Chernobyl: Vichnaya Pamyat
June 3, 2019 8:41 PM - Season 1, Episode 5 - Subscribe


Some of the best TV ever made.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:44 PM on June 3, 2019 [12 favorites]

Wow, they really set the bar high on this one. Absolutely phenomenal.
posted by Sphinx at 10:22 PM on June 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

I had read up on how Chernobyl went years before, and when I started watching the show I did again. So I was really impressed with the flashbacks and the trial in this episode and how they walked us through the various mistakes, and the reasons people were making them, leading up to the explosion. That was very well presented.
posted by traveler_ at 10:34 PM on June 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

This entire thing was amazing. I don't really know what else to say. Just top quality from start to finish.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:27 AM on June 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

I watched this episode and then immediately rewatched it. Such good television.

The scene with Legasov and the KGB office had strong 1984 vibes. I liked/hated how he brought up Legasov''s Antisemitism (preventing Jewish scientists from advancing). You can't be part of the system without being part of the horror. No one gets out clean. Legasov seemed very ashamed, which was I'm sure, 100% the point.

The opening scene really twisted the knife. Life in Pripyat seemed so lovely. Lyudmilla watching her husband hold their friend's baby with that little secret smile made me cry.

I felt so bad for Akimov and Toptunov. They tried to do a good job, but everything was stacked against them.

Please give all these actors all the awards. I'd love to see this show win a SAG award for the entire cast because I love them all so much.
posted by Aquifer at 6:50 AM on June 4, 2019 [17 favorites]

Did Legasov actually give testimony like that at the trial?
posted by Automocar at 7:32 AM on June 4, 2019

Nope. Listen to the podcast--Craig Mazin explains whats accurate/whats not, and why.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:35 AM on June 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

The answer to that is given in the excellent podcast.
posted by Molesome at 7:36 AM on June 4, 2019

If you don't have time for the podcast (which is excellent), he did not. Neither he nor Scherbina attended the trial, which lasted weeks and was apparently super boring. Other scientists gave testimony and it was a dramatic choice to have Legasov do it at the trial. My understanding is that the information he gave came out not at the trial, but through the tapes he made?
posted by Aquifer at 7:43 AM on June 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

Yeah the trial speech by Legasov was also symbolic of Legosov's general efforts to get the truth out, not just via the tapes. Or thats my interpretation.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:02 AM on June 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I hope they walk away with wheelbarrows full of Emmys. Amazing television.
posted by orrnyereg at 8:29 AM on June 4, 2019

The wobbly tracking shot that stays on Legasov as he rises to testify is masterful. Not attention-grabbing, but nevertheless extremely effective at conveying the universe warping around you as you step into a dangerous situation.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:32 AM on June 4, 2019 [13 favorites]

"Every bit of clothing, suits that we made for Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård, were made from bolts of cloth that were taken from the ’80s. They were vintage cloth from Soviet 1985."

That's fucking nuts.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:54 AM on June 4, 2019 [23 favorites]

The soundtrack is now on Spotify and other flavours of music service.
posted by ewan at 9:03 AM on June 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

My understanding is that the information he gave came out not at the trial, but through the tapes he made?

Per the podcast, Legasov had begun to try to speak with his scientific colleagues in the USSR about the problems with RBMK reactors had was basically blackballed for it. He did not communicate this information outside the Soviet Union (i.e., at Vienna it went down as portrayed in the show, he did not come clean to the international community), but when he got back home he began to speak out to other nuclear engineers and physicists. He suffered professionally and personally from the blowback. When he committed suicide and left the tapes, people began to actually pay attention for real because the fact that he killed himself (2 years to the day after the accident) basically made people finally be like, "Whoa, okay, I guess he was serious about this." If he had just circulated the tapes but not killed himself, it's likely he would have continued to be ignored and scorned.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:53 AM on June 4, 2019 [9 favorites]

It's very seldom when people can, must, defend all of us, but to their own detriment.I feel such utter awe for their selfless heroïsm.
It falls to us, the survivors, to honour their commitment to the general good. To take care of them and their descendants.

posted by jouke at 10:04 AM on June 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

Listening to the podcast underscores my feelings about how this series is both an indictment of the Soviet government and a celebration of collectivist mentality. Something like this likely wouldn't have happened in the West. Also likely wouldn't have been fixed with a massive outpouring of self-sacrifice in the West.

Anyone else rewatch the first episode (I recommend doing so) and have their opinion of Dyatlov just keep sinking?
posted by supercres at 10:24 AM on June 4, 2019 [5 favorites]

"Something like this likely wouldn't have happened in the West."

