Think Chernobyl Can’t Happen in the West? It Already Has

HBO’s latest hit miniseries isn’t the indictment of socialism some think it is

Politics Features Chernobyl
Think Chernobyl Can’t Happen in the West? It Already Has

Since its launch a few weeks ago, HBO’s newest miniseries Chernobyl (created by writer and former Ted Cruz college roommate Craig Mazin) has been receiving high praise from critics for its taut pacing, excellent casting and acting, incredibly detailed production design—really, all of the things that one typically associates with a modern prestige drama.

But it seems to have attracted a segment of both liberal and conservative fans who are apparently determined to learn the wrong lesson from the show: that the environmental destruction, the lack of respect for human lives, the disregard of expert opinion in favor of party loyalists, the secrecy, deceit and disinformation depicted in the show were exclusive qualities of the late Soviet Union, and not anything that we could ever see replicated today in the modern, capitalist west. Are we living on the same planet?

Yes, it’s true: a combination of human error, misguided party loyalty and bureaucratic inefficiency allowed to Chernobyl disaster to not only occur in the first place, but directly placed the lives of power plant workers, first responders and citizens of Pripyat, Ukraine and surrounding areas in danger when they were not immediately evacuated. Direct deaths resulting from Chernobyl are somewhat difficult to calculate, due to Iron Curtain record-keeping and the fact that it’s simply difficult to determine, for example, which cancer-related deaths are due to radiation and which are naturally occurring. But we do know that dozens of people died in the immediate aftermath of the explosion from acute radiation poisoning, and that some estimates put the total death toll anywhere from 4,000 to as many as 90,000. Even going by the most conservative estimates, it was certainly a terrible disaster.

But the idea that this scale of state-made disaster is somehow an exclusive feature of the Soviet Union is completely ahistorical. The death toll from Hurricane Maria was over 3,000, and that’s just the most recent example. And while Maria was, of course, a natural disaster, the human cost was almost entirely man-made, and can mainly be attributed to the shoddy and ineffectual recovery effort that left large parts of the island without electricity or access to basic necessities for far longer than necessary.

Many other disasters have led to large numbers of deaths due to similar mismanagement—Hurricane Katrina is another example—but it’s not simply about comparing death tolls for different catastrophes. It goes deeper, into ideology, with some parties insisting that the specific nature of the disaster represented in Chernobyl is somehow endemic to socialism. That there’s something in the Soviet character that led not just to the explosion and subsequent irradiation of the countryside, but to a situation that was almost impossible to properly deal with because of a campaign of disinformation and lies that began as soon as the explosion took place, and that protected both state power and certain individual interests at all costs and very nearly escalated the situation into an apocalyptic disaster. The show’s fixation on “the cost of lies” highlights different peripheral figures around the incident, from Comrade Dyatlov (deputy chief engineer), who refuses to accept the reality of the explosion in the reactor core, to Bryukhanov (plant manager) and Fomin (chief engineer), who then report information that they almost certainly know to be false to their superiors, which leads to a fabricated version of events making it all the way up the bureaucratic chain and leaving those tasked with cleaning up the mess woefully unequipped to do so.

But while it might be tempting to take some of these almost inexplicable decisions as examples of nefarious Soviet ideology in action, there’s a direct correlation to our current situation with climate change—after all, we now know that Exxon scientists and executives were perfectly aware of how our addiction to fossil fuels was going to affect the climate of the planet as far back as the late ‘70s, around the time the first Chernobyl reactor was being completed. And while it would have been useful to us today if they had immediately notified the proper authorities or immediately altered their behavior and business goals as a result of this knowledge, what they did instead was initiate a massive coverup. They funded junk science to muddy up the numbers they knew to be correct, and bankrolled conservative media outlets to promulgate this false information, all while dreaming up ways they could use the coming changes in the climate to drill for oil in previously difficult locations and even retrofitting their infrastructure to withstand the rising sea levels.

It was truly a campaign of lies and disinformation that would have made the most dedicated Soviet apparatchik blush. And all this has now led us to the brink of a crisis on a scale previously unimaginable in human history that will almost certainly kill and displace millions, perhaps billions of people, much more than were ever affected by the Chernobyl disaster—even going by the highest possible estimates.

So, while some might understand Chernobyl to be an indictment of socialism, the actual takeaway should really be that all of our precious consumer choice and freedom of speech are part of an economic structure that has a very similar set of structural issues. In the light of day, Chernobyl—both the HBO series and the plant itself—should be seen as a monument to an alternate vision for society that, for a variety of reasons, did not come to fruition. But we shouldn’t be smug, as we’re currently on a path that will lead to future historians making the exact same conclusions about us.

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