Between capitalism and communism: Chernobyl, the series

Communism, in a way, functions like radiation – that could be the conclusion of Chernobyl. But, instead of eating away the very texture of capitalism, it seems to have produced its own demise, in Cernobyl. Like the „fully enlightened“ world – to paraphrase the opening of the Dialectic of Enlightenment – it is communism, which radiates disaster triumphant.


One would find it superfluous to waste words of praise to Chernobyl: it had reached an unprecedented rating among almost all internet rating portals (ImDB score of 9.6, 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, etc); and it is commonly referred to as the “highest rated TV series of all time“. It also managed to produce (not surprisingly) a vast amount of political reviews, even wildly opposing at times: Chernobyl is cheered for its homage to the victims of radiation, for allegedly denouncing nuclear energy; it is simultaneously hailed as portraying worker’s heroism against a sclerotic system, and thus labeled as a critique of Stalinism and, at once, as anti-socialist – the Russian Communist Party (still in existence) is reportedly seeking a lawsuit against Craig Mazin, the series creator, while  Russian officials were rumored to plan their own version of Chernobyl with a CIA agent implicated in the disaster. Yet, what is there about it, that managed to cause such opposing reviews? The answer itself, as we will see, is a political question. For, it lays not in either one of the descriptions above – it is, of course, not reducible to them – but in the way it managed to address the points of contention – sciences and ecology, censorship and truth (both intersecting in the problems of global warming vs those who deny it), a repressive government (Trump) and an entire economic system that’s about to collapse. The looming threat that binds them mimics the social and political distinctions inherent in the changing, objective context of our time.

Why Chernobyl?

Yet, it is by no means clear why a story of an accident within a distant nuclear reactor reflects so much of its present reality. Thus, a very simple question deserves to be posed: namely, why Chernobyl and why now, or, why Chernobyl at all? As Stephen King recently tweeted, “It’s impossible to watch HBO’s CHERNOBYL without thinking of Donald Trump; like those in charge of the doomed Russian reactor, he’s a man of mediocre intelligence in charge of great power–economic, global–that he does not understand.”. There is more than a grain of truth in such a tweet: as the series’ script-writer, Craig Mazin, put it, the entire odyssey began with a “global war on truth”. For all of its history and drama, the series is anything but historical.

This same trope gets repeated throughout Mazin’s statements, and, yet, among the many topics an established writer could have chosen, it is not clear what was the reason which led Chernobyl chosen to be made, in Mazin’s view? So, why choose Chernobyl, and not something else? The description Mazin gives are oftentimes accidental as the accident he portrays: he was reading something on Chernobyl, it came up as an idea, etc. But one does not choose to make one of the highest rated series of all time by sheer accident. Another reason is always there: when asked “Does Chernobyl illustrate an unfortunate universal truth that no one ever wants to listen to the person who knows what’s really happening?” in an interview, Mazin replied: “Yes. And we see that more and more now which is why I thought it was so important to tell this story now. We are struggling with the global war on the truth. And if what we used to think of as the domain of the Soviets, the kind of celebration of lies and press as propaganda, that now we realize is not something that is unique to the Soviet state. It’s within ourselves as well here in the West. And it’s here.“. Thus, the internal dangers facing the „here in the West“, are retrojected on to the Great (non-American) Outside. Yet, there is something peculiar in taking the Soviets as the starting point, that is, the Soviets as progenitors of the “global war on truth. Namely, while Mazin continuously mentions the Soviets, even throughout the series (he had made similar comments in the short interviews after every episode), this particular answer addresses the very starting point of the series, and itself also proves a good starting point for our analysis.


HBO and totalitarianism on screen

Recently, the series’ reviewers have been obsessed with either inaccuracies within the series, or its imagined up characters (such as Khomyk herself), competing over spotting ahistorical blunders in the otherwise historical storyline. The series has been criticized for fitting Chernobyl in a Westernized narrative (including characters such as the old man from the first episode, who pushes through the “official Soviet stance” vs the Khomyk, the “whistleblower” scientists who, along with Legasov, “discovers” Soviet Russia’s darkest secrets…). Curiously, it’s not only the reviews, but even the survivors of the actual Chernobyl disaster, have commented themselves upon the issue: “There are many stereotypes shown, typical of Western portrayal of the Soviet Union,” argues Oleksiy Breus. “A big cup, vodka, KGB everywhere.”.