STS 51-L.

Challenger might not have had as much of an environmental impact, but in terms of management practices, groupthink, pressure on individuals, willful ignorance... same as it ever was.
posted by ewan at 10:26 AM on June 4, 2019 [22 favorites]

Hm, point taken. And without the coverup which Mazin certainly takes issue with. I think this was linked in a prior Fanfare and seems relevant.

I might have to do a rewatch and relisten at some point. Mazin's stated neutrality and adherence to history doesn't always seem quite in good faith.
posted by supercres at 10:44 AM on June 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

Mazin's stated neutrality and adherence to history doesn't always seem quite in good faith.

Really? How so?
posted by orrnyereg at 10:55 AM on June 4, 2019

From that article:

But if we're going to be sticklers about truth, the real Legasov was a zealous party man, and he was likely chosen for his job — like Stellan Skarsgård's Boris Shcherbina — because of his lifelong reputation as a dutiful servant of the Communist party.

This is conveyed in the show.

That article is, to put it mildly, tendentious.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:37 AM on June 4, 2019 [9 favorites]

That article is, to put it mildly, tendentious.

Thank you for putting into such few words the whole rant I typed but decided to delete. I'm especially perplexed at how he faults the show for somehow not including the story of the Three Mile Island accident. (I guess "War and Peace" must also be flawed because it doesn't include the invasions of Genghis Khan?) And how he thinks the show is saying the governmental cover-up was purely a Soviet problem. I actually wondered if the writer had any idea how fiction works - author tells story, viewer/reader identifies aspects of it in places of real life.
posted by dnash at 11:48 AM on June 4, 2019 [9 favorites]

Virtually every article I have seen taking Mazin to task for historical accuracy is a bunch of "Well, actually..." bullshit written by people willfully ignoring how dramatic adaptations of historical events work. Yes, some things were left out. Yes, some characters were condensed/invented.

The truth of the thing is still there in spades. That is what matters.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:21 PM on June 4, 2019 [12 favorites]

I noped out of that article when the first issue was "Legasov never uttered these exact words."

At no point was I under the impression that I was watching a word for word documentary. The value of the podcast for me has actually been in letting me know about all the stuff that really was done word for word or with extreme fidelity to primary sources, because my assumption going into a TV show is that I am not watching CCTV footage of reality.
posted by soren_lorensen at 2:28 PM on June 4, 2019 [6 favorites]


The scenes leading up to and including the actual explosion were quite tense. I liked the series structure of leaving the actual explosion shots til the final episode - as I recall, we only saw it from afar in ep 1, never actually the big boom.

The footnote at the end where they said everyone who'd stood on that bridge died.... I wept.
posted by dnash at 2:29 PM on June 4, 2019 [7 favorites]

Inspired by the show, which I've enjoyed, I started reading Midnight in Chernobyl. Summarizing from memory, one thing which is omitted from the show, related to the cover-up aspect, is that a lot of the early reactor development was done by the Ministry of Medium Machine Building. A lovely name for the Soviet nuclear weapons program. This was part of what drove a massive culture of secrecy around reactors. The people involved in doing this were also Heroes of Soviet Science who could Do No Wrong (tm), had a lot of power and didn't want to be embarrassed by their failures coming out.

There was a big Politburo meeting and a report written to it about the disaster. It did include, frankly, the problems with the reactor design. It caused a massive internal struggle between the nuclear weapons department, who wanted to keep those secret, and the department of energy which ran the reactors and wanted to fix them desperately. Ultimately the reactors were fixed, but the part of the report about reactor problems wasn't released.

I think in general one of the big sleight of hands of the show is reducing the organisational/sociological/political to the individual, as with the invention of the character Ulana Khomyuk. I think there's an argument that it's necessary for a TV miniseries. But I think it's a really interesting area to think about with how truth intersects with storytelling, which is in some way a big theme of the series.

