In our childhood, Russian Fairy Tales or “Rushdesher Upokotha” was fairly popular in Bengal. I loved reading those short stories. There used to be a moral lesson at the end of those stories. “Chernobyl”, a tv-series by HBO, is not a fable but a harsh reality which seemed to make us confront the morality of truth and lie. More precisely, it questions a government’s truthfulness and moral responsibilities to its citizens.
“Chernobyl” shows a sequence of events in the disastrous accident in the nuclear plant at Chernobyl, located in former USSR, currently in Ukraine. It dramatizes the account of the event for theatrical presentation, but also does not fall short of scientific detailing. It eventually becomes a pretty grueling experience of five episodes in the tv-series.
A recurrent theme in Chernobyl was the Soviet government’s lies that led to the disaster. One main reason behind the lies was the huge pressure on the lower level officials to show progress in their jobs in front of the higher authorities. Soviet Russia (USSR) had a pretty bureaucratic, vertical hierarchical administrative system, just like it still exists in every other part of the world. The vertical hierarchy does not distribute the power of administration well among its officials. It creates enormous pressure in a chain of hierarchical levels. It also creates an unhealthy reward system. For example, Dyatlov, a chief-engineer at Chernobyl, had to conduct a nuclear test, that eventually led to the disaster, just to get his promotion. “Chernobyl” rightfully points out such problematic issues in our current bureaucratic system.
Rather, a flat hierarchy with more distributed ownership of work makes everyone more responsible. In such a system, the objective of a project becomes more important, rather than individual rewards. We can still have seniority and expertise but a more democratic administrative mechanism. For example, the professors in academic departments have more distributed and democratic composition, rather than hierarchical one. The responsibilities are distinguished but the power is democratized. It avoids a single point of failure, as it happened in Chernobyl. Having said that, there is an ongoing assault on the democratic fabric that existed in academia until recently.
Historical Context of Soviet “Lies”
The other main reason behind the Soviet government’s denial of truth was fear. If you notice carefully, everyone in the administrative hierarchy was afraid of attack by some foreign bodies, especially the USA. The fear was not just by the higher officials, but also by the lower level workers. Most of them were also shameful to ask for global help because they had to portray themselves “strong”. All of these attitudes need to be seen with historical context.
We need to remember that USSR was formed by bringing down the cruel, monarchical Russian Czar empire. Until then, it was a fairly agro-based country before becoming industrialized just in a few decades. Soon after, USSR had to suffer the heaviest blows of Hitler and also World War II (WW2). In such an adverse historical pretext, USSR entered into Cold War with USA, ironically one of its allies in WW2.
As USA was largely unaffected by WW2, it started the diplomatic war from an advantageous position. In addition, USA gained a huge scientific upper hand, as many European Jew scientists fled to the other end of the Atlantic to save themselves from Hitler. In the other end, USSR with its abysmal condition after WW2, continued an unreasonable competition for decades. From such perspective, USSR really achieved a lot in that competition with respect to space technology and industrial output. They sent the first satellite to space, first animal, first man, first woman, etc. However, they could not beat USA’s historical benefits. USA’s economy was being strongly built because of the research and innovations by the large number of newly arrived scientists.
As USSR was falling behind, they tried to keep the costs of industrial productions down. It was also one of the reasons of the Chernobyl disaster, if you remember. Fear of the unknown, unreasonable pressure, lower funding cannot enable quality research. Eventually, Chernobyl marked the ending of the Cold War after which USSR disintegrated. In any way, an undemocratic administrative system with socialistic principles cannot survive as USSR also was not able to. However, USSR showed us a great potential. It can also be claimed that even Chernobyl, in spite of being a dystopian show, does bring out some bright optimism.
I was attracted most by “Chernobyl”’s positiveness which trumps the pessimism that prevails most of the show. In the awake of such an unprecedented disaster, we could see that people from all walks of life came out for help. General public came to rescue even though they were not responsible for the accident. This attitude upholds the hypothesis that we can also bear the losses together in a society, if we can enjoy the profits together. The morality in USSR helped itself get out of such a catastrophe. This is where Chernobyl shines.
Accident vs. Crime
Chernobyl happened because of an accident. Dyatlov thought that there was a safety button which could hold the ongoing test. Although he had made his part of mistakes, but the disaster happened by accident not by someone’s intention. According to show “Chernobyl” (which is made by Americans), the nuclear accident had “four times power compared to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs”. However, Soviet people were still able to restrain the effect of the disaster to a great extent. It was catastrophic but they were able to hold it off. They were only able to do that when all of them worked together towards a common goal.
Chernobyl’s reality and its minimal effect in today’s world put a relevant question in front of us about our current situation. And this concerns the current catastrophe that we are facing: the climate change. It is not an accident this time, because we all know what we are doing. The facts are in front of us. We are still progressing increasingly faster to the total extinction of human civilization on earth. Large industries, the owners of huge corporate companies, the economic and political system - all of them are knowingly moving towards the climate catastrophe for at least the past three decades. It is a crime against humanity, not an accident. Are we going to hold it off this time? or will we be in denial of truth? The Soviet people were able to resist a global disaster, will we be able to?