HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Indicts Soviet Socialism. Establishment Reviews Downplay It

HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Indicts Soviet Socialism. Establishment Reviews Downplay It

The Chernobyl disaster was not the result of undermining expertise. It was the result of the deliberate suppression of scientific analysis by a totalitarian state with the power to terrorize people into silence.
Warren Henry
By

HBO’s “Chernobyl” mini-series, depicting the world’s worst man-made nuclear disaster, concludes Monday night. The drama, co-produced by the British network Sky, is currently the all-time top rated TV show on IMDb. But the reviews suggest many in the establishment media have not learned the show’s obvious lesson about the dangers of Soviet-style socialism.

To be sure, The Federalist and Reason published reviews highlighting the overt theme of the work. “Chernobyl” is an indictment of a socialist government that suppressed the analysis of a 1975 partial meltdown in Leningrad. That incident revealed the design flaw in their RMBK reactors that could cause them to explode.

The government’s cover-up of Leningrad led to the Chernobyl catastrophe. The ongoing suppression of the truth by the Communist Party is evident throughout the mini-series. You might not know this from reading the New York Times, which published a review comparing the drama to Soviet propaganda. Yes, really:

‘Chernobyl’ … takes what you could call a Soviet approach to telling the tale. This is incongruous, since one of the messages of the program is that Soviet approaches don’t work. But there it is: the imposition of a simple narrative on history, the twisting of events to create one-dimensional heroes and villains, the broad-brush symbolism.

It is an Orwellian charge—and an odd one, given that the review otherwise has nothing critical to say about socialism or communism. Instead, the review is a laundry list of nitpicks about the artistic license largely taken to condense the sprawling story into five hours of television.

The review’s biggest claim of inaccuracy is that the protagonist, nuclear scientist Valery Legasov, is painted as more of a heroic whistleblower than he actually was. Such criticism would underscore how effective the Soviet terror regime was in suppressing the truth, if the reviewer cared to notice.

Perhaps it is precisely the review to publish in a newspaper that ran a series whitewashing Soviet Communism for its 100th anniversary. But other establishment outlets did not do much better.

The Washington Post review mentions in passing “the corruption and dishonesty that defined Soviet life,” but later claims, with no recognition of the cognitive dissonance, that: “[t]he disaster, it turns out, was attributable to human errors, stemming from an unnecessary stress test ordered by the reactor’s bureaucrats. The series works its way to a trial that tries to pin the blame on a few key players; it is Legasov’s [fictionalized] outspokenness that indicts the entire system.”

New York magazine’s review refers to a Soviet-era joke on the way to missing the point:

‘A man asks another man on a crowded Moscow bus, ‘Are you affiliated in any way with the Communist Party leadership, the Politburo, the KGB, or any arm of government?’ ‘No,’ the man replies. ‘Good. Now please get off my foot.’ The Chernobyl disaster, it seems, was made even more of a disaster because the state was too prideful and ignorant to allow experts to say, ‘Please get off my foot.’

The idea that “Chernobyl” is really about the refusal of politicians to follow the experts, as opposed to that refusal being a lethal symptom of Soviet socialism, is a recurring feature of the reviews.

The Atlantic’s review, which manages to avoid mentioning socialism, asserts the director’s message is: “When societies undermine not only expertise but also the nature of truth itself, he seems to be saying, catastrophe inevitably follows.” The type of society—and the type of government—where that can happen is left unsaid, unless you count a parenthetical note: “(David Dencik is wonderful as Mikhail Gorbachev, who declares, in one scene, that Soviet power comes from ‘perception of our power,’ which is why it’s so necessary to keep the truth about the crisis contained.)”

Similarly, the Post’s review smugly opines about “sanctioned obfuscation — and how much easier that becomes in a country where media and scientific leadership are tightly restricted. There was a time when that sort of thing might have seemed entirely foreign to an American audience; now, it’s another resonant alarm sounding uncomfortably close.”

Time’s review gives away the game by getting too explicit in its conclusion: “This drives home the many obvious failures of Soviet authoritarianism, of course, and the ongoing threat of nuclear annihilation. At its best, however, Chernobyl demonstrates what happens when societies stop listening to science. Amid our rapidly worsening global climate crisis, it’s a critical message.”

The Chernobyl disaster was not the result of undermining expertise. It was the result of the deliberate suppression of scientific analysis by a totalitarian state with the power to terrorize people into silence.

The comparison of Chernobyl to the climate change debate is also bizarre, quite beyond the paranoid premise that America now resembles anything like the dystopian Soviet nightmare depicted in the mini-series. It is considered an article of faith that there is a “scientific consensus” about climate change. Yet in the Soviet Union, the “scientific consensus” was that a RMBK reactor literally could not explode, because dissent was silenced by those with power.

There is no shortage of studies and debate about climate change today. Prominent Democrats propose a Soviet-style planned economy to address it. And their Green New Deal eschews reliance on safe nuclear power plant designs, even though they are the most realistic way of reducing carbon emissions on the scale Democrats and so-called democratic socialists envision. So much for deferring to experts.

Fortunately, not all of the “Chernobyl” reviews whitewash the true villain of the piece, as in the surprising conclusion at the Daily Beast: “By its finale, Chernobyl has transformed from a story about plant-operator faults to one about systematic deception on the part of the stubborn, arrogant, blind and foolish Soviets, whose communist culture—demanding absolute loyalty to the Party, which is always perfect and infallible, even when facts say otherwise—compelled everyone to cover up the truth lest they be vilified as nation-besmirching traitors.”

But on balance, too many entertainment writers decided to review a story about suppressing the truth by imitating the apparatchiks.

Warren Henry is the nom de plume of an attorney practicing in the State of Illinois.

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