature of an historic site while accommodating the need for residential space? In some ways, the Kingston Pen tours acknowledge the difficult and dangerous work staff put in during the penitentiary’s operation. Without any inmate testimony, however, the tours can feel like an incomplete picture of operations. Some activists, such as the P4W Memorial Collective, have suggested establishing a memorial garden on the grounds of P4W to acknowledge the hardships encountered by the women incarcerated in the prison. While an intriguing suggestion that holds merit, this decision ultimately remains in the hands of the developer who purchased the site.  

The front entrance to Prison for Women (P4W), 2018. Photo: Daniel Rose

The fate of Kingston Pen and P4W remains in motion. The contract for tours at Kingston Pen is renewed on a year-to-year basis, while development plans for P4W are still in their infancy. The decisions taken on both sites will affect locals and tourists alike.

“The box for this one said ‘Ages 8-14’!”

Lego products appeal to children (and adults) of all ages. Now, some advanced sets attempt to capture the look of iconic movie moments, eschewing playability for an “authentic” appearance.  

By Daniel Rose

As a child, I devoured the Lego catalogue from the moment it hit my mailbox. Leafing through the pages, I fantasized about adding each set to my collection. Facing the writing prompt “If I were…” in Grade 2 English class, I wrote a short story about being a Lego brick in my own collection – a very meta thought for a seven-year-old, but understandable given how much Lego was on my mind. Every time a new, expensive collection was released, I vowed that I would continue to buy Lego as an adult. Unlike most childhood dreams, oddly, this one came true.

My Lego short story was published as part of Staples’ “If I Were” story collection in 2002. I was pretty thrilled. Photo: Daniel Rose

Since the Lego Company’s famous plastic interlocking bricks were introduced in 1947, the company’s motto of “play well” (or leg godt in the native Danish) has inspired people of all ages to use their imagination to create and to recreate.  From movies and books to real places and things, Lego’s sets have used familiar places and themes as a frame for play. Play can take many forms, from the basic level of building the setting and characters to interactive elements (including projectile shooters and complex motors). For the most part, sets are inspired by their subject matter without being overly detailed, encouraging builders to use their imaginations to complete a scenario rather than providing a faithful recreation.

Spurred on by Lego’s official releases, communities of adult fans of Lego (or AFOLs) have created complex constructs based on popular culture, history and even existing Lego sets that attempt to perfectly capture the look of a particular place or thing.  Ranging in size and scale (and price!), these designs incorporate minute details – from the shape of a lighting fixture to custom-printing a sticker for a particular section of a wall – to build an authentic-looking creation. Recognizing the unique demands of these consumers, Lego has worked with these “master builders” to offer “advanced” sets that feature greater detail at a higher price range. Whether designed to fit the company’s iconic minifigures or at a more precise scale, these sets appeal to the desire of AFOLs and other builders to have “perfect-looking” recreated spaces while maintaining the tactile building element that has made Lego so popular. Interestingly, these constructs often sacrifice the greater “playability” of Lego in favour of “looking the part”, something which was lampooned in The Lego Movie through the character of The Man Upstairs.  Played by an indignant Will Ferrell, the character alleges that the way he uses Lego “makes it an adult thing”, rather than the toy it rightly is. I had never felt more represented, or hilariously caricatured, by a movie before, much to my own amusement.

Model 75192, configured in the classic Empire Strikes Back setup, takes up an entire table in my basement. Photo: Daniel Rose

Nowhere is the desire for accuracy more evident than in Lego model 75192 – the Millennium Falcon. Lego pulled out all the stops for Star Wars fans, who are notoriously fastidious in their demands for accuracy, to create a model that is nearly four feet long and three feet wide.  Released in 2017, the model incorporates information from official movie guides as well as the six films the ship makes an appearance in. With 7541 pieces (and retailing for an eye-watering $899.99 – before tax!), it is the largest Lego set commercially produced.* While the set features cross-sections of two of the ship’s classic rooms, allowing builders to use the eight included minifigures to act out scenes from the movies, more attention is paid to minute design elements.  Builders can swap out parts, such as the ship’s radar dish, depending on their preference for the original trilogy or the sequel trilogy. The set is the zenith of “authentic” official releases, demonstrating the extreme lengths builders can go to reproduce space. 

The scale of the model is gobsmacking – each of the six “vents” has the
same circumference as my fist. Photo: Daniel Rose

Model 75192 reveals the absurdity of the pursuit of authenticity. It replaced Model 10179, released in 2007 with a paltry 5 195 pieces (and 5 minifigures) in comparison. The intervening decade saw Lego design new parts and Disney release new Star Wars films; that is to say, that which was authentic previously is no longer a perfect recreation today. The same goes for unofficial constructions – the introduction of new design elements can make what was a faithful interpretation of a place or thing into an outdated caricature. This speaks to the importance of the imagination in filling the gaps better than an interlocking brick. Each recreation embodies the spirit of what the builder considers an essential part of the design. Even if the results never quite measure up, the pursuit of perfection is revealing.

Author’s Note: In the interest of clarity, I would like to note that I was one of the folks who purchased Model 75192, much to the chagrin of my savings and my common sense.