According to Mikhail Gorbachev, the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 caused the collapse of Soviet communism five years later. The Soviet Union’s last General Secretary described the explosion as a “turning point” that “opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue”.
The startling new TV miniseries, Chernobyl, depicts the events of that night of the meltdown and its aftermath using (for the most part) a narrative of individual heroism in the face of individual evil. As Masha Gessen writes for the New Yorker:
“There are a few terrible men who bring the disaster about, and a few brave and all-knowing ones, who ultimately save Europe from becoming uninhabitable and who tell the world the truth.”
Yet as Gorbachev admitted, the disaster at the nuclear plant was really the product of a broken and distorted system that “could no longer continue”. Chernobyl and its fallout was the fruit of a system built on lies, patronage and a totalitarian ideology that would always place itself before the lives of its subjects.
The Soviet Union appeared stable at the time of the Chernobyl explosion. The country’s economic indicators were not spectacular, but nor were they particularly terrible either. There were no mass protests against the regime, and most high-profile dissidents were either living abroad or were scattered and ineffective.
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Certainly, in the mid-1980s nobody believed the Soviet Union was about to collapse. Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika were top-down attempts at re-injecting life into a moribund system. But they arose from an intellectual and moral critique of the system, rather than as a consequence of pressure from below.
Communism, while a noble ideal, had in practice produced a system of organised lying. It was this – rather than a few bad apples or the inherent dangers of nuclear technology – that led to the explosion at Chernobyl and the botched clean-up operation.
The number four RBMK-1000 Chernobyl reactor was built in a society where the state controlled every aspect of economic life. The command-administrative economy meant that plant operators inside Chernobyl knew nothing about previous incidents, which were kept secret. Poor quality Soviet technology produced substandard reactors with dangerous design flaws.
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In the wake of the accident at Chernobyl, the Soviet hierarchy’s lethargic response demonstrated the absurdity of a system where everything revolved around the communist party retaining its monopoly on power – and by extension its monopoly on information.
Phone lines were cut to prevent those living near the plant from telling the outside world what had happened. Moscow rejected an immediate evacuation of the neighbouring town, Pripyat, and the surrounding area on the grounds that “panic is even worse than radiation”, as Boris Shcherbina, a vice-chairman of the Council of Ministers who supervised crisis management, puts it in Chernobyl.
Shcherbina was not necessarily an idiot or an evil man. Rather, he was doing his job as a good party functionary, in turn giving voice to the paranoid communist aversion to ‘alarmism’. This was a crime in the Soviet Union that could see its perpetrator sent to a labour camp.
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It would be wrong to say that there was no such thing as ‘truth’ under the communist system. Rather, the truth was whatever the communist party decided was true. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski wrote of Leninism in Main Currents of Marxism: “Everything which serves or injured the party’s aims is morally good or bad respectively, and nothing else is morally good or bad”.
The party decided what was in the peoples’ best interests and that was the basis on which it acted, even if thousands were irradiated in the process. The party’s priority, following the worst nuclear disaster in history, was to ensure that the party remained firmly in control.
There is an extraordinary scene in Chernobyl in which the hegemony of the party takes precedence over everything else, including human life. To rapturous applause, Zharkov, a veteran communist and member of the Pripyat governing council, makes a statement espousing rudimentary communist morality to local officials:
“No one leaves [Pripyat]. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labour.”
As a result, Moscow denied that an accident had occurred when Sweden contacted the Soviet Atomic Power Inspection Board. It then proceeded to lie about the number of people killed – the official Soviet figure is only 31 whereas independent estimates sit in the tens of thousands. As Alla Yaroshinskaia, author of Chernobyl: The Forbidden Truth, has written, party bosses even went so far as to increase the official acceptable dose of radiation in order to conceal the true numbers affected by the explosion.
The Sky/HBO TV drama has been interpreted as an anti-nuclear polemic. But Chernobyl’s creator, Craig Mazin, was clear as to which targets the drama was aimed at. “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.”
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The Soviet Union – a state in which the ruling Communist Party could never be wrong – required constant and pathological lying by its very nature. Gorbachev’s prime minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, recalled the Soviet Union of 1985, a year before the catastrophe at Chernobyl, as a place of near absolute moral bankruptcy:
“[We] stole from ourselves, took and gave bribes, lied in the reports, in newspapers, from high podiums, wallowed in our lies, hung medals on one another. And all of this – from top to bottom and from bottom to top.”
Gorbachev’s attempt to build a more moral Soviet Union was ultimately doomed like earlier attempts to create a “socialism with a human face”. In practice, he was trying to create something akin to a dish of fried snowballs. The grisly truth of what communism had done to society would, as it gradually emerged after Chernobyl, destroy any remaining credibility the communist party had left.
Chernobyl stands as a reminder of what can happen to a society when the truth is sacrificed to ideology and when a government can propagate untruths with impunity.
“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth,” the nuclear expert Valery Legasov tells a sham Soviet courtroom in the drama. “Sooner or later that debt is paid.”