Television

Chernobyl Is About What Happens When Citizens Believe Telling the Truth Is Futile

The HBO series is a powerful portrait of the political and social rot that occurs in authoritarian regimes.

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"You think the right question will get you the truth?  There is no truth," Anatoly Dyatlov tells Ulana Khomyuk in last week's penultimate episode of Chernobyl. "Ask the bosses whatever you want. You will get the lie, and I will get the bullet."

It's a scene that perfectly captures the essence of HBO's a five-part miniseries, which concludes Monday night, about the aftermath of the 1986 nuclear disaster in the former Soviet Union. Khomyuk, the scientist who is trying to solve the mystery at the center of the story—why did the nuclear reactor at the titular power plant seemingly inexplicably explode during a routine safety test—has been stonewalled by the Soviet government and most of the eyewitnesses have already died. Dyatlov, who was in charge of the plant on the night of the accident, is perhaps the only person who can connect the dots for her.

He's unwilling to talk. It's not self-preservation—though he is paranoid that she is helping the Soviet government pin the blame for the accident solely on him, he also figures he's doomed one way or the other. It's hopelessness. The truth doesn't matter and won't be heard. Why risk telling it?

Chernobyl is a story about the cost of lies. Big ones like the flaw in the design of the plant's reactor that was left unfixed because admitting a mistake would make the USSR seem less technologically awesome. Smaller ones like the deliberately inaccurate radiation measurements that the Soviet government published to make the accident look less serious, but that ended up putting more people in harm's way. But the strength of the story—and the true horror at the center of Craig Mazin's gripping script—is how it examines the political and social rot that occurs when individuals become convinced that telling the truth is futile.

"The official position of the state," Boris Shcherbina, the Soviet official sent to Chernobyl to oversee the clean-up, remarks at one point, "is that global nuclear catastrophe is not possible in the Soviet Union."

Shcherbina, played masterfully by Stellan Skarsgård, is perhaps the character most affected by seeing that rot up close. At the outset, he's deputy chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers and the ultimate party yes-man. He's sent to Chernobyl, essentially, to keep a lid on the clean-up effort and make sure the scientists brought in to solve the crisis stick to the party line. By the end of the fourth episode, he's so frustrated with his own government that he's screaming at his superiors over the phone one minute and smashing the phone with his bare hands the next.

In other words, he evolves from someone who could deliver the "official position of the state" with a straight face to someone who, when he does utter that phrase, delivers it with all the wryness it deserves.

Chernobyl is a powerful indictment of the Soviet state—and, indeed, even Mikhail Gorbachev has claimed that the nuclear disaster was partially responsible for the collapse of the USSR. A system built on lies about equality and prosperity collapsed once enough people, like Shcherbina, became disillusioned with the state-sanctioned truth.

To be sure, all governments lie and engage in cover-ups. The Soviet Union may have been more ruthlessly efficient at it than most, but America covered up details about the Challenger disaster, for example, in part to save face after a technologically humiliating disaster, much like the Soviets did after Chernobyl. The United States tried to hide inhumane medical testing conducted on African Americans, covered up the testing of chemical weapons on an urban neighborhood in St. Louis, and concocted a fictional rationale for a war that destabilized the entire Middle East and killed hundreds of thousands.

If you're looking for the cost of governmental lies, history is full of them and their associated body counts. If the Soviet Union had a monopoly on those sorts of lies, Chernobyl wouldn't strike the same chord. It would be a historical drama, not a parable. It works as a warning about how a government dedicated to telling untruths can succeed, even at great cost, when there is no free press or open internet to contradict that narrative.

Still, the bleakest and most memorable moments in Chernobyl are rooted in a hopelessness that grows from decades of authoritarianism. The fourth episode, the best one in the series so far, opens with an old woman milking her single cow while being told by a Soviet soldier that she has to evacuate.

Decades of lies weigh heavily on her. "No," she says, repeatedly. After a lifetime that included close calls with Bolshevik revolutionaries, German soldiers, and Stalin's famines, each bringing their own lies to her doorstep. Why should she believe that the state is looking out for her best interest now? There will always be "more soldiers, more famine, more bodies."

In the end, her cow gets the bullet.

The soldier is actually right, of course, that she should evacuate to save her life, but the old woman—like Dyatlov, and like so many of her countrymen—is worn down by the absence of truth.

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70 responses to “Chernobyl Is About What Happens When Citizens Believe Telling the Truth Is Futile

  1. With a lie at least they know what the truth is. Delusion is far more depressing.

    1. Listen buddy, wanting a feminine penis on a girl does not make one gay. In fact, the extra appendage accentuates a woman’s natural beauty and appeal.
      With that said, vaginas on boys is where I cross the line. Guys are cute as God made them.

