The 2019’s “event” in television ended on June 6th, with the final episode of the miniseries Chernobyl airing on HBO. It became IMDB’s highest rated TV series of all time, even surpassing Game of Thrones and instant classic Breaking Bad.
It was a great miniseries, in terms of camera work, acting and the art of storytelling. It was also amazing in its shot at propaganda and distorting the actual narrative to serve a political purpose. With the declared purpose of the show to present “The Cost of Lies”, the series itself was a sophisticated mix of the lies and half-truths.
And it wasn’t really a secret, since show creator Craig Mazin even admitted it in an interview with Slate Magazine.
“For a million reasons, this was not an anti-nuclear polemic. It’s anti–Soviet government, and it is anti-lie, and it is pro–human being. But anyone who thinks the point of this is that nuclear power is bad, is just, they’ve just missed it.
Similarly, anybody who thinks the point of this is that whatever the kind of right-wing counterbalance to communism is, this is proof that everyone should be on the far right … no, you’ve totally missed it. And there’s been a bit of that. I’m just like, “Oh no, no, I don’t like you, and I don’t like what you’re saying about my show, even though you’re praising it.” It’s not about left or right. It’s about humans, and the mistakes that humans make. We are, all of us, subject to that, because we are, all of us, human, and imperfect.”
Mazin said that the he further wanted to emphasize the “far-reaching and diffuse nature of culpability.” Mazin also declared his attempt to avoid the danger of creating easy, palatable narratives, involving scape-goats and a clear delineation between the ‘culprits’ and ‘victims’. There is a Primo Levi quote, “the further events fade into the past, the more the construction of convenient truth grows and is perfected.”
Mazin admitted that the narrative wasn’t perfect, because he mostly couldn’t really convey how evil the Soviets were, more than anything.
“You can’t present everything perfectly through narrative, but you can acknowledge it, and talk about it. I don’t think it undermines the narrative at all. I think a lot of people think it might. but to me it doesn’t. It makes it more interesting. It holds me accountable to the very same notion I’m putting forward, which is: Story is cool, but it’s not the full picture.
I don’t mean to say that narrative is toxin. I think that narrative has become weaponized. Narrative is a beautiful thing. It’s how you understand the world, it’s how we relate to each other, and it’s how we organize our own memories. It’s how we organize our understanding of the past of our species…
The problem is when we weaponize it. I see it in politics now: Nobody can run for president without having a story. The Soviets were masters of weaponized narration. And interestingly, they appear to have continued that tradition. The KGB is gone, but the FSB is here.”
But the show’s creator claimed that the story and the narrative follow “as closely as possible” what actually happened in 1986 in Pripyat. And yes, the series contains quite a bit of truth, but it also contains quite a bit of “artistic freedom,” which is most obviously aimed at political purposes.
Even Ukrainian media, such as Strana, a Russian-language Ukrainian outlet, said that the story was mostly made up.
1. The first shots of the series – the events of April 27, 1988, when academician Valery Legasov committed suicide in his apartment in Moscow. The film shows how he finishes dictating a certain confession about what happened in Chernobyl, then hides the recorded tapes from the KGB agents watching the house and goes back to his apartment, not forgetting to leave a supply of food for the cat before hanging himself.
Yes, Legasov did commit suicide on the 2nd anniversary of the Chernobyl incident and he did leave behind several audio tapes with memories and speculations regarding the events. The records weren’t secret and they weren’t hidden from the KGB. They were transcribed and partially published. One of the tapes, for example, is a recording of an interview with journalist Ales Adamovich, the other is a kind of collection of recommendations to colleagues at the Kurchatov Institute: he dictates the theses of a generalizing scientific article about the causes and consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.
So, the series begins with establishing a false narrative, a Soviet scientist, feeling crushed by the guilt of what had really happened tried to show the truth to the people, behind the authorities’ backs because they obviously want it hidden.
2. Then, the show moves on to April 26th, 1968 and the events immediately after the explosion, nothing is shown or said about the events, about the moments leading up to the incident.