I personally think there are problems raised, in the general culture not just with this series, in presenting science as a heroic individual effort to uncover the truth as if it were a murder mystery, rather than a collective dialogue about scraping together a workable model aware of its flaws and limitations.
posted by Erberus at 2:42 PM on June 4, 2019 [11 favorites]

Here’s Slava Malamud’s thread of observations on the final episode.
posted by rewil at 3:34 PM on June 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

Interesting that Slaval Malamud talks about sunflower seeds as a smoking cessation device with a screen cap of Yuvchenko eating them in his office before the explosion, with the shells in his ashtray. In the first episode, he's the one that holds the door open and then later asks for a cigarette when he is basically too sick to move. So he was quitting and then the accident caused him to relapse? Attention to detail!
posted by snofoam at 4:04 PM on June 4, 2019 [5 favorites]

On the Bridge of Death thing, and the helicopter crash we see in an earlier episode, I found this interview of Adam Higginbotham (author of Midnight in Chernobyl):
People talk about the “bridge of death,” about the idea that a load of residents of Pripyat went out to stand on this railway bridge, which stood at the top of Lenina Prospekt, the main boulevard into the city, and watched the burning reactor from that standpoint. And that, in the subsequent years, every person who stood on that bridge died. I could find no evidence of that. Indeed, I spoke to a guy who was seven or eight at the time, who did indeed cycle over to the bridge to see what he could see at the reactor, which was only three kilometers away. But he’s not dead. He’s apparently perfectly healthy...

. A thing I was asked about the other day was, “I was disappointed to see that you didn’t report about the helicopter that crashed during the bombing operation.” You’ve seen the film on YouTube. Well, that film was shot of a helicopter crashing beside a reactor on October 6, 1986, months after the fire had gone out, months after this operation had finished.
posted by BungaDunga at 7:40 PM on June 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

Good lord, the amount of change management failure anxiety I had during the leadup to the test procedure. It's like every single major IT change I've ever been involved in as dramatized by my stupid brain. I recognized myself in that room, too easily.

I immediately jumped back to the opening narration of the first episode, and I expect I'll probably watch it again this weekend.
posted by Kyol at 7:45 PM on June 4, 2019 [5 favorites]

I'm especially perplexed at how he faults the show for somehow not including the story of the Three Mile Island accident.

If you read Midnight in Chernobyl, you will learn just how much TMI drove the motivations on the the Soviet bureaucracy initially handled the disaster. It was strange to leave it out of this show.

I think in general one of the big sleight of hands of the show is reducing the organisational/sociological/political to the individual

Yeah. Distilling lots of complexly into strict heroes and villains makes the narrative of the show better, but it gives the wrong impressions when dealing with actual people.

I except Dylatlov’s descendants have already filed a defamation suit for like four decades of Soviet nuclear bumbling getting distilled into his portrayal. Legasov‘s people, however, must be pleasantly surprised his character got all the hero stuff.
posted by sideshow at 8:38 PM on June 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

The whole point of Legasov's dramatic speech in the trial is to relieve Dyatlov of sole responsibility, against the wishes of the state, which wanted to pin it on operator error alone. It's the KGB guy who says it- they want a neat hero/villain narrative and Legasov denies them and indicts the Soviet nuclear industry as a whole. All of the other RBMK reactors have the same flaws.

Of course that makes him the hero of the show, but by all accounts he really did face huge personal and political consequences for questioning the official line and committed suicide over it.

I am still working through Midnight in Chernobyl but Dyatlov comes off very badly indeed there also. Of course, if the SCRAM had worked, or they'd built a containment structure for the reactor, it would not have been the disaster it was. But that's called out in the show.
posted by BungaDunga at 9:38 PM on June 4, 2019 [5 favorites]

I loved the Mickey Mouse statue. I'm not sure what it represented, but I loved that it was there, and that they gave it it's own shot and moment.

Personally, I would have preferred the real story that showed it took a team effort to get at the truth. I also find the real ending more moving than what was scripted.

"Something like this likely wouldn't have happened in the West."

I did not feel like this was an indictment of the Soviet system. For me, the show was about global warming. We're dying in slow motion because no one wants to face the truth squarely.
posted by xammerboy at 10:13 PM on June 4, 2019 [10 favorites]

Wow, they really set the bar high on this one. Absolutely phenomenal.
The show currently has a 9.7 rating on IMDB - putting it straight in at the top of the highest rated of all TV shows.
posted by rongorongo at 12:46 AM on June 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Most primary sources portray Dyatlov as... a difficult person to be sympathetic to. I think for his family that horse left the barn quite some time ago.

Just judging by the comments on every YouTube video about Chernobyl that I've watched lately, an effect of this show--as simplified and fictionalized as it was--is that people are now out there seeking out other sources. I mean, look at all the people in here now reading Midnight in Chernobyl. I'd think Mazin himself would be the first to tell you that this is mission accomplished. The fictionalized version was so compelling in part because of the liberties taken to create a more cohesive narrative, but it's not meant to be the final word, it's meant to start conversations, make viewers curious, and lead people back to the primary and secondary sources.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:38 AM on June 5, 2019 [12 favorites]

Everything was so well done, and obviously they made a lot of creative choices to turn it into a great TV show. That said, the Chernobyl accident really was a gem hiding in plain sight. It had so much storytelling potential. I'm glad this is the team that did it.

