Ill-fated power plant workers confirm that the reactor has indeed exploded by staring down into a deep, burning pit. Flames rise up with an unnatural ferocity. It looks less like an industrial accident. More like an Old God awaking from under the Earth’s crust.
When they turn around their faces are red from the heat and radiation. We know what is coming, but we are still horrified when it does. Human beings literally come undone over a period of days. Their skin blisters into paste as they struggle to breathe on hospital beds. Their eyes bleed, their flesh and organs liquefy. “That’s my husband” the desperate wife of an exposed firefighter tells his nurse. “Not anymore,” the nurse replies. “He’s something else now.”
Less gruesome but still macabre is any shot with people – soldiers, power plant workers, firefighters, civilians conscripted into cleanup – wearing protective gear. Gas-masks are of course there, obscuring the face, along with huge lead bibs, clunky boots, coveralls that distort the shape of the human body. It is also notable how few of these shots feature anyone resembling a “normal” body next to these strange automatons.
Yes, Chernobyl often plays more like a horror miniseries than a historical drama. Not horror of the cheap jump scare variety we are so used to, but horror of cosmic inevitability, of slow and silent mass death.
The drama of the first episode in particular is punctuated by several moments we, the audience, are bound to fill with dread. First responders to the fire at the power plant idly ask each other if they can taste metal in the air. Townspeople miles away watch the glow of the fire with carefree curiosity as seemingly innocuous ash floats their way. In the series Chernobyl, even the air has turned against the principle of human existence.
It’s all just science, as the most self-assured scientists and bean counters keep insisting throughout. Nothing to worry about. But to call nuclear energy “just science” is like calling the meteor that killed the dinosaurs “just a rock.”
It’s why so much of the advertising and propaganda of the mid-century “atomic age” had a look of almost magic to it. Back when we stupidly insisted we could harness and tame the power of a split atom, we saw the future of the species in what had previously been the stuff of fantasy. That this fantasy had already proven a nightmare for the hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of little concern.
We aren’t so able to live in that fantasy today. In most people’s minds nuclear power seems a kind of cursed magic which, at best, needs to be kept at arms’ length. Even those who work in the industry know the kind of hellfire they are playing with. If, as Marshall Berman suggests, modernity is a kind of Faustian bargain, then the events of Chernobyl show how we foolishly and inevitably leave, somewhere, a back door open for Mephistopheles to get what we promised him.
Not great, but not terrible
Bureaucracies exist to preserve systems. It is as true for any American police department as it is for Soviet state capitalism. They are also, by their nature, detached to a varying but definite degree from the people supposedly served by that system. Whatever democracy exists in relation to the bureaucracy, the latter exists to mitigate or neutralize the former. This buffer is not merely administrative; it is also ideological, a tool used to instill a level of pragmatism concomitant with the functioning of the system.
Bureaucracies must, therefore, operate from a state of permanent optimism. Of belief that the system can triumph, even as the most elementary and molecular rules of existence heave themselves at it.
The problem is that nature, physics, chemistry; none have any regard for drawing inside the lines. Expectations for what “should happen” don’t take into account what will happen. When the plant’s manager is told that the reactor is spewing radiation into the atmosphere at what we later learn to be the highest reading the meter can put out (it is in fact much higher) he replies “not great, not terrible.”
In fact not only is it “not terrible,” it is an opportunity for greatness. An old Stalinist apparatchik (brilliantly played by Donald Sumpter), leans on his cane and stands triumphantly in front of the local party leadership, invoking a revolution he appears to actually remember.
This man is a boiled frog. He can feel neither the radiation in the air nor the way that history has diverged from his story and circled back to engulf him. He doesn’t feel how seven decades of backward and opportunistic decisions have diverged the party away from its heyday in the factory committees and workers councils of 1917. He also doesn’t hear how ominous it sounds when he says that it is the responsibility of the state to prevent workers from “asking questions not in their interest.” The people will not only not be evacuated, they will be cut off from the outside world to “contain the spread of misinformation.”
This the optimism of the bureaucrat. It is an optimism as infectious as it is suicidal. An optimism possessing not so much an ignorance of nature and the universe as a disregard for their raw power. And it is always the true believers who are the most dangerous when armed with it.
Right about now is the time when we would talk about the parallels with climate change. Frankly those parallels are somehow so obvious and yet so masterfully drawn into the plot of Chernobyl that to discuss them here would be overkill.
That being said, if there is anything radiation does, it is “overkill” you. And so…
Here’s the overkill
In his Four Futures, Peter Frase heuristically interchanges climate change with nuclear annihilation. Just as the bomb and meltdowns were the existential threat to life as we know it during the Cold War, so in late-late-capitalism is climate change our singularity. Frase sees, correctly, more than a mere similarity in this; he sees capitalism’s death drive.
In all four of the potential futures the book examines, this systematic drive plays a role. The bleakest, the one whose shades we already see in the threat of “climate apartheid,” is one that Frase names with a term borrowed from EP Thompson’s anti-nuke work: exterminism.
There has always been an exterminist drive in post-war capitalism, hidden within the atomic age dreams. As plenty of other historians have pointed out, nuclear power wouldn’t exist were it not for the drive to make the atomic bomb in the 1940s. It has always been a retroactive justification for the mass destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the potential for Mutually Assured Destruction. This was woven into both the economic base and the everyday superstructure of Cold War Earth.
