A five episode mini-series is three steps in at the moment chronicling the terrifying Chernobyl disaster of 1986. All three episodes so far have been stunning – but in a thoroughly disturbing, distressing, and terrifying manner.
It’s challenging television, but exactly the type of projects that should be cleared for go-ahead. And we’re here to help shine a light on it.
Most people have heard of the disaster, but few will know just how horrific the ordeal was – how close Europe came to being raised by a second thermonuclear explosion following the first incident on April 25th, 1986.
Remarkable human sacrifice went into ensuring that didn’t happen. And the show documents that, and various other political and social ramifications, with unflinching honesty.
It’s at times utterly brutal and horrific – terrifying. Capable of rendering the viewer stunned and speechless.
Craig Mazin created the project, wrote the scripts, and it’s directed by Johan Renck.
The former turned to Nobel Prize-winning journalist Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices From Chernobyl for development ideas. He immediately realised the story of Lyudmilla and Vasily Ignatenko is about as horrifying and heartbreaking as it gets.
A young couple who met in 1979, by 1986 Vasily was 25 and working as a fireman in Pripyat (the local town built for employees to support the nuclear power plant).
By the third episode Vasily’s terminal case of acute radiation poisoning is detailed in shocking fashion. He received a fatal dose several times over. As a nurse described to Lyudmilla in Alexievich’s book:
"I tell the nurse on duty: 'He's dying.' And she says to me: 'What did you expect? He got 1,600 roentgen. 400 is a lethal dose. You're sitting next to a nuclear reactor.' It's all mine... it's my love."
It’s important to point out the show isn’t gratuitous or exploitative, instead documenting his cruel fate as his pregnant wife breaks all protocol to be with him as he dies.
The production team, in fact, deserves recognition for the depiction of his physical decline. Yet it feels inappropriate to state that.
But you can read a truncated account of Lyudmilla’s harrowing story in the Paris Review. Although it’s not for the faint-hearted there’s a certain beauty to the tale – despite the horror of the situation.
Chernobyl documents several other stories, starting with the night of the incident in the first episode.
After which inorganic chemist Valery Legasov (1936-1988) – played by Jared Harris – has a meeting with Council of Ministers Boris Shcherbina (1919-1990) – here portrayed by Stellan Skarsgård.
They meet with General Secratary Mikhail Gorbachev and Legasov is able to take more control over the disaster, which was being played down by politicians.
For Legasov, dealing with the aftermath of the disaster meant endless compromises.
Although he and his scientific team (for which Emily Watson arrives as a composite character) can control the initial problem, the actions they have to take exacerbate the long-term situation.
Legasov took a tremendous deal of emotional stress with his decisions. Some of which have a Gogolian sense of nightmarish, inexplicable tragedy.
Over 3,500 liquidators (bio-robots), in a farcical dice with death, were ordered onto the roof of the Chernobyl reactor to clear off enormously radioactive debris.
Helping each one along was a puny shovel. Wrapped in “protective” clothing, each bio-robot could only be on the roof for sometimes as little as 45 seconds at a time.
On they’d rush in confusion, shovel some debris back into the radioactive core, then sprint off into relative safety. They all did this only once.
Although most liquidators were on the roof for 90 seconds and no more, their health was shot for life.
Being the necessary instigator of such antics, on the second anniversary of the incident Legasov committed suicide. The series opens with his final notes before he hangs himself.
So right there, this isn’t cheerful television. It’s devastating, in fact, but the rave reviews its met with have turned it into one of the highest rated TV shows in history. And rightly so.
But don’t go into it expecting some triumphant conclusion.
The Chernobyl disaster represents humanity in collapse, where an invisible enemy threatened to render large chunks of Europe uninhabitable for centuries.
There’s something worryingly prophetic about that, as climate change and big business capitalism lay waste to the planet.
Chernboyl stands as a reminder as to why we need to get our act together. Essential viewing.
At high school, we remember the adults talking of the fallout in Ukraine and Belarus following the disaster.
We didn’t much understand it as kids, but the young people afflicted with cancer or deformities due to the radiation were pallid, emaciated, yet defiant and brave.
The death toll from Chernobyl is hotly disputed, with many cover ups sitting awkwardly alongside the difficulty in figuring out the disaster’s full effects.
Some suggest it’s lower than 40, whilst others believe it to be in the tens of thousands.
The disaster has particularly intrigued us over the last decade. And we can highlight the above independent documentary film for further information: The Battle for Chernobyl (2006). The video works, even if it looks broken.
There’s some remarkable footage there, such as a lone worker near the plant parking a vehicle and then sprinting away in terror – aware if he were to stay put for too long he’d be dead from radiation.
Again, it’s sobering viewing. But we don’t like to deny reality as events get horrendous. As Keith Gessen recounts in the 2005 edition of Voices From Chernobyl:
"As these testimonies also make all too clear, it wasn't as if the Soviets simply let Chernobyl burn. This is the remarkable thing. On the one hand, total incompetence, indifference, and out-and-out lies. On the other, a genuinely frantic effort to deal with the consequences."
Chernobyl happened, the results were appalling, and its a fate humanity needs to avoid again through a concerted effort to control current excesses.