The nuclear glow of the colorless sky in Belorussian Palissia is the most genuinely disturbing cinematography on TV right now. HBO’s “Chernobyl” mini-series is so vividly drab, I almost smell cement particles in my living room.
The Soviet small town consists entirely of concrete towers, and the government buildings sport naked grey walls decorated only with the obligatory likenesses of Lenin. The characters mention cement quite a bit, and the explosion site was eventually covered by the material to prevent further leakage of radioactive matter.
“Cement” happens to be the title of the foundational novel of socialist realism written by Fyodor Gladkov. I’m sure the creators of the miniseries are aware: they seem to have done an admirable job of going native.
Homages to Native Andrei Tarkovsky
The film has the appearance of a Soviet “postcard” — or a Tarkovsky movie. When still in the USSR, the dissident director Andrei Tarkovsky had to work with inferior-quality domestic film. In his 1979 science fiction classic “Stalker” he turned technical limitations into creative advantage, using poisonous greens to conjure a haunting atmosphere.
Since “Stalker” is set in a supernatural military-guarded Zona in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion, when the Exclusion Zone was created around the reactor, Russians began talking about Tarkovsky’s film as a prophetic foretelling of the nuclear catastrophe. It is still a thing: contemporary tour guides of the Zone are called Stalkers.
Some of the reviewers objected to how the HBO series creator Craig Mazin has dramatized the events, pointing that, for instance, only two plant employees perished inside the compound immediately following the explosion, while the film shows a half a dozen meeting untimely torturous deaths. These critics are forgetting that they are watching a work of fiction, so being fake but accurate is entirely permissible. So far, the miniseries has been pretty darn accurate.
The scenes of plant workers walking, Stalker-like, into the core of the reactor are a quite literal homage to Tarkovsky. Beyond the imitation of the faulty second-world film technology, the slow, charged action is eerily reminiscent of the master’s.
Scene after scene, director Johan Renck creates the atmosphere of psychological horror: birds and helicopters falling out of the sky, invisible particles traveling through the European continent, poisoning the soil between the two Eastern Slavic capitols of Kiev and Minsk — and beyond.
The Socialist Aspects Heighten the Horror
Make no mistake: the horror the viewer witnesses onscreen is the horror of socialism. Of the good socialism, mind you. Not of the Stalinist era, but of the final decades of the Soviet Union when, although the gulag had significantly shrunk in size, the country remained a suffocating mess of official lies, incompetence, and fear. By the time reactor number four has exploded on the shores of Pripyat, the new Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev has already labeled that period zastoi, or stagnation.
None of the artistic devices Mazin and Renck employ would successfully create the atmosphere of terror were not the omnipresent KGB, and the obdurate secrecy and the never-ending power trip of the nomenklatura, so lucidly written into the script. It doesn’t matter that fewer people perished at the plant on the night of the explosion, what matters is that indifferent provincial microtyrants, in what in the United States is called “CYA mode,” again and again sent their inferiors to sure death, and the security apparatus couldn’t care less. They were more concerned with saving face.
The incompetence and deadly insistence on secrecy of those in power is contrasted with the heroism of the ordinary men the regime cannibalizes to perpetuate itself, and the precarious position of intelligentsia.
To be sure, Chernobyl’s heroes didn’t sacrifice themselves to prop up Gorbachev personally, but out of a sense of duty coupled with a soldier-like mentality. Russia (and Ukraine, and Belarus) are very much the kind of countries run on a sense of duty, and, as in the years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, promises of future paychecks. Yet the regime would have immediately collapsed if not for the stoic fortitude of the everyday people.
Science Is Merely a Tool of Power
The voices of intelligentsia shape the moral landscape of the series: the second episode, for instance, opens with radio broadcast of Konstantin Simonov’s Socialist Realist poem about the retreating Red Army soldiers in the first months of the Great Patriotic War, as World War Two is known there. Equating the heroism of the liquidators of Chernobyl with that of the sacrifice of their fathers and grandfathers is a terrible honor considering that the official number of the 22 million dead had established the gold standard for self-sacrifice in Russia.
The series protagonist Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris) is the nuclear scientist summoned by Kremlin to mop up the disaster in secrecy. The first episode begins with his suicide, giving the viewer a hint that his collaboration with the regime will prove fatal. The regime has little regard for his humanity, and limited use for his expertise.
As the composite character Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), also a nuclear engineer, is brazenly assured by a top Belorussian Communist Party boss, her learned opinion on the dangers of nuclear radiation is irrelevant because he, as a representative of the proletariat, knows better. His bloated qualification? A prior stint as a shoe factory director. He’s hardly a representative of proletariat, though: a position of this sort would enable him to take bribes, and make deals with the mafia.
In the West today the character of a female nuclear engineer may read like a feminist trope, but in the land of developed socialism it would merit merely a shrug. Sure, many women had engineering degrees, but engineers weren’t the ones bringing home the bacon. A position like Khomyuk’s could earn her intelligentsia bragging points, but little else.
Warehouse directors got all the respect, and apparatchiks called the shots. After decades of watching General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev struggle to put words together on national television, we knew we were ruled by somewhat sober ignoramuses.
No use banging heads against the wall trying to convince nomenklatura of anything. They had to be shamed into evacuating Pripyat. Ordinary people were helpless before the state. Like the deadly nuclear particles, its unseen forces shaped our existence.
Authentic Voices of the Soviet People’s Experience
Some might protest that surely the Chernobyl disaster alone cannot be seriously taken as a critique Soviet Union or socialism in general. I have to disagree: the world’s largest nuclear accident is far more representative of the USSR than Cosa Nostra is of the United States, yet “The Godfather” is generally regarded as an exegesis of American capitalism.
The latter is a stretch, and if anything the top-down criminal mafia structure is more appropriately applied to socialism and its post-Soviet mutations. “Chernobyl,” on the other hand, effectively uses cultural appropriation to recreate the ghastly atmosphere following the nuclear accident and highlight the problems inherent in socialism.
Mazin and Renck don’t appear to be interested in twisting the story to score cheap domestic political points. I hear through their work authentic voices of the Soviet people, and their voices alone. I enjoy their humor, I know their mentality.
The horror onscreen is just a single dramatized moment of the everyday Soviet experience, the logical outcome of central planning, secrecy, and devaluation of individual life. That’s exactly how it was. I’ve never seen a better film about that period of history.
The series has received glowing reviews in Russia, getting high marks for authenticity. Sometimes it takes a foreigner to make superbly authentic art.
As far as Soviet environmental disasters go, Chernobyl was hardly the worst, but because others were hidden deep within the country’s interior, they weren’t detected by the Swedes within hours. Moreover, the nuclear accident occurred at the time the power of the state had already been weakened by Gorbachev’s nascent reforms, and the heavy-handed cover-up attempts laid bare the lies of socialism as the secretary general attempted to champion openness. (Incidentally, one of these lies, the official figure of the 28 dead, still stands.)
Gorbachev himself has credited the nuclear incident as the final nail in the USSR’s coffin. What has started as “Cement” ended in the cement sarcophagus that now covers the site of the reactor. Well, sort of: the site is still smoldering.