    2. The biggest lies and delusions are about Government Almighty ***NOT*** loving us all more deeply than we can ever imagine!!!

      Scienfoology Song… GAWD = Government Almighty’s Wrath Delivers

      Government loves me, This I know,
      For the Government tells me so,
      Little ones to GAWD belong,
      We are weak, but GAWD is strong!
      Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
      Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
      Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
      My Nannies tell me so!

      GAWD does love me, yes indeed,
      Keeps me safe, and gives me feed,
      Shelters me from bad drugs and weed,
      And gives me all that I might need!
      Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
      Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
      Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
      My Nannies tell me so!

      DEA, CIA, KGB,
      Our protectors, they will be,
      FBI, TSA, and FDA,
      With us, astride us, in every way!
      Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
      Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
      Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
      My Nannies tell me so!

  2. “You think the right question will get you the truth? There is no truth,” Anatoly Dyatlov tells Ulana Khomyuk in last week’s penultimate episode of Chernobyl. “Ask the bosses whatever you want. You will get the lie, and I will get the bullet.”

    Sums up Boehm’s coverage of trade from his propagandist’s vantage point.

    1. Maybe this means that Boehm, like Jesse Walker, has been relegated to writing reason articles about things other than current World news.

      1. More likely means Trumpistas like yourself see everything as a reference to Dear Leader.

        1. Hmm…. only a reason troll would take offense to what I said AND so quickly.

          Explains a lot.

        2. Not even lavish thong parties are safe from someone’s obsession with Trump.

          1. You’re correct. The Left’s TDS demands some obsession with Trump, alright.

  3. In Soviet Union you don’t get truth, truth gets you.

  4. I watch very little TV, but I caught up on Chernobyl yesterday and am very much looking forward to seeing the finale. The show is TV at its finest. It has a very “Schindler’s List” feel: it’s definitely not pleasant viewing, but it’s one of those shows that everyone should see, for educational reasons if nothing else. It leaves you thankful that you don’t live under the Soviet system.

    1. I watch very little TV . . .

      Hmmph. Well. *I don’t even own a tv*.

      1. Yeah, but I caught you watching “The View” in the waiting room, wise guy.

        1. Just means I am more of a feminist ally than you cishet.

          1. Oh, also – I stopped watching the view when they sold out and went mainstream.

    2. It leaves you thankful that you don’t live under the Soviet system.
      Yet.

  5. Another example as to why governments should have as little money and power as possible. Only enough to protect citizens individual rights and freedoms, no more. Governments are inherently corrupt.

  6. the really inconvenient truth is that the old woman should have stayed. some people didn’t evacuate, and they have lived longer than those who did. turns out that low levels of radiation aren’t as stressful for you as leaving your home and your way of life.

    of course some areas were uninhabitable and high levels of radiation are deadly.

    1. “Helminthic therapy” is of interest to me; so is “radiation hormesis”.

      On radioactive wastes (ionizing radiation), Google “radiation hormesis”, and see USA government study of the Taiwan thing (accidental experiment on humans) at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2477708/ … Low-dose radioactivity is actually GOOD for you! Seriously!!!

      1. You are very good SQRLSY.

        I know about this thing in Taiwan.

        Few things about the article. It does not prove anything about this theory.

        First the linear model commonly used is well known to be inaccurate. Often called the linear radiation dose response. It is not reflective of actual biological response and just a straight line on a graph used as a sort of reference point.

        Second what is termed high in the study is >15 mSv/yr. occupational dose limits which are intentionally set very low, Bob who took your X-ray and has that badge thing he has to wear, is 20 mSv/year. There is near zero chance that Bob will have any effects at that level after 25 years of taking xrays and assisting in radiation related procedures.

        Third it is a limited cohort observation which has known limitations in trying to extrapolate to the population, let alone making any recommendations about unproven theories.

        But happy you found this and brought it up.

        If you wanna have fun with radiation.

        Banana equivalent dose.

        https://www.ppe.gla.ac.uk/~protopop/teaching/NPP/P2-NPP.pdf

      2. True. Also, the health effects of no ionizing radiation whatsoever is completely unknown. Everything is at least a little radioactive, and if something were not radioactive at all, we’d use it to make stabler computer RAM.

    2. On “helminthic therapy”, AKA gut parasite worms are GOOD for you, too, see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20054982 (USA government again) or others …
      Well anyway, WHAT is a summary of what I am saying? I thought I heard you asking about that, through my tri-cornered aluminum-foil hat, as I am sitting here…

      HERE is your summary: Holyweird is WAY off base, with their horror movies! A Giant Gut-Parasitical Radioactive Teenage Mutant Ninja Tapeworm would be GOOD for us!!! Bring it ON, ah says!!!