The show alleged that a city of nuclear scientists, which Pripyat was back then, was filled with people who would line up at a good vantage point, with their toddlers and children to watch the fire at a nuclear power plant. In fact, most people found out there had been a fire in the morning after.
3. The protagonist: the deputy chief engineer for the operation of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Anatoly Dyatlov. The creators of the series did everything to draw his figure in as dark colors as possible: a tyrant, a petty tyrant, a despot, a schemer, a careerist who was indifferent to people’s lives. It was Dyatlov in the film who rigidly imposes to those present the version that the reactor was supposedly intact, that it was necessary to supply cooling water. It suppresses all doubts, those who disagree – threatens with reprisals, and then, having done mischief, hides in a safe bunker of civil protection, where they spin intrigue networks, trying to blame the accident on others, and from where they are hospitalized with signs of acute radiation sickness at the end of the first episode.
According to witnesses, Dyatlov was a despotic man, but he didn’t run to hide in a bunker when the incident happened. His duties were limited to making sure that everything necessary was being done. The station workers, who did have detailed instructions for crisis events, did not wander around the station like zombies, having dramatic and long exchanges with tears in their eyes, as they do in the show. Each worker clearly knew what he should be doing, and did it despite the difficulties and risks.
The later episodes are equally filled with illogical things that didn’t happen in the reality of events.
Most notably, the first episode heavily shifts the blame of the disaster on the authorities, but in fact, there was no City Committee meeting in the bunker on April 26th.
There were no orders to close the city, which is confirmed by the banal fact that many residents, especially those with their own cars, successfully left Pripyat on the same day, and no one stopped them. Or rather, they were stopped, but only so as not to drive towards the most contaminated areas.
The real-life Legasov also mentioned this: that they did not have time to install measuring and washing posts, and many people left, delivering radioactive “dirt” throughout the USSR.
In later episodes, Legasov is shown in court, but was in fact not even there. He was reading his report in Vienna, under the applause of his colleagues. Many actually believed that he had blurted out too much, telling about the scale of the catastrophe and the measures to rectify it.
The series is dedicated to “the memory of all who suffered and sacrificed themselves,” but this monument came out strange. Instead of heroes who made great sacrifices, with a rare (and only) exception, we get people intimidated by the regime. Instead of commanders who by all means tried to minimize losses, they sent people for slaughter.
The history of the Chernobyl accident is described in more detail and more or less objectively in dozens of books and hundreds of articles, the recollections of the liquidators and the inhabitants of Pripyat. But all this does not matter. All this extensive literature has always been and will remain the property of hundreds or even thousands of those interested. But the version from HBO will be recognized by millions of people. And it is precisely by the deliberately distorted picture of events that they will make their judgments about those events. A lie easily replaces the truth, rolls it into concrete of really high-quality directing, acting and camera work.
In essence, the narrative tries to force viewers into three conclusions, as Kiril Benedektov said:
- The so-called inhuman totalitarian system that existed in the USSR at the time of the disaster was to blame;
- The Soviet people were slaves of the totalitarian system, and the heroism they showed in dealing with the aftermath of the catastrophe was forced, at gunpoint and under the strict, relentless control of the all-seeing KGB;
- You cannot trust the Soviet nuclear reactors. The protagonist of the series, Academician Legasov, said so in the final episode: “We are the only nation that builds unsafe reactors because they are cheaper.”
The series is a logical continuation of the wide-scale campaign to rewrite history. There were video games, books, movies and now even masterfully made TV series.
There is also version that one of the goals of the series is to kick off a public propaganda campaign against Russia’s Rosatom, despite its successes that are plain to see. Rosatom with its around 33% world market share takes the lead in global uranium enrichment services and covers 17.7% of the global nuclear fuel market.
It’s quite possible that soon we would be able to observe a new wave of “environmental” and “civil” activism fighting Russian-built “chernobyls” around the world. The “chernobyl” narrative will strengthen other anti-Russian propaganda operations around the world. These operations are not something new. They are a common tool in the ongoing economic and geopolitical standoff. However, the scale and spread of such campaigns have grown dramatically over the past years.
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