I also wonder a little bit about the economics of a miniseries like this. I feel like big budget TV miniseries were kind of a thing in the 70s/80s (Centennial, Roots, etc.), and they do seem to be coming back again lately. But everyone wants ongoing properties to the point that naturally one season ideas are being extended or turned into anthologies. As great as this was, there's no second season about Chernobyl and I don't think giving the same treatment to the Challenger or anything else would be able to recapture the greatness of this miniseries. I feel like this had some things in common with The Terror, which was also sort of true disaster inspired and came out of nowhere and was great (and had Jared Harris). I guess they are turning that into an anthology with future seasons telling unrelated stories.
posted by snofoam at 5:00 AM on June 5, 2019

I really felt like this was an episode of Seconds from Disaster (which I loved!). So good. I'm pretty sad its over now even though it was total nightmare fuel.
posted by LizBoBiz at 5:27 AM on June 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

This show blew me away, and like soren_lorensen said it has made me seek out more stories. A wonderful piece of television.

As far as whether there would be that sort of self-sacrifice in the West, I think the World Trade Center on 9/11 and afterwards is good evidence that there would. Firefighters, police officers, and regular people were heroic that day in the face of certain danger. In the aftermath, rescuers placed their bodies at risk to locate remains and excavate the site. Although no one knew the extent of the health effects, it was clear at the time that the air on the site was contaminated. The parallels aren’t perfect, but there are enough similarities that i’m comfortable saying that in every population there are selfless helpers who will sacrifice their lives and health for others.
posted by slmorri at 5:43 AM on June 5, 2019 [10 favorites]

Re: contrasting US today and USSR then, the part where they were like, "we're gonna do this trial the way Lenin would have done it" made me think: the idolatry of some past leader is always a bad sign. But then I also immediately thought about "founding fathers" and originalism, which is very similar. Overall, though, I think that the flaws of hyper-capitalist USA and communist USSR are actually relatively different from each other. And the individual people are mostly the same.
posted by snofoam at 5:57 AM on June 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

"I except Dylatlov’s descendants have already filed a defamation suit for like four decades of Soviet nuclear bumbling getting distilled into his portrayal."

They used his exact words.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:11 AM on June 5, 2019


"Distilling lots of complexly into strict heroes and villains makes the narrative of the show better, but it gives the wrong impressions when dealing with actual people."

Its TV--that's kind of the point, no?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:13 AM on June 5, 2019

They used his exact words.

I was wondering about that! I mean, I assume Soviet workplace culture was pretty gruff, but the outright abuse by Dyatlov -- it seemed too much for Mazin to just invent. This article (in Ukrainian) is an interview with an engineer in Reactor Four who says that although he appreciates the series overall, Dyatlov was made out to be too villainous. He does say that Dyatlov was a "hard man," and since I used Google Translate, I don't know what kind of nuance that might have.

Its TV--that's kind of the point, no?

I did understand that the courtroom scene couldn't have taken place in that way. It's a quintessentially American trope ("this whole court is out of order!"). But it seemed like a necessary use of dramatic technique that I could accept, like the artificiality of theater.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:25 AM on June 5, 2019

Like so many others, I started Googling about Chernobyl to see what I could find about specific questions I had (how many were conscripted for the cleanup, for example). I came across two interesting documents...

From the CIA, December 1987, The Chernobyl Accident: Social and Political Implications

From The National Council for Soviet and East European Research, March 1990, Soviet Decision Making For Chernobyl: An Analysis of System Performance and Policy Change

I haven't completed reading either one, but what I've read so far is fascinating as both a narrative about the accident and a look back at what we knew of and the way we talked about the Soviet Union at the time.
posted by schoolgirl report at 8:20 AM on June 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

The wobbly tracking shot that stays on Legasov as he rises to testify is masterful. Not attention-grabbing, but nevertheless extremely effective at conveying the universe warping around you as you step into a dangerous situation.