      1. AKA gut parasite worms are GOOD for you

        From what I’ve heard about this, parasites might help prevent autoimmune disorders, but at the often significant cost of, well, having a parasite feeding off of you.

        I don’t think I would call that good, exactly. Maybe it’s better than the alternative for some people. Splitting hairs? Maybe. But all I’m saying is, don’t go infecting yourself with worms willy nilly.

        1. Government is already parasite enough for me, I don’t need to go introducing new ones deliberately into my body.

    3. Of course, *not knowing* which areas are low level and which aren’t . . .

  7. O/T: Interesting discussion about UBI and negative income taxes.

    https://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2019/05/what-would-a-basic-income-look-like/

    Basically, UBI and negative income taxes are economically the same, the difference is in the packaging.

    1. Gee no shit? So you literally haven’t read one syllable on this topic in your entire fucking life. Precisely the type of retard you’d expect to find reading Bleeding Heart Libertarians. Friedman and Hayek should be cost of admission reading. Thanks for broadcasting your utter and total ignorance and stupidity just in case there was any lingering doubt.

      1. Seriously, that would post that thinking it is in any way a novel or interesting take is just fucking embarrassing. And you’re so unaware and pig ignorant that you don’t even have the capacity to feel ashamed. It’d be absolutely hilarious if it wasn’t so fucking sad. The grand poobah of libertarianism and you don’t know what a fucking Friedman negative income tax is or how it relates to UBI. Wow.

        1. Over 100 words in response and not a single one of them discussed the merits, or lack thereof, of UBI or negative income taxes.

          Insulting me is not a substitute for an argument.

          Perhaps you ought to actually read the article. Or maybe you are afraid that BHL cooties will rub off onto you?

          1. How about the fact that using the murderous authority of government to take from some people just to give to others is ethically and morally wrong–full stop?

            1. Do you mean take from greedy people who hide behind corrupt laws to take the resources that other people need to live?

              Earth is a closed system that we all inhabit.

              1. If you have proof of this then fucking point it out and push for a law that does away with it.

                Jesus, what type of mental disability causes one to punish everyone for some perceived slight that they dont have the capacity to identify.

                1. People can’t live on minimum wage.

              2. The Earth gets energy from the Sun which is external to the Earth. The Earth is NOT a closed system.

                1. Energy is not matter.

                  I said earth is a closed system, it is not an isolated system.

                  http://www.reference.com/science/earth-considered-closed-system-6a9d5fa963c1f0e4

    2. The difference is in the level of compensation. The UBI folks tend to want a much higher “living wage” than the level of compensation desired by the negative tax folk. It’s because one idea comes from the left, where money is considered to be a right, and the other from a tiny fraction on the right who understand economics and incentives. UBI wants to make people comfortable and don’t even believe in the existence of incentives, while NIT just wants to help the poor and destitute and temporarily disadvantaged without overwhelming the system with bad incentives.

      Too high of compensation, which UBI would provide, leaves no incentive to work and be productive. To a poor person, the UBI is like winning the lotto. But keep it low and there’s the incentive to work and earn some more.

      NIT recognizes that it DOES have disincentives. But in recognizing them it thus seeks to keep the negative tax low, just as it seeks to keep the positive tax low.

  8. Our word of the year for 2016 was post truth. When feelings, not facts, matter.

    When truth mattered, we used to have conclusions to our arguments. Logic and science were our regulations.

    Today we cheat by redefining words. In doing, we change the meanings of the issues. When contradictions mean the same thing, there can be no resolution.

    The truth is fact, reality. It is never in conflict. The denial of it always is.

    If you’re not on the side of discerning, accepting and sharing truth, your on the wrong side.

    1. When feelings, not facts, matter.

      It’s more nuanced than that.

      A better way to put it might be “when anecdotes and personal narratives matter more than objective truth or reality”.

      1. Our definitions are the keepers of reason and our ability to describe reality. We never improve them with partisan bias.

        Your “better” definition of post truth includes valuing things which could very likely be demonstrated true. That is not the meaning of post truth.

        Here is the actual definition which I think I captured better in my original post. I defer to the actual definition.

        “relating to or existing in an environment in which facts are viewed as irrelevant, or less important than personal beliefs and opinions, and emotional appeals are used to influence public opinion:”

        1. Well yes and no.

          An anecdote or a personal story may be representative of a wider trend, or it may not be. The problem is when one trusts only anecdotes and personal stories to inform one’s judgment, and refuses to consider empirical studies or other evidence that may provide a more fulsome picture of a particular subject.