But, as fun as „spotting inaccuracies“ may be, it is not these that plague the series, but rather the problems that arise out of the very strategy of the series itself.  Namely, the idea of criticizing „folks at home“ by comparison with the Soviet Union – which Mazin repeatedly asserted – implicitly presuposses a rather naive time when truth was free and science reigned unabashed at home – unlike socialist Russia. Yet, although Chernobyl does takes its starting point to be precisely the second, McCarthyite, “red scare” that what was fed to the American public during the times when even Hollywood itself was combed for communists (by the “House Committee on Un-American Activities”), it would be wrong to criticize it on these historical grounds.

For, what it actually does is something rather more unique, and new: namely, this same idea of criticizing the „global“ war on truth (allegedly witnessed for the first time within the US itself), in Mazins’ narrative, of course, invites a comparison with something that has to be external, rather then internal to the system –  something more evil, more sinister and even more threatening than whatever lurked beneath the „good old days“, that is, from within the American dream. And, since the „good old days“ are its starting point, the series has to implicitly re-visit the old totalitarian strategy of equating Soviet Russia – but this time it’s not German fascism or any other regime of the past, with which it is equated. On the contrary, it is equated with our own contemporary reality – just as the word „totalitarianism“ was original used in its immediate sense.

An ideology

This is also why criticizing the series from a comparative point of view (by, for example, stating that the US also had Pannama bay, and it’s own covered-up nuclear disasters) – simply misses the point. The accident in HBO’s Chernobyl – as we shall see – is not accidental at all. First, notice how the series ends in giving the viewers two options: Legasov can choose to either tell the jury that it was human error, or, as he did, to “expose” the Soviet “system”. The ideological core of the series is in the fact that Legasov’s choice is, allegedly, free. Namely, very intentionally, the series’ own designers never make a definite choice themselves, but allow Legasov to „freely“ make a choice himself – the choice of whether to be part of the system which produced both the reactor and the accident or not. And, when he chooses not to, the trial turns into a trial against Legasov himself, that is, into a trial between the individual and the state, as if they are opposed. Thus, ultimately, the guilt is transferred to the system in both options equally. Namely, whatever Legasov choses, his choice is irrelevant: by blaming the fault on human error, he would, in the viewers eyes, just be a part of the system of lies and deceit. By blaming the fault on the reactors designers, he would still uncover the system, but suffer himself. In both cases socialism loses, destroyed by its very products – people and machines, creating its own demise from within, via an accident that was everything but an accident, and in through it, the system cannot stand itself no more. In this sense, the faulty reactor is an addition to the ideology of the series, and not the other way around. It’s not a faulty reactor, but a system that produced the illusion that it would function. The entire system culminates in a disaster. This is why the accident of Chernobyl (the reactor) in Chernobyl (the series) – was never an accident at all. On the contrary, it follows from the system. And the choice of whether to expose it – is always conditioned: there is either truth or socialism, and one cannot have them at the same time, there is no truth in socialism – that was is the starting point of Mazin’s Chernobyl. Most interestingly, this two-fold schema is confirmed by the two-fold reaction of the audience: namely, either 1) anxious attempts to concretize the abstract fear of a perfectly “unnatural” abstraction – radiation – which can be exposed by the ubiquitously present “human error” (surge in googling radiation and amateur research into the architecture of RBMK reactors, the physics behind them, etc.), or 2) aesthetization of Chernobyl itself (“morbid tourism”, travelling to Pripyat, going into the exclusion zone and even taking nude photos outside of Chernobyl), as a form of reverence for the place of the crime, the (quite literal) ground zero. In both, the accident is raised to the level of necessity – and the abstract fear of the inevitable drives both the search for its concretizations (the literal „search“ for the concrete manifestations of radiation in one’s neighborhood) and aesthetically revered (on Instagram, Youtube, Prypat expeditions, and so on).