I may have started to da-da-da the sir digby chicken caesar theme aloud when I saw it, though I think a better parallel is the poker scene in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which was going after a similar kind of dissociative feeling, though post-irrevocability. </trash tier teaboo>

The thing that impressed me most about that scene, though, was the explanatory power of the blue and red plastic cards.
posted by fleacircus at 8:42 AM on June 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

Chernobyl is an amazing story and the show is best when it is sticking very close to the truth. Technically it was so well done.. but the kind of character and moral angle, well, it felt pretty hammy to me, pretty fake, pretty dumbed-down, pretty thin. The first three episodes are a great little disaster movie approaching a documentary. The last two episodes are a bad essay.
posted by fleacircus at 8:53 AM on June 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Following schoolgirl report's example I sniffed around in the Radio Free Europe archives to see what was said in their news reports. The first mention is April 28: SWEDEN SAYS THE SOVIET UNION SHOULD HAVE WARNED SWEDEN IMMEDIATELY
(page 151 of the PDF).

Here are more reports from May, June, and July/August 1986 for your scrolling pleasure.
posted by orrnyereg at 9:20 AM on June 5, 2019

I was completely aghast, horrified, riveted during this whole show. I was not quite 20 when Chernobyl happened, tucked away at college deep in the Pacific Northwest, insulated from most world news. I knew this had occurred, but I was blissfully unaware of the urgency of the situation. I knew more about Three Mile Island because we lived the next state over. And that final hymn with the historical footage. JFC.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:48 PM on June 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

I feel like this had some things in common with The Terror, which was also sort of true disaster inspired and came out of nowhere and was great (and had Jared Harris).

And Adam Nagaitis! I was 3-4 episodes into Chernobyl before realising Vasily Ignatenko was also Cornelius Hickey. That man can really disappear into a role.
posted by myotahapea at 6:46 AM on June 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

Here's a random Chernobyl factoid I will toss in... In Michael Lewis's book Liar's Poker, there is a memorable scene where Lewis is watching the breaking news of the Chernobyl disaster on TV with others in his office. His mentor, a commodities broker calmly picks up the phone and puts in huge buys on Irish potatoes... because the region around Chernobyl had been one of the world's leading potato-producing regions and with that land irradiated, potato prices elsewhere will jump up.

It's both a brilliant move and a jaw-droppingly cynical and opportunistic one.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:15 PM on June 6, 2019 [9 favorites]

I’m an inconsequential man, Valera. That’s all I’ve ever been. I hoped that one day I would matter, but I didn’t. I just stood next to people who did.
Of all the ministers and all the deputies—the entire congregation of obedient fools—they mistakenly sent us the one good man. For god's sake, Boris, you were the one who mattered the most.
God, this show snuck up on me, but this whole conversation between Shcherbina and Legasov fucked me up beyond belief.
posted by Sokka shot first at 12:49 PM on June 6, 2019 [15 favorites]

A collection of photos in The Atlantic including several of the "biorobots" clearing the roof.
posted by dnash at 1:49 PM on June 6, 2019 [10 favorites]

One of those Atlantic photos is An interior photo of a still-functioning section of the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant taken a few months after the disaster in 1986. Can you imagine working in a nearby reactor, part of the same building, while the sarcophagus containing your worst-case scenario was still being constructed next door?
posted by traveler_ at 9:28 PM on June 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think the other reactors were only turned on after the sarcophagus was actually finished. Turning the reactors back on was a big reason why they rushed the sarcophagus. ("Whatever what constructed around Unit Four had to be completed as quickly as possible- not in years, but in months- both to halt the spread of radioactivity and also to restart units One, Two and Three in relative safety", Midnight In Chernobyl, pg 281).

They did possibly have people in them keeping an eye on them while they were shut down, but I don't think they were restarted until the sarcophagus was actually built.
posted by BungaDunga at 10:48 PM on June 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

What HBO’s “Chernobyl” Got Right, and What It Got Terribly Wrong, Masha Gessen
Similarly repetitive and ridiculous are the many scenes of heroic scientists confronting intransigent bureaucrats by explicitly criticizing the Soviet system of decision-making. In Episode 3, for example, Legasov asks, rhetorically, “Forgive me—maybe I’ve just spent too much time in my lab, or maybe I’m just stupid. Is this really the way it all works? An uninformed, arbitrary decision that will cost who knows how many lives that is made by some apparatchik, some career Party man?” Yes, of course this is the way it works, and, no, he hasn’t been in his lab so long that he didn’t realize that this is how it works. The fact of the matter is, if he didn’t know how it worked, he would never have had a lab.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:36 AM on June 7, 2019 [9 favorites]

This is inaccurate: summary executions, or even delayed executions on orders of a single apparatchik, were not a feature of Soviet life after the nineteen-thirties. By and large, Soviet people did what they were told without being threatened with guns or any punishment.

