Chernobyl: an anti-capitalist nuclear horror story
Chernobyl: an anti-capitalist nuclear horror story

Even before its broadcast run had concluded, Craig Mazin’s five-part TV drama, Chernobyl, was acclaimed as a classic. It currently stands as the highest rated series of all time on IMDb, and has been watched by millions in the US and around the world despite airing on a bad schedule and relying heavily on word-of-mouth promotion.

A short-run series about an industrial accident that took place 33 years ago in a state that no longer exists might seem an odd candidate for such popularity. But, as Wired put it, “2019 needed a hit as bleak as Chernobyl”. It is a show that speaks to the concerns of its time.

At the time of the series’ airing, nuclear power is being rehabilitated as a solution to catastrophic global warming. The technology is back in the marketplace of ideas, while the generations traumatised by the meltdowns and near-misses continue to be dismissively diagnosed with “radiophobia”. The familiarity of the feeling that a cataclysmic environmental and social disaster is unfolding right around us, while the administrators of our society look the other way, is impossible not to recognise.

Socialism too – in its many varieties – is making a comeback. With its revival inevitably comes the debate about whether the “Soviet Socialist Republics” that collapsed shortly after the explosion of the Chernobyl plant were something to aspire towards. The series makes a clear and welcome case in the negative.

Mazin says he intended Chernobyl as a comment on contemporary politics, and specifically on what he calls the “war on truth”. The subtext is relatively obvious: knowledge painstakingly acquired by scientists is discarded when it is politically inconvenient. In many cases, narratives of that kind can turn into advocacy of professional intellectuals over biased political operatives. But Chernobyl isn’t just topical for its environmentalist message: it is a thoroughly, though perhaps unintentionally, anticapitalist drama.

The narrative of Mazin’s series is inevitably compressed in order to make it suitable for commercial television. The team of scientists and state officials tasked with the organising the clean-up of the destroyed reactor are condensed into a heroic scholar, Valery Legasov, and a gruff but good-natured bureaucrat, Boris Scherbina. Both are real men whose roles are magnified, and characters simplified, in accordance with the standards of television drama.

The timeline is shuffled somewhat. A single fictional character, played by Emily Watson, stands in for the extended community of nuclear researchers. The courtroom denouement of the final episode is more metaphor than history. But the fundamental and shocking realities of the Chernobyl disaster – the horror and human cost of the incident, and the dynamics of the society that created it – are undeniably authentic.

Chernobyl is at its most real when also at its most bizarre. Nuclear technology derives its power from action at the subatomic level, a realm too small for us to intuit or easily imagine. Its effects appear more like a magical curse than poisoning. The first episode brilliantly portrays the immediate aftermath of the nuclear reactor’s explosion, when the damaged building seems possessed. There is no toxic sludge rushing into the rooms, but the air and rocks glow; plant technicians and firefighters fall ill, they hallucinate, their skin burns. The curse soon spreads to the nearby company town of Pripyat. Apparently healthy animals drop dead in the surrounding forests. Soon will come the stillbirths, the organ failures, and the cancers.

The first episodes seem familiar, like a fictional horror movie about a haunted castle in a haunted village. A supernatural force is driving a terrible industrial accident: the weird combination of workplace realism and otherworldliness recalls films like Alien. But this time, the science-fiction story really happened. Humanity invented a form of poison so powerful that it appears magical.

Chernobyl does not disavow science. It honours the researchers who grapple with the mysteries of the technology, and who try to explain it. Towards the end, it even allows Legasov to deliver an extended lecture about the radiological, chemical and mechanical processes that caused the explosion – a very unusual and genuinely educative scene.

But while the nuclear poison is terrifying, it is only half the story. Equally disturbing is the secrecy-and self-dealing of the ruling class: the plant managers and state officials who hoard and bury the truth while distributing lies to and endangering the workers and technicians over whom they rule.

The Soviet bloc’s nuclear industry was a state secret, mostly administered by the “Ministry of Medium Machine Building”. Inextricably linked to war technology and military competition with the US, nuclear power was blanketed with secrecy and cover-ups of reactor design flaws and accidents, including those which gave early indications of the impending disaster at Chernobyl. The explosion itself was covered up until Swedish scientists detected the drifting radiation. In the intervening period, workers living near the plant, who had no idea what had happened, continued to sunbathe near the exposed reactor.

Chernobyl portrays well the way in which the state’s obsession with secrecy filtered down until it became something approaching psychological self-delusion for lower-level bureaucrats. We are left with a brilliant portrait of the contradiction of modern technology: there is incredible power, almost beyond comprehension, unleashed by coordinated human ingenuity and effort. But, controlling and dominating that power, there is ignorance and deception to the point of suicidal madness.

