HBO's Chernobyl Highlighted Government Malfeasance and Administrative Evil

The show wasn't about a nuclear disaster per se, but about how a government—and individuals—reacted in the face of disaster.


One of the most gripping and remarked-upon scenes from the recent HBO miniseries "Chernobyl" came shortly after the nuclear reactor exploded and officials from the plant and government assembled in a meeting room to assess the situation and come up with a response. Do they tell the locals? Do they evacuate the nearby town?

One official argued against inciting panic and assured the group things are under control. Another man presented a dire scenario, and pointed to glowing air, a raging fire, people with burns and workers vomiting. The bureaucrats were in denial. Then an old Soviet apparatchik starts tapping his cane to get everyone's attention and makes his pronouncement:

"How proud he (Soviet revolutionary V.I. Lenin) would be of you all tonight," he said. "The passion you have for the people. For is that not the sole purpose of the apparatus of the state? Sometimes we forget. Sometimes we fall prey to fear. But our faith in Soviet socialism will always be rewarded. Now, the state tells us that the situation here is not dangerous. Have faith, comrades." The group cheered.

And, so, officials downplayed the 1986 Ukraine disaster, squandering precious response hours—until two outspoken scientists and an open-minded government official begin investigating the mess and insisting on a more aggressive response.

There's been much debate about the popular and well-done series. I heard one complaint that the series started with the nuclear explosion rather than building up to the cataclysmic event, but that was the fundamental strength of the production. The show wasn't about a nuclear disaster per se, but about how a government—and individuals—reacted in the face of disaster.

Other critics have ridden their hobby horses. Pro-nuclear environmentalist Michael Shellenberger complained in Forbes, "I think it's obvious that the mini-series terrified millions of people about the technology." He picked on some inaccuracies in the series' presentation of the effects of radiation poisoning and criticized it for repeating an "urban legend."

Perhaps, but I agree with the tweet that Shellenberger reprints from the show's creator: "The lesson of Chernobyl isn't that modern nuclear power is dangerous. The lesson is that lying, arrogance, and suppression of criticism are dangerous." Indeed, "Chernobyl" is not about nuclear power, but about government malfeasance and "administrative evil." That refers to the way average people can do atrocious things if they are done under the auspices of legitimate authority. It refers to those who were just following orders.

A fascinating corollary is how people can do brave and selfless things within those same corrupt systems. My favorite character in "Chernobyl" was Boris Shcherbina, a high-ranking deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers. He was, as History.com put it, "an old hand in the ways of the system, its patterns of absurd quotas and preposterous deadlines."

Shcherbina had no expertise in nuclear issues, yet was called to manage the situation. Instead of blindly following the party line, he took seriously the concerns of the scientists and worked within that absurd system to provide the tools needed to get the fire under control. The show spotlighted other heroes, too, such as the coal miners who risked their lives to tunnel under the reactor and the other workers who did what they had to do at great personal cost.

The most entertaining response to the "Chernobyl" series came from Russia. Moscow Times columnist Ilya Shepelin writes that "pro-Kremlin media have launched a mini-crusade against it" based largely in their shame "that an American, not a Russian, TV channel tells us about our own heroes." A Russian production company is producing its own movie alleging that a CIA operative was sabotaging the plant, thus inadvertently showing the continuing relevance of the plotlines.

Americans have their own takes, of course. "This state, run by delusional old men chasing, imprisoning, and shooting millions of their fellow citizens in a 'circle of accountability,' controlled thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at the United States and its allies," wrote Tom Nichols in the Atlantic. That view of Soviet Russia certainly is true. The series was an indictment of a totalitarian society, but it's not only an indictment of that defunct government.

Others say "Chernobyl" teaches lessons about our ongoing modern political drama. As Peter Maas wrote in the Intercept, the show tells us much about the "deceit of the Trump era" because it highlights the "destruction of truth" by a government committed to self-preservation. There's some truth there, but "Chernobyl" touches on themes that are much bigger than that.

In reality, the "Chernobyl" series is so powerful because of what it says about all bureaucracies, and not just any particular system. It's about each of us as individuals and how we would react in the face of similar dangers and official absurdities and misinformation. Would we cheer the man with the cane and follow the official process—or risk our lives to do the right thing?

This column was first published in the Orange County Register.

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  1. Yes, this program was a subtly subversive anti-government piece and totally not fearmongering about nuclear power.

    You fucking assholes are so out of touch with reality it is frightening.

    1. He addressed this point in the article and you did not give any evidence in refuting it.

    2. the “deceit of the Trump era”

      If you like your gamma emitter free neighborhood you can keep your gamma emitter free neighborhood.

