‘Chernobyl’: The Cold War May Be Over, But The Cold Russian Lives On

Thirty years after the implosion of the Soviet Union, we still cherish the Cold War image of Russians as heartless and soulless automatons.

Chernobyl, a five-part HBO series that premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET and tracks the devastating accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986, does little to rehabilitate the image of Soviets, or at least Soviet bureaucrats.

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Nuclear plant becomes another planet.

Chernobyl is powerful and emotional TV, chronicling with infuriating detail the ways in which ordinary people become pawns in a bureaucratic game.

As almost anyone over 45 likely remembers, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine became the center of worldwide attention on April 26, 1986, when its core exploded and sent massive quantities of deadly radiation into the atmosphere.

Thirty-three years later, a thousand square miles around the site remain an “exclusion zone,” where almost no one is permitted to live or work. While the radiation gradually dissipates, scientists estimate the immediate area around the plant won’t be fully habitable for approximately 20,000 years.

This miniseries, written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, gets into some of the science of radiation. It’s more concerned with the people affected by the disaster, both civilians in the physical vicinity and the plant and government officials who within hours were hard at work trying to deflect blame for the accident and its consequences onto anyone but themselves.

Chernobyl is loosely framed inside a narration from Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a Soviet scientist summoned nominally to help officials understand the technical nature of the problem.

To his dismay, he soon finds they care mostly about first trying to deny and later to minimize its extent and consequences.

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Anatoly (Paul Ritter), left. The real Anatoly went to prison.

The alpha villain on ground level is Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), a plant supervisor who was overseeing the test in progress when the explosion occurred.

When his staff reports the potentially catastrophic extent of what just happened, he berates them as delusional and sends them back into the plant, which is pretty much a death sentence.

Not content with that level of denial, he orders another shift of workers in. He also leads the call for firefighters to try to “solve” the problem by putting out a fire raging on the roof.

Less than four hours after the early-morning accident, Dyatlov has been summoned by his superiors, who are only too happy to buy his reassurances that what happened was minimal and contained. Anything worse than that, they note, and they would all look bad.

The local Soviet council is summoned and likewise assured there is no need for panic, or any sort of evacuation. To reinforce that strategy, the senior party member at the meeting suggests that all communication from the area be shut down, to “prevent the spread of misinformation.”

This protects the people from their own potential overreaction, he smugly explains, invoking the spirit of Vladimir Lenin to confirm that the state knows best.

As a result, the blissfully unwarned locals gather on bridges and in their backyards to look at the glow in the distance, marveling at its beauty as one might marvel at the Northern Lights. Children dance in the white particles wafting down from the sky.

A few persons here and there — Legasov, a nurse at the local hospital, one young member of the council — express concern about the potential scope and human cost of what’s unfolding.

The ruling majority of officials, however, see no reason for caution or protective measures.

A meter at the plant that measures atmospheric radiation maxes out at 3.6 roentgens, a level that’s concerning albeit not deadly. Dyatlov only tells his superiors the reading was 3.6, not that it might be higher. When another engineer says a second meter maxed out at 200, which could be catastrophic, the bureaucrats tell him the meter must have malfunctioned and therefore his reading means nothing.

The level of callous indifference here cannot be overstated, and while the dialogue in Chernobyl is all spoken in English, the Russian accents of the characters reinforce the way movies and television have portrayed Russians for decades— as cold, heartless, sneering bullies.

Given how Chernobyl played out, with the truth gradually emerging only after thousands of people had been killed or poisoned, it would be hard for Chernobyl the series to portray the protagonists any other way.

In the larger picture, however, it’s hard not to also imagine some bureaucrats from any nation reacting in similar ways. Check out the American public officials who were nominally supposed to safeguard the water in the Love Canal or Flint, Mich.

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Worker in the immediate aftermath.

Chernobyl, the miniseries, does pivot its focus regularly and nicely to the civilians of the story, from firefighters to local survivors who were eventually relocated. It portrays the impact, mostly awful, on their lives.

If the lethal explosion at Chernobyl was an accident, the lethal response was not.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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