The HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” about the 1986 Soviet nuclear disaster has won over viewers, critics and Emmy award voters. It swept up 10 Emmys, including outstanding limited series, and was nominated for nine more.
Despite taking some dramatic licenses, the show accurately portrays everyday life under communism in the Soviet Union, the gory effects of severe radiation poisoning and the massive cleanup efforts after one of the 20th century’s biggest environmental disasters. It’s also a master class about government deceit.
I used to conduct research about communist mass mobilizations. Now I focus on how governments and charities respond to disasters. So, of course, I watched “Chernobyl” with great interest and appreciate the window it opens into the strengths and weaknesses of the Soviet state.
In one scene dramatizing a meeting of high-ranking Soviet leaders, the apparatchik Boris Shcherbina, who later supervises disaster recovery efforts, presents his case that the disaster is under control – when it isn’t at all.
The scientist Valery Legasov dramatically challenges this view, arguing correctly that the greatest dangers lie ahead.
That scene relays an important lesson about disaster responses: the immediate relief tends to be only a small part of the whole picture. Shcherbina eventually got that, seeing the recovery as a long war.
As I explain in my book “The Campaign State,” communist regimes had a preferred way to handle a multitude of challenges: mass mobilizations.
Communist countries often amassed people and resources for mundane reasons, such as goosing industrial output or building housing. Mobilizations became so common that they were a regular feature of everyday life.
Communist regimes also rallied people and resources when disasters struck.
As “Chernobyl” viewers see, hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, either with an understanding of the risks they faced or with no idea about them, did what was needed. Many experts believe these “liquidators” stopped the damage from potentially contaminating half of Europe.
The monumental clean-up effort mounted in the wake of the nuclear debacle didn’t just cost a fortune. It endangered the hundreds of thousands of people mobilized to prevent an even bigger disaster.
Many of the people who flocked to Chernobyl undertook difficult jobs like shooting pets and farm animals or destroying crops.
While researching mobilization campaigns, I saw that recruits were sometimes compelled but often made the decision to do tough and dangerous work of their own volition. This historical reality conflicts with Cold War stereotypes of brainwashed communists who did whatever they were told.
Some of the most dramatic scenes in the series feature volunteers, such as the three plant workers who plunged into the bowels of the destroyed reactor to prevent an explosion that would have ruptured the power station’s other three reactors, and potentially devastated half of Europe with nuclear fallout.
Mission accomplished, or not
“Chernobyl” creator, writer and executive producer Craig Mazin has observed that enlisting more than half a million people for such a dangerous mission was more easily accomplished in a place like the Soviet Union than, say, the United States.
However, communist citizens grew weary of incessant crises – both real and contrived – along with the propaganda designed to motive them.
Once people living in communist countries began to rebel against mobilizations and the rest of the state’s demands on their lives, their governments collapsed, including the Soviet state itself.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, wrote in 2006 that the “Chernobyl catastrophe was a historic turning point” responsible for his government’s unraveling. I believe that the same practice that limited the impact of this disaster exacted a great political cost.
The miniseries begins and ends with a daunting question: What is the cost of lies? For the USSR and its communist neighbors, the real cost was in the everyday, mundane lies that ultimately led to regime change.
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