I remember when the Chernobyl disaster happened; I was 26. It occurred in those days of yore before the internet gave us endless real-time footage from smartphones on social media, inside information on news sites, and ten thousand tweets demanding the truth. I probably saw the official account on breakfast TV, and read about it in the newspaper.
That year, along with 1985 and 1987, many calamities took place around the world; the Heysel Stadium disaster, the Kings Cross Fire, the Bradford City Stadium Fire, the Mexico City Earthquake, to name just four. I believe 1985 was the worst year ever for disasters, worldwide, and this seemed like just another one to add to the list. The world was a bigger place, thirty-three years ago—however catastrophic a calamity, it doesn't hit you in the face so much when it takes place thousands of miles away.
Especially when there is no internet to tell you how bad it really is, and when the true horror is covered up by politicians.
Some of my friends used to go down to protest at Greenham Common, and yes, of course, we all knew that nuclear anything was some seriously dangerous shit, but ... Chernobyl was in the Ukraine, and where the hell was that? Ah, in the USSR, a cold and strange place, about which the average person knew so much less than we do now, since its collapse.
This five part HBO series has certainly brought it home. Here's the trailer:
I love watching dark stuff. I loved the 1970s and 80s disaster movies, I can't get enough end-of-world scenarios, and I've watched my share of dramatisations of real life catastrophes, too. But I don't think I've been so shocked by anything since watching Threads in 1984—and that hadn't even happened.
All those poor souls who died in such agony (and I warn you, this dramatisation leaves nothing to the imagination), the residents of Pripyat who gaily went to watch the fire on the 'Bridge of Death', not knowing that they were signing away their lives for a look at some pretty colours in the sky. The technicians who were sent to investigate whether or not the core really had disappeared, even though this meant certain death for them. The firemen given no information about what close proximity to radiation would mean, the civilians conscripted to build around the exclusion zone.
And then there were the heroes: those who cleared the top roof ('the most dangerous place on the planet'), the three who went into the bubble tunnel, and the coal miners who dug for a month beneath the reactor to stop the meltdown; by that time, these men knew the risks to themselves, but went ahead for the greater good.
I wondered if this selflessness showed the best of the basic essence of the Russian character—tough people who experienced more hardship than most of us in the West could understand. Maybe the tougher your life, the more philosophical a relationship you have with death, I don't know.
Aside from the expected emotions that evidence of such horrific suffering brings about, be prepared to feel open-mouthed, appalled anger about the careless use of ill-prepared technicians to run the test that caused the chain reaction. About the evil of those who tried to cover up the full extent of the catastrophe. The blatant lies about the levels of radiation. The initial refusal to evacuate. Career politicians who cared more about the image of Russia in the eyes of the rest of the world, and their own people's belief in the strength of their leadership, than the deaths of many thousands, immediately or in years to come.
'Cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation'
It was only when scientist Valery Legasov, played so outstandingly by Jared Harris, made them realise that the food and water of a whole nation and beyond would be rendered poisonous for hundreds or possibly thousands of years to come, that they began to accept the truth.
'You are dealing with something that has never occurred on this planet before'
I felt as though I was watching something truly evil. I have no belief in any Christian concept of God and Satan, but this programme made me feel smothered in darkness, like I was watching a bibical depiction of Hell, with nuclear power itself the devil's work.
Suffice to say that the series is brilliant, a 5 stars plus plus plus. Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård were utterly compelling, as were Emily Watson, who played a fictional character representative of many scientists who helped Legasov uncover the truth, Robert Emms as Leonid Toptunov, the poor lad with only 4 months' experience who was on duty on that terrible night, and Paul Ritter as Anatoly Dyatlov, who allowed the fatal test to go ahead. But most shocking of all is the reveal that shows how the part he played wasn't even the true crime.
'Why You Should Watch HBO's Chernobyl'
HBO's Chernobyl vs Reality: Footage Comparison
Not a series for the faint-hearted, and it will stay with you for a long time.....
For some more thoughts, read This Post on Dora Reads book blog :)