I like how the author complains that they don't show the relations of power in the USSR and also complains that they show the relations of power in the USSR as being more severe than they actually were by the mid-80s.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 12:58 PM on June 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

It can be both, right? Both in the implication that summary execution was a real threat, and that people would confront bureaucrats in that way. Sure, it's not a consistent sort of error, but screenwriting is often inconsistent.
posted by BungaDunga at 1:01 PM on June 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

The complaint is "its failure to accurately portray Soviet relationships of power." I think "accurately" is the key word there.
posted by atoxyl at 10:35 PM on June 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

A collection of photos in The Atlantic including several of the "biorobots" clearing the roof.

I couldn't believe how accurate they made those scenes compared to the real thing (handy that they had reference footage). Even the depiction of the explosion in the final episode matches testimony from people who witnessed it (there was a fisherman on the river at the other side of the plant who said it looked like a volcano eruption [spanish link]). It would have been so easy to make a sensationalist movie, but there is so much care and heart in this production. Amazing, and crushing.
posted by Popular Ethics at 1:21 PM on June 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

The firefighting set they built, representing the blown-off north wall of the unit 4 reactor building, is just jaw dropping. The site of those massive cooling pumps half way up a hill of rubble is a terrifyingly good visual.

As part of the sarcophagus construction, they built a new ("cascade") wall over that pile and filled the whole area with concrete.
posted by Popular Ethics at 2:08 PM on June 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

From dnash's link;

The flag bearers were sent despite the dangers posed by heavy radiation ... At the end, the trio were rewarded with a bottle of Pepsi (a luxury in 1986) and a day off.
posted by porpoise at 2:18 PM on June 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

While watching the series, I could not stop thinking about how our administration is calling carbon freedom gas now or whatever the fuck. I cried over the eradication of the animals because holy fucking shit, but also the animals are a synecdoche for the human-caused mass extinction event that we're in.

As a former smoker, I was really impressed also with the use of smoking. Watching people habitually poison themselves. The many many shots of cigarettes being ground into grimy ashtrays. It's really interesting and I think another way the film expanded its thesis from the dissection of the disaster.

And the shot of the caterpillar as it crawled over the bureaucrat's hand as he contemplates his approaching death and he murmurs, beautiful.

I've been wrestling with that New Yorker piece, because I get the argument that the series has some fabulous attention to detail while also to some extent misrepresents the state of resignation people experienced in that particular culture. And the resignation would make "this whole court is out of order" moment a wildly improbable event. I also get the idea that creating a narrative where "this whole court is out of order" moment happens fails to acknowledge the particular costs of such a society where a moment like that is unthinkable.

But I think you can make the argument the New Yorker piece did and still acknowledge that the series accomplishes many wonderful things. The New Yorker piece is like too bad this is the story about Chernobyl that gets told that will be remembered. It's just such not a fatal flaw to me.

But I did enjoy the stoicism of the miners as they realize how fucked they are and make witty comments and go on to save the day stark naked. I guess those will be my personal gods I pray to when our Chernobyl envelops us.
posted by angrycat at 4:58 AM on June 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Midnight in Chernobyl goes into some depth with Legasov's fight to reform the Soviet nuclear industry and how he challenged the system, and why he failed. The show portrays him trying to get the RBMK reactors refurbished, which is not quite accurate- they were being refurbished to fix the flaws identified at Chernobyl anyway. He was trying to do something much harder and more dangerous. It's too much to really summarize (or portray in an hour of TV) so I'm just going to blockquote quite a lot of it since I found it enlightening.
...Legasov had finally recognized the true scope of the decay at the heart of the nuclear state: the culture of secrecy and complacency, the arrogance and negligence, and the shoddy standards of design and construction. He saw that both the RBMK reactor and its pressurized water counterpart, the VVR, were inherently dangerous. He began to investigate the problems in more detail and advocated at Sredmash for a new generation of reactor, cooled with molten salt. But his suggestions were met with fury and indignation...

inspired by the rising winds of perestroika, Legasov now went to work on a series of proposals to modernize the monolithic structures of Soviet science... [he] challenged the hegemony of some of the most powerful forces of the state, and to anyone else would have appeared an obvious political risk. He proposed that the Ministry of Medium Machine Building should be broken up into smaller units that would compete with one another in an internal market; that the research of the Kurchatov Institute should be funded with a new rigor, focused on practical results; and that the old men who now controlled the budgets and made all the appointments to its many jobs-for-life should be replaced with younger and more vital scientists. Legasov had good reason to believe the report would be well received...

