And holds profound lessons for 2020
During these dog days of summer, HBO is offering one week free access—just enough to watch the blockbuster 5-part series (if you didn't see it in May) on the 1986 nuclear plant disaster that spread radiation all across Europe. Extremely well-written, terrific acting and an uncanny replication of 1986 Soviet Union, according to my husband who has taught theology there many times. And, It. Is. Riveting.
The series begins with Valery Legasov, First Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, recording tapes he will secretly pass on to his fellow scientists. As the lead scientist on the committee to investigate the disaster, he vents his frustration with the core values of Soviet socialism:
“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, we no longer recognize the truth at all. What happens then? All we can do is abandon the truth and content ourselves instead with stories.”
But at Chernobyl, all the socialist State stories hit the wall of reality.
Legasov knew the truth as soon as he read the first report: graphite was on the ground outside the reactor. The reactor had not simply released steam, like Three Mile Island. Neither did the core melt down from a disruption in the cooling system. Chernobyl’s core had exploded.
What did that mean? As Legasov explained to the committee in their first meeting after the disaster, “An RBK reactor uses Uranium 235 as fuel. Every atom of U235 is like a bullet travelling at nearly the speed of light, penetrating everything in its path—woods, metal, concrete, flesh.
“Every gram of U235 holds a billion trillion of these bullets. That’s in one gram. Now Chernobyl holds over three million grams and right now it is on fire. Winds will carry radioactive particles across the entire continent and rain will bring them down on us. That’s three million trillion bullets in the...in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. Most of these bullets will not stop firing for 100 years. Some of them not for 50,000 years.” This was not a story. This was truth--words that agreed with reality.
But the stories of the State would not easily give way to the truth. Why is that?
As HBO’s Gorbachev explains to the committee, the power of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) relies on “the projection of power.” And the reality, the real culture of lies and incompetence behind a nuclear accident that released 400 times more radiation into the air than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, would severely diminish the State’s power. So the “projection of power” through State stories had to be maintained.
Socialism’s promise: “Everyone deserves a fair shake”
In a socialist state, equality of outcomes and distribution of resources is guaranteed to correct the inequalities produced by capitalist markets.
But the only entity big enough to shake everyone “fairly” is the State. And the only way to guarantee such vast, complex equality is to assume total control. All businesses, schools, research, courtrooms, etc., all official stories must defer to the politburo and central committee.
The freedom and power of each individual must be dedicated to increasing the power of the State so it can produce and distribute equal resources and outcomes. A socialist citizen’s identity is primarily that of a worker who supports the State with his or her time, talent and energy.
When the State stories hit the wall of reality in a crisis like Chernobyl, we see this underlying socialist worldview in action:
“We have the situation under control,” said the people running the reactor, after it blew the 1,000-ton lid off that April night.
“I think there is graphite [from the exploded core] on the ground in the rubble,” said one of the lieutenants to Dyatlov, the control room supervisor.
“You didn’t see graphite," snapped Dyatlov, the supervisor, "because it's not there!
And that was their report to the local committee: “We have the situation under control. There is only mild radiation limited to the plant itself.” An elder member of the local committee speaks to the rest, “When the State tells us the situation here is not dangerous have faith, comrades. The State tells us it wants to prevent a panic. Listen well. It’s true, when the people see the police they will be afraid.
“But it is my experience that when people ask questions that are not in their best interest, they should simply be told to keep their minds on their labor. And leave matters of the State to the State. We seal off the city. No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labor."
Notice how this local leader’s remarks reflect the unquestioning deference to the State and the ultimate value of the people as workers. What is important is not the safety and saving of human lives. What is of greatest importance is the State’s image of competence and power and the continued “fruit of their labors.”
Western democracies and their freedoms were founded on a Christian view of the dignity of men and women made in God’s image. In a materialist state that denies God, there is no ultimate grounds for inalienable human dignity and rights. The ultimate value is the goodd of the state. Human lives are expendable in service to the security and power of the state.
So firefighters fight the graphite fire with no protective gear and the night breeze wafts irradiated iodine over onlookers from the nearby town. And many die.
Two days later air sensors in Sweden detect the cloud of radiation. When the cloud is traced back to Chernobyl, the USSR finally must admit that, yes, there was a nuclear accident, but “we have the situation under control.”
What it takes to clean up a nuclear calamity
Unlike most disaster movies that begin with the events leading up to the catastrophe, Chernobyl starts with the explosion and traces the heroic battle with radiation “bullets” and lies to get the deadly mess cleaned up and find out why it happened.
Although the series is darkly intense, Legasov (Jared Harris [King George in The Crown]) and Boris Shcherbina, (Stellan Skarsgard) Minister of Oil, