Last summer I was rushing to get back home from London after a rather stressful and displeasing year of running in the vicious cycle of taking a tube to work, drinking coffee, eating, drinking coffee again, getting anxious because of drinking too much coffee, taking a tube back home and flaccidly falling asleep.
When I finally got there, everyone around me— for some reason I’d discovered later —seemed to be preoccupied with the subject of Chernobyl. An unusual scene as hardly anything of interest happens in this place at any given time — life just slowly paves its way through the facades of identically-grey buildings there. After the closing of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant — which fed local folks with electricity, jobs and overall wellbeing — the town fell into slow but steady and firm decay.
But the summer I arrived from London was filled with a radioactive ambience. Perhaps it was the fault of HBO’s crew wondering on the streets and filming the TV series later to become the highest ranked show on IMDB.
Yes, HBO filmed the series in my hometown! No one in the worlds knows about the existence of my hometown but, I guess, more people will know now.
Before this happened, my hometown was featured in around zero movies and TV series, so you can imagine the excitement of people living there. Of course, it wasn’t as exciting as the opening of a new supermarket down the street — but still reasonably pleasant.
Some local fellows even joined the cast as extras to film the scenes at the station — a fortunate developemnt as it slightly decreased the unemployment rate in the town for a couple of days. Thank you, HBO.
I was obviosuly intriguied by the show as wel — but also slightly wary of it. I’ve seen too many caricature depictions of anything related to the Soviet Union by the Western cinematographers — enough to surrender my confidence in their capacity to produce a sensible product of that kind.
So let’s say I was hopeful but apprehensive.
Now — one year later — I just finished watching the last episode of “Chernobyl”, and my apprehension was, indeed, wrong and ungrounded.
Watching “Chernobyl” was as distressing and heart-wrenching experience as I wanted it to be; and in virtue of that it was also exceptionally pleasing. The show felt too real for a television drama— and it raised many valid questions about the accident that were kept untouched before.
I wondered why no one told me before of the reasons behind the disaster in Chernobyl and the lessons that must be learned from it.
I wondered why a boy born and raised in Visaginas — the town hosting the very same RBMK reactor as in Chernobyl — knew virtually nothing about its dangers.
That’s somwhat alarming.
Shouldn’t kids be taught this at schools?
Well, I don’t expect to receive any answers anyway. That’s why I felt the urge to give my answers.
There are two questions of primary importance for me — and this article is, perhaps, the best way to reflect on them and transalate my thoughts into words.
So let’s start with the question number uno.
Number One: Oh My God, the state can be grossly negligent?
The Chernobyl accident was, indeed, a combination of many factors — and the state’s negligence was, perhaps, the decisive one.
Yes — that’s right — the state can be negligent. Even a democratic state can be extremely negligent. But the Soviet Union wasn’t a democratic state — it was the state comprising of one communist party. And this communist party failed to establish an adequate system of check and balances.
Instead of constraining and limiting the state’s power, party’s officials fully embraced it and left the nation sink under the heavy weight of the bureaucratic chains, interpersonal servility and blind pilgrimage towards the unattainable ideal of communism.
It’s striking how the communication between various actors involved in the accident was underpinned by the complete lack of accountability.
I’m not talking about the people who made everything possible to minimise the impact of the disaster after the explosion happened; my anger goes to those in the position of power who disregarded the safety and wellbeing of ordinary people for the very petty considerations.
Where did the moral compass of state officials lie when they intentionally built defective nuclear power plant stations across the country just because it was — well — cheaper?
Clearly not in the right place.
Well, at least those stations were amongst the most powerful in the world!
Not very safe, but very, very powerful!
I shall briefly outline a few technical details for those of you who haven’t watched the series or haven’t read anything about the accident.
- Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant station consists of four RMBK-1000 reactors.
- Before the explosion happened, the team of engineers was running a safety test to ensure the reactors are ready to withstand a dangerously low-state of power.
- Many many mistakes were made during the test.
- At around 1:23:40 a.m. Alexander Akimov, the supervisor of the shift, released the control rods by pressing the emergency stop button.
- Those rods should have decreased reactivity in the reactor and stabilised it.
- Instead, they spiked the reactivity levels up and caused the explosion.
You might ask why someone would build such a problematic and hazardous system?
It was built this way because it was cheaper to do so.
The state officials knew about the defects years before the accident happened but felt no need to inform engineers working on the stations about this nuisance.
They exposed the dangers they were exposing the people of the Soviet Union to — but in the system where the state is above everything, individual life is not high up on the list of priorities.
That’s the ugly truth that HBO’s “Chernobyl” portrays with respectable sobriety and verity.
And that’s the first lesson we shall learn from Chernobyl.
- The state comprises of people who are thirsty for power and authority.
- Such people care a lot about their own lives and little about the wellbeing of other people.
- The role of the state should be minimised and its actions supervised by various socio-political and civilian institutions to avoid decisions detrimental to the people.
Moving on. Question number dos.
Number Two: Okay, the state is nasty — but what about individual accountability?
I hope we agree that the state was negligent; but so were some of the individuals involved in the accident.
You might ask “why?”.
“Why should we make people, who are stuck in the wheels of the corrupted political system, responsible for its hazards.”
One cannot merely transfer the blame on the state and get away with it — cause every one of us is the state.
Corruptive orders do not happen overnight — they are being built steadily every time we stay indifferent, agree with injustice and refuse to assume our responsibilities.
We turn a blind eye on what is happening around us and then, suddenly, find ourselves trapped in the midst of chaos.
In this case, the blame is on us to bear.
This happened to the engineers at the station.
Yes, they didn’t know about the fatal defect of the reactor, but they were responsible for not taking appropriate steps to avoid the hazardous situation entirely.
They were responsible for blindly following the manual guide with crossed out instructions(which might look like an invention of the director’s imagination, but it was not).
They were responsible for putting the security of their jobs before the safety of people around them.
It’s genuinely painful for me to write this — and I don’t know how I would have acted in such circumstances — but not acknowledging the wrongs of it would be even worse than risking fueling anger of some people.
And here comes the second lesson of Chernobyl.
- The state is the reflection of our society.
- By being indifferent to the wrongs happening around us we contribute to the emergence of corrupted system
- Someone will have to pay — and that payer might as well be you.
Time for the dramatic conclusion.
HBO’s “Chernobyl” came out at the very right moment in our lifetime.
We are about to face some uneasy question on how to deal with the harsh consequences coming from the years of ubiquitous overconsumption and over-obsession with all the wrong things that won’t matter at the end.
But we still have time left.
We can still assume our responsibilities and reverse the damage we’ve already inflicted.