Yet Legasov’s proposals were ignored. He failed to realize that he and his ideas would alienate not just the old guard, whose comfortable positions in the status quo he threatened, but also his more reform-minded colleagues- who saw Legasov as a creature of the Era of Stagnation, with a privileged background that had eased a frictionless rise to the top.
When this and other attempts at reform failed and finding his path to promotion blocked - both from above and below- and his career in tatters:
He gave an interview to the liberal literary journal Novy Mir in which he warned that-contrary to everything he had said before-another Chernobyl catastrophe could occur at any one of the other RBMK stations in the USSR, at any time; he told the reporter that many scientists were aware of the danger, but no one would act to stop it. In a separate interview with Yunost, another Soviet journal where the shackles of censorship were being loosened by glasnost, Legasov went further still.

Turning his back on every political orthodoxy he had believed in since he was a teenager, the academician said that Soviet science had lost its way. The men and women behind the great triumphs of Soviet technology who had created the first nuclear power plant and launched Yuri Gagarin into space had been striving for a new and better society and acted with a morality and strength of purpose inherited from Pushkin and Tolstoy. But the thread of virtuous purpose had run through their fingers, leaving behind a generation of young people who were technologically sophisticated but morally untethered. It was this profound failure of the Soviet social experiment. and not merely a handful of reckless reactor operators that Legasov believed was to blame for the catastrophe that had bloomed from Reactor Number Four.
So the scenes in the courtroom seemed like a fundamentally accurate portrayal of what he was trying to do in the last year or so of his life: indicting the entire scientific establishment he'd spent his whole career in and the ideological rot at the heart of it.
posted by BungaDunga at 2:36 PM on June 9, 2019 [19 favorites]

There is one detail in the book that humanizes Dyatlov a bit: after the trial he never blamed the operators who ran the test (and died). He blamed the reactor design. He wrote to Toptunov's parents to tell them that he thought their son was blameless and was the victim of a cover-up. Of course, he didn't blame himself either, so it's a mixed bag...
posted by BungaDunga at 3:57 PM on June 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

Here's a link to an hour long, subtitled interview with Dyatlov from 1994.
posted by sively at 2:03 PM on June 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

Here's a great "deep dive" into the technical aspects of the accident given by a Finnish nuclear scientist.

The most interesting aspect for me is at the bottom, and lines up with what sively says: None of the supposed safety regulations that Dyatlov and crew violated appeared to have actually been regulations! They may not have known that the reactor was dangerously unstable at low power, and certainly didn't know that scramming could make it worse. The showrunners paid a bit of lip service to this idea when Dyatlov exclaimed "no one could have foreseen it" in the final episode, but they also make it appear that the operators actions were at best hasty and poorly thought through.
posted by Popular Ethics at 4:03 PM on June 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

Just found this on YouTube: ABC News Nightline episode from 4/28/1986 covering the first mention in official Soviet news of the “accident” at Chernobyl. Notice that all the western reporters have to go on is speculation, because of the lack of info coming out of the USSR.
posted by dnash at 6:21 PM on June 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

I thought this was a great show over all five episodes. Very sad, obviously, but well done and very much worth the time to watch.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:23 PM on June 10, 2019

So I've been chewing this over, working through Midnight in Chernobyl, and drilling down into the technical details of the disaster. Even though this is brilliant, gripping TV of the highest quality, a few things don't sit quite right for me.

To begin with, there's the conflation of hard science and documented history with flagrant mythologising. This is forgivable, particularly since the podcasts add some clarity, and in the face of so much complexity, it's important to carry the drama forward. But in mixing the two, they run the risk of misrepresenting the actual horror of the catastrophe. They show us things that didn't actually happen, and were never going to happen, such as people on the so-called Bridge of Death suffering radiation burns, and a huge plume of black smoke that wasn't ever there, to name but two. I found this very frustrating, particularly since they put so much effort into faithfully reproducing other aspects of the tragedy. I don't buy the argument that these are legitimate dramatic choices, because they could have told the straight story and the show would have been every bit as compelling.

