“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.

Operation Neptune: Remembering D-Day

75 years after the Normandy landings in 1944, this D-Day commemoration may be the final milestone at which World War II veterans are alive to tell the tale. How does remembrance change when we no longer have firsthand witnesses to uphold our historic memory?

By Serena Ypelaar

Historians, especially those working in public history, know that we have a responsibility to remember and learn from the past, lest past mistakes be repeated. This responsibility will loom larger in the forefront of our duties when the original veterans of World War II, the firsthand memory-keepers, are no longer with us.

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy. On the 6th of June, 1944, British, French, Canadian, and American troops carried out an amphibious assault on the coast of German-occupied France. Codenamed “Operation Neptune”, the Normandy landings constituted the largest seaborne invasion in history. D-Day therefore laid the foundations for Europe’s liberation and the end of the Second World War. Though there are veterans still living to recount their memories, soon that will no longer be the case.

The 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade disembarking onto Juno Beach at Normandy. Photo: Wikimedia

At the commemoration ceremonies at Normandy this past Thursday, Prince Charles referenced this sobering reality in his speech. It left me to ponder how quickly time is receding (as always) from our grasp – these changes will transform the historical memory of the Second World War. After all, we no longer have veterans of World War I (or earlier conflicts) to consult about their experiences. Historical interpretation of WWII will likewise rely on physically preserved records, which is going to change how we remember and reinterpret the conflict.

Remembrance in itself is an act – or series of acts – of interpretation. And those interpretations may change depending on contemporary international contexts. For instance, national leaders including outgoing British prime minister Theresa May, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, and French president Emmanuel Macron, came together at the D-Day ceremonies in France yesterday to memorialize those who fought the Nazis at Normandy. Notably absent was German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It’s unclear whether she was not invited or simply didn’t attend; she was present at the British ceremony in Portsmouth the day before. Of course, Germany’s role in World War II is the obvious point of contention in this kind of commemoration, and how the country engages with commemorations today sets the tone for reconciliation and reparation.

Britain was prominent among the Allied forces during World War II, and they likewise had a robust presence in the D-Day commemorations. With the mess that is Brexit, Britain’s current political situation places them at an interesting perspective. D-Day was a mobilization of Allied forces which relied upon the unity of major European nations like Britain and France. Now, however, Britain is stepping back from their long-term trade ties with France (as well as Germany) to leave the European Union. In a similar way, the United States was heavily involved in D-Day, yet diplomacy between the U.S. and European countries is particularly strained thanks to President Donald Trump. Having seen tension between certain political leaders, such as between Trump and Merkel, these commemoration events are like a strange family reunion: they reveal how relationships have changed over time.

“Into the Jaws of Death” by Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard.
Photo: Wikimedia

The main priority of preserving history is remembering and honouring the past. To this end, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, read out the exact words of his great grandfather George VI, from his D-Day Broadcast:

“At this historic moment, surely not one of us is too busy, too young, or too old to play a part in a nationwide, worldwide vigil …”

King George VI, in a D-Day Broadcast aired 6 June 1944
King George VI of England’s D-Day Broadcast,
originally aired on the morning of 6 June 1944.

This touch was particularly notable because it acknowledges the importance of taking the past into account (something the British notoriously excel at!). One day, not only will the veterans be gone, but so will their children, grandchildren, and everyone who knew them. So what does this tell us about commemoration? We need to preserve the stories of those who lived through the experience, and we need to uphold their legacies as if they were our own while paying our respects to the great sacrifices they made for freedom.

“Only those who threw themselves against the walls of the fortress of Europe in Normandy know the full extent of what unfolded here 75 years ago. But it is the responsibility of all Canadians to ensure that their story and their sacrifice will never be forgotten.”

Justin Trudeau, in a speech at Juno Beach on 6 June 2019
Juno Beach is the site where Canadian forces landed during the D-Day invasion. Photo: Joe de Sousa

Nationalism of course comes into play at these commemorations, as it always does. But if we think of commemoration on a purely human level – irrespective of politics – we can preserve history with greater integrity. Sure, we can argue about international relations and the current state of affairs worldwide, but that’s not what commemoration is about. When loss of life is concerned, politicizing memorials trivializes and distracts from the sacrifices of human beings. As shown by the world’s diplomatic leaders, public memory is a collaborative form of historical interpretation. There are many things we may differ on as people and as countries, but the human cost of war is universally significant to us.

D-Day teaches us the importance of balancing past interpretations with present-day ones in order to remember responsibly. In the end, preserving historical memory isn’t the sole responsibility of those who lived through an event in history – it’s our responsibility, as the ones who will carry their stories forward in years to come.

To learn more about the 75th anniversary D-Day commemorations, click here.