To act in such a way that it might imperil the future of human existence itself is the pinnacle of irrationality. But simply observing this is not enough to stop it. Even those who make national and/or corporate policy are in some ways acting rationally in a system whose hairbrained rules have been shaped by an anarchic process set in motion long before they came into the picture. As Thompson posits at the beginning of his 1980 article “Notes on Exterminism,”
What if events are being willed by no single causative historical logic (“the increasingly aggressive military posture of world imperialism,” etc.) — a logic which then may be analysed in terms of origins, intentions or goals, contradictions or conjunctures — but are simply the product of a messy inertia? This inertia may have drifted down to us as a collocation of fragmented forces (political and military formations, ideological imperatives, weapons technologies): or, rather, as two antagonistic collocations of such fragments, interlocked by their oppositions? What we endure in the present is historically formed, and to that degree subject to rational analysis: but it exists now as a critical mass on the point of irrational detonation.
Of course we don’t need to think hard to find our own version of this “point of irrational detonation.” It’s been given to us by the IPCC report. And we are speeding toward it not because leaders “refuse to act rationally” but because capitalism has an inertia built up over four centuries that was always in discord with the temporality of the planet.
There was always going to be a point of no return. And the truly, horrifyingly fantastical thing about points of no return is their elegant, almost mathematical disregard for our previous models of truth and contingency.
The chain reactions of a nuclear meltdown. The quick disintegration in a nuclear holocaust of all that a society relied upon. The release of methane into the atmosphere by melting permafrost that then quickens the pace of warming. These contain in them a kind of doomsday calculus in which all expectations of what should and shouldn’t happen are thrown out the window. In which science surpasses everything we know about it and smashes the boundary between itself and science fiction.
Already, scientists and climate sociologists are saying that the unravelling of the climate is hitting a pace they didn’t think it would reach for several years. Glaciers are melting quicker, same with the warming of the seas. Arid geographies are seeing record rainfall and cities are seeing droughts which no present infrastructure was ever designed to withstand.
It’s not great, but it’s not terrible. Somewhere Joe Biden is saying this as he “reaches across the aisle.”
None are exempt
There are those who are up in arms about Chernobyl. Those who through some misplaced loyalty to either the memory of the Soviet Union or present-day Russia (and there is frequently confusion between the two for these people) see nothing but propaganda in the miniseries. They fall into two groups.
The first is the extremely small but incredibly Twitter-vocal contingent of Stalinists. There is very little worth taking seriously in their hot takes. They see socialism as a pose, a roleplay, anything other than what it should be: a position taken in relation to history and social forces. These are the same people who fifty, sixty years ago, argued with a straight face that the atomic bomb was safe in the hands of “workers states” such as the USSR. It merited derision then, and it merits derision now.
More ominous for the present conjuncture is the reaction of the present Russian government. Offended as they are by the idea that the worst nuclear accident in history might include any kind of negligence, state-run NTV has announced it is producing its own miniseries that peddles in a longtime conspiracy theory that the meltdown was the doing of the CIA. It is a theory with little credibility inside or outside of Russia.
It is the kind of crude petulance we should expect more of now that we are no longer in a unipolar world. US power has declined, inter-imperial rivalry is back. American columnists are already writing smug, un-reflexive articles about why Putin hates the miniseries and aren’t we glad we live in a country where art isn’t bent to the political will of its leaders? All of which is to say that we should expect to hear more of Russia producing the kind of cloying propaganda that the American film industry has already mastered for some time.
To say Chernobyl falls so neatly into that category is to fail in grasping its intricacy as art. This is far less a story about the inequities of Soviet socialism than it is the story of an antiquated system (any antiquated system) refusing to relinquish its hubris in the face of annihilation and damn the casualties.
In a recent post on the Verso blog, Sam Wetherell ponders the meaning of the series’ British cast, the dramatic effect that the accents lend. In Wetherell’s incisive view, the accents undercut the sanctimonious theme of “trust experts” that so often pops up through the show. What’s more, “[the accents] begin to allow us to move beyond an understanding of Russia as radically alien, a mysterious and pathological state that is nihilistically laying waste to the global order.”
There is something to be said for how this reads for an American audience too. True, it may play into so many of our pop culture stereotypes of the calm calculator as villain. But in that resonance there is also a familiarity that inadvertently deconstructs and implicates. If the American culture industry has changed so drastically since the first atomic bombs dropped, if it is so intertwined with that dreaded military industrial complex, then so many of our tropes and narratives must be too.
In the final episode, two old men – a member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee (Boris Shcherbina, played by Stellan Skarsgård) and the physicist he roped into helping him clean up Chernobyl (Jared Harris’s Valery Legasov) – sit on a park bench. Shchberina occasionally coughs up blood. Legasov is losing his hair. It is almost a year exactly since the meltdown and the two lament the show trial in which they must participate, in which a state would rather make an example of a reckless foreman at the plant than take responsibility for the danger its cost-cutting created. For the danger it continues to create.
Ten feet away from them stands, strangely, and very much out of place, a painted statue: Soviet Mickey Mouse. Not the Cheburashka, Mickey’s Russian counterpart, but a knock-off. A clear imitation of one of the most recognizably American cultural symbols of the twentieth century, staring back at us through time as a copy of a copy. Letting us know here we are again. Almost as if to say, in that sickly-sweet voice…
You know, kids, in 1986, when this story takes place, the Doomsday Clock is at three minutes to midnight. In your time, 2019, it’s at two minutes to midnight.
That’s right! The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, that funny little gaggle of very smart people, think that your world is closer to apocalypse than the one in which the worst nuclear accident in history took place!
Isn’t that just… magical?