A necessary fear

Yet, if ideology was all that Chernobyl (the series) was, it would never have worked. There is a second important novelty, and that is how it delivers its content. Here, it is not to hard to spot that the main emotion of the series is fear. Yet, it is not the usual and concrete „fear“ itself (fear that is present here and now), but an abstract fear or anxiety, that lay behind the series diagnosis of a „global war on truth“. This is a consequence of the series main actor, and it is not Legasov, as one might suppose. Some revierews have come close to such naming this character, but only misread it as the „fear present at every level of the Soviet system“). Moreover, even the Mazin, the series’ own creator speaks of Legasov and Chomyuk as the main characters, a man-and-woman team (although one could also interpret the relation with Scherbina and Legasov as the main duo, with the woman-scientist excluded – and constantly fighting for her rightful place). But, as we have stated, the main character is neither Legasov nor Khomyk. On the contrary, that the main character is, in fact, not a character at all – and here is the uniqueness of the series. For, it’s not even represented: radiation, a pure abstraction, concretized only through its unexpected manifestations is both the object of the series, and the prime mover within the series, trough which the series objectively delivers its own ideological content. For it is only through its manifestations that do we get to know the real character – radiation, the engine behind the production of human suffering, and the slow, invisible changing of the environment, the „Umwelt“, as its texture beings to change when the main character begins to produce its spectral effects.

It is this constant anxiety that truly produces the emotion of the series. And, this emotion is constant for the series core is precisely not an accident – but a necessary accident, and it is constantly followed by a necessary fear. This is both why and what it delivers.  How deep this narrative goes is shown through the architecture of the series: first, it is an interesting fact that Chernobyl is not a “series”, at all. It is divided into 5 hour-long episodes, but, Chernobyl, in fact, was shot as a one long film, according to the director Johan Renck, and “chopped” only afterwards in post-production. Thus, a great continuity of emotion and narrative do actually keep the audience in a sort of constant anxiety that necessarily follows from the series’ obsession with an accident that was never one.

Anti-communism: venerating a failed alternative?

Interestingly enough, Mazin’s intentions repeat Gorbhacov’s own fears of the disaster being used for ideological purposes, almost to the word, (192). Namely, in his autobiography, Gorbachev himself feared that the Western media were „less interested in the tragedy itself then in using it to discredit our new policy.”. While Gorbachev is quoted to confirm the starting (and the end) point of the series, Mazin almost confirms Gorbachev’s own worst fears, in a later interview, with a sentence identical to the one juts quoted: “my interest in Chernobyl was less an obsession with a disaster or the grim details of its impact on humans and the environment. What was attracting me and driving me was this comment about the cost of lies and how our disconnection from truth is incredibly dangerous. And that is the lesson I hope people come away with when they see Chernobyl, that there is a cost to ignoring the truth.” As we have seen, the starting point of the series – remember that, in the series, the accident is briefly, even naively, represented in the engulfing flames: while the series is devoted to its grounding in a system that produced it, it is visualized only in the first episode, simply and shortly – it happened. But, if it is true that the series’ keeps the audience in a sort of anxious expectation of the worst – precisely an expectation that evicts a contemporary fear of the „global war on truth“ – and if this „worst“, of which we must be constantly held in aw, an accident that is not an accident but necessarily follows from the nature of the system, than that system is, even emotionally, the true bearer of fear, and its source. For, both the beginning and the end of the series are sedated with anti-communism, from the man shouting in the room to seal off the city, preaching how he “knows this thing from the early days”; to repeated tropes like “our power comes from the reception of our power” (through the mouth of Gorbachov) or “lies are what define us” (Legasov, at the end). According to some left-wing reviews, it is “dead Stalinism” that is condemned in the series. But, the series never makes such a distinction. Rather – as the series script-makers repeatedly state – it was done as a criticism of the Bolshevik revolution, in whose “spirit” they see Chernobyl happening, and then finally leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union (quoting Gorbachov’s memoirs at the end, but also repeatedly mentioning this fact throughout their interviews). Thus, Stalinism was never singled out apart from any other form of socialism, either by the writer or the producer (and it is curious to wonder why HBO would suddenly spend huge amounts of money on making a series criticizing Stalinism – that’s anyone’s guess. It can’t be HBO’s anti-Stalinism because, to quote Dyatlov – “it’s not there!”.)