Chernobyl valorises honest scientists, but it also pays tribute to the heroism and self-sacrifice of the Ukrainian workers: the firefighters and miners who are deceived, but who nonetheless show great creativity, courage, and altruism in their efforts to save the world from an even greater catastrophe. The firefighters, for example, unaware of the nature of the fire they were battling, spent many hours pouring water on a superheated graphite fire that water couldn’t extinguish. The only effect was to generate an enormous plume of radioactive steam. And it is rightly contemptuous of the ruling party officials who make fatuous speeches about Lenin’s love of the people to justify cover-ups. It is clear that the disaster we’re seeing is transpiring in, and largely a product of, a bureaucratic, managerial society divided into rulers and ruled, bosses and workers.

The portraits on the walls are of Lenin and Marx, but the conduct of the managers and rulers is familiar from any industrial accident in any capitalist society. That is because the Chernobyl disaster – despite taking place in a facility named after Lenin – did not take place in a society based on the principles of transparency, openness, and democratic control that were fought for by Lenin in 1917. The revolution Lenin led was, in large part, motivated by the desire for a society based on accountability, truthfulness, and collective decision making. It opposed secret treaties, secret war programs and company secrets being kept from workers.

The defeat of the revolution left Russia, and its satellite “soviet socialist republics”, as bureaucratic mirrors of the West, driven by the same need to cut costs, fight wars, and keep secrets: a “conspiracy of the rulers against the ruled”, as Trotsky put it. In the 1980s, as the regime headed towards its doom, the Eastern bloc also had its version of neoliberalism. Nuclear plant managers were ordered to generate revenue as well as electricity. Some took up producing aluminium engravings of great moments in Russian history. At the time of the disaster, Chernobyl’s director was under pressure to produce nuclear-powered meat-grinders and convert parts of the plant into a hay warehouse to make more money.

So where does that leave the politics of Chernobyl? Stalin’s Russian empire is dead, it died a few years after the accident at Chernobyl hastened by independent political movements in the poisoned republics of Ukraine and Poland. Is that a happy ending?

We could conclude that Chernobyl shows the dangers posed by Stalinism as a uniquely bureaucratic system of social organisation. That would make it a largely abstract attack on a dead social system, or even an expression of revived Cold War anti-communism.

But the topicality of Chernobyl derives from the inescapable fact that the bureaucracy’s inhuman behaviour is so familiar to us. The fatuous speeches about socialist morality shown in Chernobyl are just that country’s equivalent of our paeans to free markets and free people.

We could conclude, then, that it shows the fallibility of human beings: our inability to control our own creations, our failure to cooperate honestly even while paying lip-service to lofty ideals.

But when the contemporary “war on truth” so obviously threatens a worldwide and irreversible ecological catastrophe, such interpretations could only be a basis for passive acceptance of defeat and disaster.

Western filmmakers struggle to make thoroughgoing critiques of capitalist society. Apart from the propaganda needs of the bourgeois media, presenting capitalism as irredeemable seems hopelessly pessimistic to those adverse to revolutionary conclusions. So a story about ruling-class crime requires an Erin Brockovich figure, someone who proves that with pluck and determination individuals can get justice. Otherwise there’s no hope, and usually low ratings.  

But films set in Stalinist societies – Western capitalism’s rival and doppelganger – can subvert this norm. The social system in which Chernobyl takes place has been condemned by history, so no happy ending needs to be guaranteed. Legasov says his piece. In the series, he says it in court; in reality, he said to the increasingly open press shortly before committing suicide. But he wins no victory. He is defeated by the system, which itself is morally damned. It valued lies, secrecy, and the rule of bureaucrats over truth, openness, and the freedom of workers.

Yet strip away the Stalinist veneer and it is easy to recognise the system we have today: a managerial society run by bosses and bureaucrats who lie and kill to maintain their social dominance, and who threaten the whole world as long as they remain in power. The system of class domination and exploitation portrayed in Chernobyl lives on in free-market form today. The series’ power derives from its identification of contemporary capitalism with dead Stalinism.

So long as Stalinism existed, it discredited the very concept of socialism and convinced generations that Marx’s ideas were incapable of grappling with ecological questions. Chernobyl stands as a brilliant and timely proof that to head off a modern, worldwide environmental disaster, we will need to construct a modern, worldwide society based on truth, openness, and workers’ freedom to consciously determine their own fate. That is a socialism worthy of the name.

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