    3. I’m VERY pro-nuclear power but it takes willful ignorance to turn a blind eye to respect anyone needs to give nuclear energy and its limitations.

  2. I knew they would work Trump into it somehow.

    1. At least this piece doesn’t play that up and just quotes someone else. All governments are committed to self preservation.

  3. Thanks for linking to Shellenberger’s article. It’s much better than yours. I’m even more pro-nuke (peacefully) than before.

  4. Interesting indeed. Certainly helps when articles are in-depth.


  5. Preservation and justification of the system is what bureaucracies do, even in the face of extreme failure of the system.

    “Others say “Chernobyl” teaches lessons about our ongoing modern political drama. As Peter Maas wrote in the Intercept, the show tells us much about the “deceit of the Trump era” because it highlights the “destruction of truth” by a government committed to self-preservation.”

    Did Peter Maas have much problem with Jonathan Gruber and the propaganda put forth by the Obama Administration in regards to the ACA? If not, he can pound sand.

    1. AS the destruction of truth certainly predates Trump and has been a feature of government for years.

    2. There was no problem with what Jonathan Gruber did because that happened under democrats just like the IRS scandal and the DOJ gun running to Mexico criminals, no condemnation just lack of praise. Now I have to admit that the ACA debacle and the IRS scandal and the DOJ gun running is a greater threat to the US government.

      1. Yes, but somehow Trump is the anomaly in deed that is causing it rather than ithe anomaly in style that is bringing the bad behavior to light.

        1. You have no idea how weird and pathetic you sound. Keep defending Trump. I’m sure history will vindicate him and his supporters. Oh yes. Destined for top 5 presidents at least.

          Jesus fucking Christ you people.

          1. He just gave you concrete examples of official lies of the last regime in matters of great import to our daily lives, and we are supposed to worry about the size of the inaugural crowd

  6. The reactor is Trump!

    1. Was it painted orange?

  7. TDS is alive and well here.

      1. Spot on

  8. Bernie Sanders: But it was equitable!

    1. The government made sure as many (common) people got radiation poisoning as possible. What more do you libertarian heathens want?!

  9. As Peter Maas wrote in the Intercept, the show tells us much about the “deceit of the Trump era” because it highlights the “destruction of truth” by a government committed to self-preservation. There’s some truth there, but “Chernobyl” touches on themes that are much bigger than that.

    I’ll fucking say.

  10. When people highlight the dangers of nuclear energy by pointing to Chernobyl, I have to agree – yes, when managed by brain-dead socialists who place ideology over reality, nuclear energy can be very dangerous, indeed.

    1. That seems to get lost a lot. The Chernobyl reactors were BAD reactors. Fukushima, which was hit by a fucking typhoon AND earthquake, caused nowhere near as much damage

      I’d also argue it shows the problem of a lack of imagination. The phrase “It is impossible” was said A LOT for events that very much did happen.

      1. Yep. The US has, what, 60 or so operating nuclear plants? Unit 1 on Three Mile Island is still up and running (at least for now) and the partial meltdown didn’t kill anyone. Can someone name the last time a US nuclear plant blew up and killed hundreds or thousands of people? Anyone? Bueller?

        1. Chernobyl had fully functional reactors running for years after Reactor 4 blew. Reactor 3 was up and running thru 2000.

          BTW, I was looking at a site debunking Chernobyl. One said the helicopter crash never happened. I’ve seen YouTube video of the helicopter crash for years. It happened.

          1. The crash you saw occurred much later – on a concrete drop during construction of the original concrete shell built to encase what was left of the reactor.

            Not saying the earlier crash didn’t happen. Just like the ROVs were that killed by radiation, any other sort of machine flying too close to that plume could have died as well. I just doubt that it was being filmed at the time.

  11. I watched it and quite liked it. It did a very good job showing the evils of the Soviet system while still allowing the characters to be human and sympathetic. And it didn’t turn into a anti-nuclear scare piece.

  12. Chernobyl is magnificent.

    Hint: it’s not really about the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl; it’s about the disaster visited upon all people who live under socialist systems.

    Sprinkled throughout the five episodes are numerous eminently quotable lines and speeches that only tangentially relate to the dramatic context. But they skewer the system, the lies upon which the system is built, the denial or reality, and the necessary consequences of the bureaucratic state where political pull and venality rule.

    Writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck handle it all deftly and never put a foot wrong. Their credits on IMDB, although lengthy, wouldn’t offer much hope of such a project working out, and I can only imagine it’s the transatlantic nature of the production (HBO/Sky) that has something to do with it.

    Watch it soon.

    1. Money quote: “They should print that on the money.”

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