The unnamed opponent

What most reviews miss is an interesting omission. Namely, for all its history, in choosing Chernobyl as its starting point, the series designers actually repeat what was on the other side of the Atlantic when it happened at the time (because it omits it, it could never have critically engaged with it, it’s its blind spot). For, if the Chernobyl actually did contribute to the fall of the USSR – then it might as well be interesting to look who’s on the other side of the equation – Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the faces of neoliberalism. What is truly the interesting connection with Chernobyl (the series) is its relation neoliberalism (the historical reality): namely, in the idea that „there is no alternative“, as proclaimed by what the late Elmar Altvater termed the neoliberal counter-revolution in economics –anti-Keynesian as it was, and without a positive doctrine of its own (on which Philip Mirowski would later write that was its successful characteristic – that it did not have its “Bible”, like Marxism). This was a counter-revolution which would later become globalized only after the breakup of the USSR and the Eastern bloc; and if Chernobly was the cause of its collapse, it also helped usher in its neoliberal opponents.

Yet, it is precisely this that remains unnamed in the series: it blames everything apart from capitalism for the global war on truth. Thus, it is no wonder that Mazin chooses to begin with Soviets in order to end up with Trump – there is a great gap in-between that is never addressed.

The counter-revolution will be televised

Yet, in applying an old totalitarian approach of equating regimes in a new form – scapegoating Soviets as a pretext for criticizing the present – Chernobyl is not alone. It is precisely this that re-connects it with contemporary cinema. Namely, a trend of anti-socialist movies appears across the board, to those who are willing to search: „Trotsky“, „The Death of Stalin“, „Comrade Detective“ and „Chernobyl“, all share an inherent trait that has to do with how communism is portrayed today. And the way communism is portrayed today – the purposes of its preventive countering through aesthetics – was actually enabled by its historical defeat: the keyword here is the „anno mirabilis“ of 1989. While American television has surely produced anti-communist films in the past, it is interesting to observe that Hollywood switched from parodying Soviet propaganda (for example, in Rocky IV, or in the Red Dawn), to imposing an interpretation of communism from the vantage point of its victors. Namely, as the Romanian film-critic Lucian Tion put it: „not only hasn’t Hollywood changed its approach toward the former Red Other, but, because of a different type of excess—this time resulting from its own ideological victory over Communism—the West practically increased rather than relented its condemnation, veering from a subtle form of polysemic satire, I argue, such as that used in the Western films of the 50s and 60s,  to the imposed reading of a monosemic interpretation of the East’s past“. That same trait is what we find in Chernobyl, and the above-mentioned cinema production. In a nuttshel, one can trace a shift from parodying Soviet propaganda to a monopoly over the interpretation of communism after its defeat to Mazin’s Chernobyl – a preventive counter-revolution in cinema.

The unnamed alternative

The gist of the series – and it’s success – is that it diagnoses everything right. That, at least, must be attributed to its success. For, the same problems within the series’ are mirrored today: it juxtaposes the historical demise of communism to the demise of our present times; its juxtaposes the problems of society and its economic architecture, its energy with its environment; it juxtaposes the science of a society with its censorship – opening topics of relevance to the moment in which it was created. In that sense the authors have reached their intentions fully. Yet, it is only on one point that the series differs from what its designers purport to do: it does not and cannot reflect the increasingly socialist resistance, (especially within the USA in the wake of Sanders), and otherwise completely negates socialism as the alternative to what it terms the „global war on truth“ (allegedly detached from the contemporary economic system). This is a „blind spot“ of the series, and one which makes it into a symptom of its age: the prevention of any economic alternative.

Strangely enough, the series’ ends in a Fukuyamian note: there is no history outside of it, only failed attempts at individual liberty in the demise of Legasov. This is why it belongs to the preventive counter-revolution in the Western cinema: there is no alternative, and that you have never seen it (because, allegedly, it’s not there! – to quote Dyatlov again). In a „global war on truth“, it is not a coincidence that the series reduces it to a lie: by going at lengths to defy it, the very existence of the series cannot but belong to it, and by putting socialism as its starting point, it necessarily negates a present alternative. Chernobyl, to use an oft-quoted pun by Marx, is truly an example of how a tragedy became a farce. „How did socialism become radioactive?“, as one reviewer asked. Yet, ultimately, one might respond by saying vice versa. For, by going at lengths to deny an alternative, the series is ultimately a litmus test for an alternative that must come from outside of the present system.

For, is it not the precisely same strategy that once led aspiring communists movements to brand themselves precisely as something that did not come as naturally from its environment, similarly to the main character of Chernobyl – radiation – but, on the contrary, out of the reality of the present order, namely, in the form of a haunting spectre?


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