This week I watched another top-notch HBO TV show: CHERNOBYL. And scary as hell also! I still remember when I was young to have watched the news about the radioactive cloud coming in from the East (it never got to Portugal, of course), and being amazed by the concept of radioactive acid rain. I was born in 1971 so I still remember very well the Soviet Union and that horrible feeling that a nuclear war was always imminent. Just as today with Climate Change, nuclear war seemed in the ’70s and ’80s an inevitable end. Something completely out of our control. At any moment any crazy idiot in power could make a mistake and start shooting missiles and things would go out of hand. Remember that John Badham movie WARGAMES? With Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy? When a young hacker accidentally gets a computer to almost launch a nuclear war? We felt like that all the time. And it was awful.
The accident at Chernobyl affected half a continent for many years, and it is still affecting, with the city of Chernobyl itself and its Exclusion Zone still out of bounds. Radioactivity takes many life spans to vanish. Thousands of years. The series of CHERNOBYL, though, shows that the risks we took were actually much higher and that without the effort and sacrifice of many people and many lives, the consequences of the accident would have been almost unimaginable.
The performances in these five episodes were assured by the powerful Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson, and the very talented Jared Harris. Harris performed admirably as the dying King of England in Netflix’s THE CROWN, accounting for some of the best scenes in the series, and now was put to very good use as the Soviet scientist Legasov who was in charge of the efforts to contain the effects of the accident and then turned whistleblower and denounced the fatal flaws in Soviet civilian nuclear reactors. The extreme and frightening consequences of each and every human decision taken through those months should give us chills and nightmares. The whole series is cleverly written and it surprisingly starts with the explosion itself. The actual explanation of what cause it is left to the end, to the shrewd court scenes in the fifth episode – where most of all Legasov’s somewhat crude but intelligent testimony makes it very clear how everything happened.
As (SPOILER ALERT) Legasov’s final conclusions point out, much of the problem rested in the way the Soviet Union itself worked. Even though it called itself a democracy, it settled on a centralized system of control and command that took to the extreme the very elitism that it claimed to fight against. The communist Soviet Union was a place where it was so deadly or catastrophic to question one’s superior that sacrificing one’s life seemed a better alternative. And as in every other communist country, it was the ruling elite that decided what was good for the people and what was the accepted and repeated narrative – the inferior mass was condemned to obey and lower their eyes as the Aristocracy of the Communist Party affirmed obvious lies and hid the contradictions of the system. The whole decision-making apparatus was fundamentally flawed by this illusion of control that almost dammed half a continent. It was cheaper to sacrifice lives than to tell the truth. Millions could have died from contamination and disease if it wasn’t for the bravery and the abnegation of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians. To all accounts, it seems that between 4,000 and 93,000 people ended up dying because of the accident in Chernobyl – the official Soviet count is 31. It makes us wonder how many casualties there were in the Nyonoksa nuclear accident a month ago – Russian authorities only counted 10.
Yes, in nowadays Russia we see an effort from Vladimir Putin and his cronies to go back to a sort of the Soviet Union of the past. Putin himself named the fall of the USSR as the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century – as if Hiroshima, the Holocaust, Verdun or Chernobyl itself weren’t far more costly, cruel, violent and absurd events. Putin’s clinging to the past and fear of democracy is the fuel that feeds his dictatorial stance and his rampant lying. An elitist lying Government is the pillar of this system and it is a system that Putin is trying to replicate in the USA itself, through the brilliant cyber-political warfare that has been growing since 2015 – and following the success in the 2016 Presidential Elections.
The main metaphor of CHERNOBYL is the Radioactivity of Lies. Nuclear devices are incredibly dangerous and scary machines. Radioactivity is relentless and almost unstoppable. As with Climate Change, Humans play with it as if we were giant toddlers in a china shop. We are enthusiastic and prolific creators of dangers we do not understand, moving with great energy through fragile corridors without full dominion of our own legs and arms. We destroy with ease and destroy even more when we try to correct what we did wrong before. We are one-eyed ghouls unaware of our power, our weakness, and our ignorance.
But much worse than that is the abject lies that cover this weakness and this ignorance. Mistakes are hidden and the truth is manipulated. This manipulation is corrosive and deadly – it’s radioactive. And, as Legasov puts it in the series, it boils under the surface until it becomes unbearable and explodes. The illusion of control is only that, an illusion. The irony is that the will of the people, so acclaimed in the Soviet Union and yet so missed, when energized in a real democracy has the same effect as radioactivity and truth: it escapes control and becomes unstoppable. Putin knows this – as a KGB agent, he witnessed as the people of Germany rose up to level down the Berlin Wall in 1989. And it scared him. It probably still gives him nightmares similar to what the radioactivity of Chernobyl must have given many many people all those years ago.
We cannot control everything in our lives. I spoke about it here. What we can do as small individuals in a world of billions of others and a Universe of billions of stars, is very limited. But it is not nothing. Our decisions matter. Our rising up matters. Each one of us. Because many years ago, democracy wasn’t even a choice, and now it’s here. And facing the truth, as hard as it can be, is what assures our freedom and our meaning of life. See you around the next campfire, fellow warriors.