Two miniseries that aired this spring, HBO’s Chernobyl and Netflix’s When They See Us offered bleak, devastating accounts of real life tragedies and the permanent consequences on human lives that followed, and both were harrowing, brutal and absolutely necessary to sit through.
The first, Chernobyl, recounted the 1986 explosion at the infamous nuclear power plant located in northern Ukraine, part of the former Soviet Union. The disaster was a catastrophe of epic proportions, resulting in mass deaths from radiation, both immediate and then slowly as a result of cancer diagnoses, the destruction of countless plant and animal life and the utter inhabitation of the area surrounding Chernobyl in perpetuity. The Soviet government never publicly acknowledged the truth of the disaster and as we see at the time, refused to face it even then. The five episodes recall the explosion itself in painstaking, heart-pounding detail and the horrifying results of the aftermath, as first responders troop unknowingly to their deaths, and government officials maddeningly refuse to to face the truth as it stares them in the face.
The show is not filmed with Russian actors but rather an all British cast and in English, yet it never strays from the Soviet point of view, even for an instant. Of course, we would not have gotten this series from Russians themselves, even today, as the entire point of the show is to relay the oppressive power of the party to suppress the truth at all costs. Early in the series an old-time party member shuts down genuine fear from lower level officials that the air around Chernobyl is “glowing” and they’re not being told the truth about the amount of radiation millions of people are being exposed to. “The party is always right,” is the old man’s entire statement, not arguing with the truth but denying it altogether, deciding to accept certain death rather than stray from the party line that what you’re seeing and hearing is not what’s happening (sound at all familiar?).
Jared Harris stars as a Soviet scientist and an old party man himself, but one who knows the reality of the danger, how ill-equipped the government is to handle it and what must be done to attempt to contain the damage, but together with colleagues Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson (a composite of many different scientists who tried to clean up after the explosion and find out what happened), they are targeted by the KGB and their efforts constrained in the end by the systemic failure of the regime to protect its people, only the party. Chernobyl plays out like a horror movie, not least because of the effects of the disaster and the resulting gruesome deaths of thousands of innocent people, but because of the haunting echoes of the dangers of systematically denying reality, of promoting the “big lie” at all costs and incurring a debt to the truth, as Harris notes from beyond the grave, that will always, always be paid eventually. The parallels to today are striking, sobering and panic inducing.