The HBO series Chernobyl is not only majestic television, but also a reminder that the world is a better place than it used to be. This seems counterintuitive to people who have become accustomed to declaring that we are living in bad times, the worst times, or even the End Times. But as the series draws to a close, Chernobyl should serve as a reminder not only that the world is fortunate that the Soviet Union is gone, but of how much we now take the political and technological improvements of the 21st century for granted.
It is especially important not to process everything in Chernobyl through the lens of our current politics, which seem frivolous compared with the events of the 1980s. (I was a young Soviet expert in training in 1986, and I remember the sense that Chernobyl had moved global events in ways even my experienced mentors could not fully understand at the time.) In a dustup over the series on Twitter, the writer Stephen King and the Fox News personality Dan Bongino both took a catastrophe that almost nearly overwhelms human comprehension even today and tried to wrap it around their own agendas. “It’s impossible to watch HBO’s CHERNOBYL without thinking of Donald Trump,” King tweeted. It is, of course, completely possible to watch the series without thinking of Trump. For his part, Bongino responded to King by railing against “Hollywood elitists.” Chernobyl, Bongino insisted, “was a failure of socialism … the exact opposite of the Trump deregulation and tax cut agenda.”
The show’s writer, Craig Mazin, got the last word. During a beautifully rendered scene, an elderly Communist Party apparatchik sits silently at a meeting of plant managers and local officials, all of whom are giving in to panic. He then rises and exhorts his comrades to gaze upon the portrait of the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin on the wall, and to remember that Lenin would be proud of them—even though one of the reactors had already exploded and was, at that moment, on the verge of melting through the earth around them.
“Chernobyl,” Mazin tweeted to Bongino, “was a failure of humans whose loyalty to (or fear of) a broken governing party overruled their sense of decency and rationality. You’re the old man with the cane. You just worship a different man’s portrait.”
That burn showed a screenwriter’s deft touch, and Bongino got what he deserved. And yet the disaster that poisoned nearly 1,000 square miles of Soviet Ukraine grew out of a problem much broader than Lenin’s doomed cult of personality. From its inception, the Soviet Union was governed by a fundamentally psychotic regime that over successive generations was unable to comprehend reality, process information, or see beyond its own fevered and paranoid outlook. Chernobyl was a shock to the global system for many reasons, but not least because it was a terrifying reminder of what life might look like if the Kremlin and its authoritarian system of bureaucrats and policemen ever succeeded in ruling the rest of the world.
Like Chernobyl, the triumph of Lenin and the Bolsheviks and the creation of the Soviet state decades earlier was a freak accident, a strange detour of history. The historian Dmitri Volkogonov—a Soviet general who was once so trusted by the regime that he was assigned to write the official biography of Joseph Stalin—later declared bitterly in his autopsy of the Soviet period that Lenin and his comrades were European intellectuals who stumbled into power after “years of sitting in isolation and making up schemes for Communist revolution.”
Once they captured a state, however, they were determined to keep it, and a regime founded by chance and based on a lie soon began to believe in its own infallibility. Socialism and communism were just words; the power and survival of the Soviet Communist Party were paramount. No one life was of any particular importance.
The most chilling moment in Chernobyl—in a way, worse than the explosion of the reactor itself—comes when the scientist assigned to help deal with the accident, Valery Legasov, stops a senior KGB official named Charkov to plead the case of a researcher who has been arrested. When Legasov asks about his researcher, Charkov pretends not to know who she is. Legasov notes that she was followed, and Charkov points to two goons down the hall. “And they follow me. The KGB is a circle of accountability, nothing more.” Legasov asks again for his associate’s release, and in return Charkov asks whether the professor will be “accountable” for her. When Legasov says he will, the old spy says, “Then it is done.” When Legasov begins to repeat her name—so the KGB knows whom to release—Charkov says, “I know who she is,” and walks away.
This exchange did not really happen—the detained scientist in the series is a composite character. Yet this scene captures something about the Soviet regime both at its most mundane and at its most dangerous. Everyone was accountable to everyone else. Any show of public defiance, or even a misplaced comment, could carry severe consequences. But at a moment of great peril to millions of Soviet citizens and millions more people around the world, no one was accountable. Every bureaucrat and manager simply repeated the mantra of the gray, authoritarian system that produced them: I had my job. I did my job. I fulfilled my tasks. I did nothing wrong.
In this environment, falsehoods are policy. In the hours following the explosion and the fire, Soviet authorities insanely tried to keep a spiraling nuclear disaster a state secret, hoping against all odds that they could hide a gigantic conflagration from American satellites and a massive release of radiation from even their country’s closest neighbors.
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. We all lived under the constant threat that the commitment of a group of paranoids to ideas first bruited about in the coffeehouses of Victorian Europe would lead to global extermination.
The Soviet Union is gone. The Russian Federation is a menace to peace, but Vladimir Putin is a second-rate mobster compared to the cool and brutal masters of the state that raised him. Soviet reactors no longer groan and strain in secrecy, and the last few RBMK-type plants in Russia are nearing the end of their lives, their flaws no longer hidden from the rest of the world. Instead of a combined force of tens of thousands of U.S. and Soviet warheads ready to immolate almost every major city in the Northern Hemisphere, each side has contented itself (for now) with roughly 1,500 weapons apiece.
Chernobyl is a grimly beautiful portrait of a diseased political system that died a more peaceful death than it deserved. Americans—and the rest of the world—should be happy that it is gone. We should also be grateful for our narrow escape not only from the burning reactors in the marshes of Pripyat, but from a state led by a cabal of dangerous men who, for the better part of a century, hijacked the fate of billions of human beings.