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Chernobyl: Real vs. Reel

In the autumn of 1986 my mother called me. We typically spoke over the phone about once or twice a month during this time. During this call the subject quickly came around to the recent nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union. "Steven," my mother asked me, "what the hell happened at Chernobyl?" She asked me that question for a specific reason: my brother is the writer, but I am the historian. I studied Russian history for 2 years in the Ph.D. program at Columbia University before switching to its library school. While I attended library school part-time I worked full-time in Slavic book acquisitions in the university's library, and also rented a room in an apartment from a Russian emigre. From this circumstance I found myself doubly "linked in" to the Russian emigre community in Washington Heights. I lost count of the hours I spent sitting at the kitchen table of a Russian family, drinking tea and eating cookies* while listening to them tell me about life in the Soviet Union. They knew I had an interest in their history, that I respected and wanted to hear about their lived experience, and they shared their stories with me. My mother knew this, and therefore asked me to explain the inexplicable to her. 

I knew the analogy that would work. Shortly after her younger son left for college, my mother decided to go to college too. She graduated a year or two after I did. She and I did not always give our best effort for every class. We had that in common. My mother in particular detested some of her required classes and typically did a little as possible to muddle through them. 

"You know, Mom, when you're taking a class you don't like and really do not want to spend much time on the term paper?" 

"Yes, of course." 

"Well, you know how some papers you are really just 'whipping it off' and not really doing all the work that, ideally, you should?" 

My mother laughed and admitted that yes, indeed, she had written more than one such paper.

"Now, try to imagine an entire society, a whole Nation/State, with almost everyone, including the people who run nuclear power plants, everyone just 'whipping it off.' "

Long silence. Finally, my mother said, in an unusually hushed voice, "You mean to tell me that at Chernobyl, they were just ..." Her voice trailed off. 

"Yes, they were doing a safety check the same way that you crank out a C paper in a class you don't care about, just to get it out of your stack of crap you don't want to do but have to anyway. They were "whipping off" a safety check and the reactor blew." 

The recent HBO mini-series about the Chernobyl disaster captures life in the 1980s in the Soviet Union in a very hit and miss sort of way. Some details they got right, but the essence of Soviet society and the underlying causes of the nuclear meltdown they completely mischaracterized. 

Masha Gessen noticed many of the same disconnections from the reality of life in the Soviet Union as I did. She describes these in her excellent column in the June 4, 2019 New Yorker magazine What HBO’s “Chernobyl” Got Right, and What It Got Terribly Wrong. In particular, she points out the final episode's courtroom scene as an example of something that would never have happened -- the "hero" delivers a cathartic (for us) speech about truth and lies that does not look even remotely believable if you understand that place and time. For me, I remember what many of my emigre friends told me they used to say to each other, often in response to small talk questions about their jobs: "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us."  To paraphrase dialog from the mini-series, this should be "printed on [The Soviet Union's] money." Gessen and I agree that this "un-work un-ethic," not the mountain of lies that the communist bureaucracy cranked out, best explains how Chernobyl not only happened, but had to happen. Nuclear power in the hands of a nation like the USSR is like giving a live hand grenade to a monkey -- you know the explosion will happen, it's only a matter of where and when. Unfortunately for television docudramas, this does not make for great dramatic conflict, truth-telling heroes, rousing speeches about truth and lies or a satisfying narrative. By making Chernobyl about lies, the HBO mini-series missed the actual truth: that the State's official lies served only as a threadbare blanket to conceal the rotting corpse of a damaged society and its failed state, not as the primary cause of the failures.

In addition to Gessen's article above, to learn more about the Chernobyl disaster you can read the following books we have in the MI Library: 

At the top of Gessen's list of recommended readings we have Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl : The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. Alexievich is a historian whose work has close similarity to the books of Cornelius Ryan -- gathering then organizing and presenting personal narratives by the first-hand participants in the events described. We also have in our collection: 

Midnight in Chernobyl : the untold story of the world's greatest nuclear disaster by journalist Adam Higginbotham. 

The truth about Chernobyl by Soviet physicist Grigori Medvedev, published as the regime fell in 1991.

And lastly, we have on order Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe by historian Serhii Plokhy.

* Note on Russian hospitality: I met many sweet, kind, gracious and wonderful Russian people during my time living in New York City. Entertaining a guest in a Russian home entails everyone sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea and eating cookies. I discovered that every Russian family has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cookies, and that they have various imaginative and inventive ways they employ to emotionally arm-twist you into eating yet another one. I adopted as my delaying tactic eating half a cookie then holding the remaining half, nibbling on it until I could no longer escape having to take another one from the mountainous pile on the plate in front of me.


Posted on Jun. 10, 2019 by Steven Dunlap