But the thing that's becoming abundantly clear, the more I read about it, is just how badly flawed the design of the RBMK reactor was, and it was likely only a matter of time before something like this happened. [1] It wasn't just cheap, it prioritised maximum yield over safety concerns. It was enormous, poorly instrumented and fiendishly difficult to run, but operators were never given adequate safety training. It was shoddy and unreliable: Unit Two had already suffered a partial meltdown, but few people at the plant ever heard about it. The risks were known at the highest levels, and suppressed. Discussion of design flaws was strictly prohibited, and the people most responsible for implementing them never suffered any consequences.

These factors are completely absent from the show's narrative, and instead the officially appointed scapegoats, Dyatlov, Brukhanov and Fomin are conveniently portrayed as the villains. This is not to imply that they were blameless, because they categorically weren't. But they were real people, doing an impossible job in a corrupt and dysfunctional system. The show fails them by demonising them without adequately calling the system to account. It falls back on the original Soviet lie of human error. This is already causing consternation among local historians and understandably so. [2]

But Dyatlov's bad choices can be better understood in the context of how little information the plant operators actually had, and how difficult it must have been to run that reactor under normal circumstances, let alone on shutdown. [3] He could be just as much of an asshole, and viewers might have a better appreciation as to why Akimov felt he had to back down. And I'd love to have seen Legasov going head to head with the mandarins at Sredmash, or better still, challenging his old colleagues at the Kurchatov Institute. His suicide would have made so much more sense that way.

(1. if you know anything about plant engineering, this sourcebook for the similar Ignalina facility will have you reaching for your tinfoil hat.)

(2. the IAEA identified poor design and institutional failures ahead of operator culpability way back in 1992 in their INSAG-7 report.)

(3. Dyatlov's side of the story is worth a read even if you don't believe him.)
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 9:59 AM on June 11, 2019 [11 favorites]

willfully ignoring how dramatic adaptations of historical events work

but they work in whatever way writers choose to make them work. plenty of critics are upset about legitimate artistic choices or are just mistaken about what the show said or about what actually happened in history. but there are no natural laws of historical dramatic adaptations that we just have to accept and agree with. composite characters serve one purpose. real bad grandstandy courtroom speeches that in no way accord with the tone of the series up to that point serve a purpose, but it's a bad purpose. pedantic accuracy also serves a purpose, and in this case it would have been (and it was, to the extent lots of things were accurate) a really important thematic purpose about what is true mattering more than what makes a good story. and so on. people making a miniseries out of an event can do almost anything they want.

they could have chosen to spend more time on the reactor designers than on the puppy execution squad. they could have condensed all three terrible officials into a single one, to save time. they could have told the whole five hours from the point of view of Legasov's cat. there is almost nothing they had to do.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:50 PM on June 11, 2019 [5 favorites]

Sergei - who was 15 and living in Kiev at the time of the explosion - talks about "Five important things that are missing "from the series. He is impressed by the shear level of detail that the show got right (glasses frames, telephone rings, number plates) but mentions some aspects which would have been nice to have seen but which were absent (the ominous meaning of the classical music on the mandatory radio on people's apartment for example - when something bad happened the programmers would be afraid to say anything until they had been given orders from the top - so they played classical music).

I thought Chernobyl was an amazing series: in terms of conveying all the complexity of the disaster, the lives of those who were affected and the political realities of life in the latter days of the Soviet Union. Focussing the series on the role of truth itself - makes the story perfect for our time also. We talk a lot about "Fake news" in reference to transient stories that are supposed to mislead people for immediate decisions like elections. But there is also another category of news where the fakery is much more prolonged and where it is given backing right form the very top. I live in country where the government has been telling itself and its populace that a faulty idea (Brexit) is not faulty. Those lies can be amazingly persistent in the face of ongoing evidence - and when the topic is something crucially important that is still no shield. I think the note that Russia - 33 years after the event and 30 after the end of the Soviet Union - still maintain the casualty total from the accident was just 35 people.

To this end, Sergei also has a video about "How buthurt the Russian regime are about the series"
posted by rongorongo at 2:26 AM on June 16, 2019 [7 favorites]

"Something like this likely wouldn't have happened in the West."

*Ahem. I will direct your attention to the mobile drilling unit Deepwater Horizon. The dolphins are still washing up dead. The cleanup workers, who were not supplied with, nor allowed to wear, appropriate PPE. Many have died since.

There's still oil at the bottom. Gulf Sperm Whales are going extinct due to the oil, seismic, and drilling activity. there s an area thousands of square miles from which they no longer feed. Gulf Bryde's Whales, unknown as a subspecies to science before the disaster, are going extinct.

BP purchased many more deepwater leases from the USA last year and this year, most after a single bid.
posted by eustatic at 7:25 AM on May 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

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