HBO’s Chernobyl Warns Us About the Disasters of Propaganda & State-Sponsored Truths

Pop Culture

HBO’s Chernobyl Warns Us About the Disasters of Propaganda & State-Sponsored Truths

Illustration: Arati Gujar

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fter the disaster that was the last season of Game of Thrones, I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical about a series that aimed to encapsulate a story as complex, controversial, and layered as the Chernobyl disaster within five episodes and under seven hours of runtime. How do you do justice to the scale of devastation and loss — both in human and ecological terms — without losing the audience to the grimness of the minutiae that make the story simultaneously tragic and terrifying?

Do you focus on the catastrophic nature of the consequences that loomed over humanity, had the radioactive fallout and contamination not been contained? Or does the heroism of the 600,000-odd civic and military personnel who saved millions of lives by taking on the dangerous work of building, evacuating, cleaning, monitoring, and providing medical care in an active radioactive zone take narrative centrestage?

Is it more important to meditate about the toxicity of political playacting and the resultant chilling disregard for human life in an attempt to save face internationally, especially the “Americans” — in a telling scene in episode four, the deputy chairman of the council of ministers bleakly calls the Soviet Union a country “obsessed with not being humiliated”? Or is the audience best served by using the Chernobyl story to sound an urgent alarm about authoritarian governments, the power of propaganda, and State-sponsored truths in the age of fake news and unbridled threats to free press.

History, after all, has the perplexing habit of repeating itself.

For an entire decade after the incident, many details about the days, weeks and months following the cataclysmic explosion of the core of nuclear reactor No 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in April 1986 remained murky due to the Soviet government’s near-complete suppression of information trickling out of the disaster site. Even so, this much is undebatable: the State’s propensity for classifying documents that threatened its agenda — even if that meant concealing crucial scientific research —  played a catalysing part in the events that transpired on that fateful night. It is impossible to watch Chernobyl without this one unsettling question gnawing away at your intellect with increasing persistence: could the worst nuclear accident in the history of humankind have been averted if those all-important documents containing vital information about structural damages and flaws in the design of the reactor hadn’t been redacted? The answer is almost too awful to contemplate.

Is the Soviet Union’s insistence on controlling the narrative with arbitrary, unilateral decisions about censorship any different from the brazen rewriting of history in India?

These questions are alarming during the best of times, but they take on an added urgency in a world where the very idea of an objective truth and reality is finding itself buried under misinformation so dense, it can sometimes be hard to imagine there exists anything on the other side of this darkness. Is the Soviet Union’s insistence on controlling the narrative with arbitrary, unilateral decisions about censorship any different from the brazen rewriting of history in India?

In the final episode of the series, Valery Legasov, a high-ranking nuclear physicist who is tasked with planning and strategising the cleanup efforts and one of the three protagonists, gives a stirring testimony in a court about the cost of truth and lies. But before that, we see him offering up a carefully constructed, government-approved version of it to a group of scientists who want to know whom to blame. There’s a parallel to be drawn between the frustration of a nuclear physicist muzzled by an autocratic government, and the resignation of the acting chairman of the National Statistical Commission of India in January this year over political strong-arming and manipulation of employment and GDP data under the Modi government. At a certain point, after enough voices have been silenced, the pursuit of truth becomes futile.

Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck have done a spectacular job of capturing truth’s fragile — and tortured — relationship with power in the series, even as it takes liberties with the truth in the interest of fabricating tension and drama. You can see resigned contempt etched in every line of Valery Legasov’s (Jared Harris) face and hear impatience lacing his every word as he struggles to find out how the impossible happened, even as his government prioritises prestige over its people’s protection — until it no longer can. Ulana Khomyuk, a sharp nuclear physicist from Minsk who cottons on to the truth of what might really be going on faster than everyone else around her, might be a fictionalised character, but she beautifully represents the community of scientists who worked on unmasking the truth, one poor decision at a time, despite the constant scrutiny and red tape. Emily Watson plays the character to perfection — just the right mix of stoicism and academic pride. And finally, there is the brilliant Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Shcherbina, the deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers, whose bluster as an important state official gives way to horror as the import of what humanity faces truly hits home.

Sure, these characters may be oversimplified for narrative convenience — Legasov is too ignorant of Soviet bureaucracy for the first half of the show to be as high up in the hierarchy as he is, Khomyuk is too “good” to be a truthful representation of a group of people beaten into submission by a system that silences every murmur of dissent, and Shcherbina is too deferential too quickly — but they’re all effective interlocutors for a story pop culture has waited too long to tell. A story of unborn children absorbing the radiation assailing their mothers in the womb and dying within hours of birth, of first responders dying torturous deaths far away from home, and of the staggering 350,000 people who forever lost their homes.

Chernobyl raises and leaves you with many ideological questions about truth and lies, pliancy and resistance, and the rights and wrongs of it all. But in the end, it leaves you with this: Will it matter who emerges the hero and who is cast as the villain, when no one is left to sing praises or assign blame?

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