          1. ‘Tard fight!

            1. Leave him alone. Misek is quite probably autistic. An interesting view even if myopic and a little off sometimes

          2. It was a civilized discussion.

            Then the trolls we were talking about demonstrated my point.

            1. Feelings are totally OK. I like vanilla flavor; you like chocolate. Live and let live.

              Most of the troubles arise when I get a self-righteousness boner and use Government Almighty to say that since vanilla is better than chocolate, I must make YOU eat vanilla instead of chocolate!

                1. One of the cheesiest duets ever. From two guys who had done better.

                  Ya like duets?

                  This one is one of my favorites.

                  Willie Nelson and Ray Charles. Seven Spanish Angels.

                  https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=x8A9Y1Dq_cQ

            2. Liking a flavour is a statement of fact, not a feeling.

              Queue the dipshit trolls who can’t even do post truth correctly.

              1. Every one is equal, there are no special rights.

                Put that into your post truth pipe and smoke it after a bowl of weed.

                Oh, Joe Biden says weed is bad? Well, fuck him.

              2. The Yahoo fails again.

                Hank Haney doubles down on racist remark, saying prediction was ‘based on statistics and facts’

                https://sports.yahoo.com/hank-haney-doubles-down-on-remarks-022217749.html

              3. Rob Misek
                June.3.2019 at 4:48 am
                Liking a flavour is a statement of fact, not a feeling.
                ——

                fla·vour (flā′vər)
                n. & v. Chiefly British
                Variant of flavor.

                Are you a limey, or like TS Eliot, just a pretender?

                1. Are you the spelling fairy?

  9. If you’re looking for the cost of governmental lies, history is full of them and their associated body counts. If the Soviet Union had a monopoly on those sorts of lies, Chernobyl wouldn’t strike the same chord. It would be a historical drama, not a parable.

    Not having watched it yet, I just hope that’s the message people take away from it, rather than “OMG nuclear power is so scary!!!”

    1. We’ll see.

  10. It’s cool that Reason has finally discovered a set of bureaucrats unworthy of a daily tongue bath. Naturally, they’re all dead Soviet relics.

  11. Does it show the freak animals that were born afterwards?

    1. Hey you wanna see badass?

      Check out this kitty

      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=je_9QhJFSR0

      1. Hehe. Good one.

  12. But the state can never be wrong, right? And all industrial accidents result from greedy corporate executives, right? And any government that claims to serve the common people could never harm them, right?

  13. People watching Chernobyl: Dying from radiation sickness is terrifying.

    Me: Communism is terrifying.

  14. “why did the nuclear reactor at the titular power plant seemingly inexplicably explode during a routine safety test”

    “a routine safety test”????

    Look, what they were doing at the time might, from some perspective, have been classed as a “safety test”, but it was in no sense “routine”. It was more in the nature of a dangerous experiment, to see if turbine momentum could generate enough power to get the emergency pumps running while the diesel generators were started.

    That wasn’t a routine test even for that class of reactor.

  15. show’s fiction, yes?

  16. That’s why we need to free Assange.

  17. I think the problem with the show is that it’s fanning the fire of nuclear power hysteria at a time when nuclear power is needed more than ever.

    It’s part of an anti-nuclear disinformation scheme of the left, who want to discredit the only serious solution to climate change (nuclear power) and instead push their own onto the world.

  18. […] about the nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union, “is a story about the cost of lies,” writes Reason’s Eric Boehm. Although set more than three decades ago in a country that no longer exists, the show examines a […]

  19. […] about the nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union, “is a story about the cost of lies,” writes Reason’s Eric Boehm. Although set more than three decades ago in a country that no longer exists, the show examines a […]

  20. http://www.onlinedollarincome.com/2019/04/instant-approval-blog-commenting-sites.html
    Listen buddy, wanting a feminine penis on a girl does not make one gay. In fact, the extra appendage accentuates a woman’s natural beauty and appeal.
    With that said, vaginas on boys is where I cross the line. Guys are cute as God made them.

  21. The accident was explained by BL Cohen, 1977 author of The Disposal of Radioactive Wastes, in a mag for High School physics teachers, then reprinted elsewhere. The cause was the same as killed technicians at SL1 in the fifties. Xenon gas accumulates after shutdown and must decay or be cleared before restart. Why? Because it eats neutrons. Techs can be fooled into pulling the control rods way out, then being surprised when criticality suddenly occurs. The teevee suggestion that graphite-tipped control rods acted as an unexpected moderator does not fit the facts. The last episode may reveal that the Party butlers poisoned the neutrons–or not. But the filming is exquisite and almost makes you miss the commies…

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