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.
Read: “Chernobyl” is a gruesome, riveting fable
“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.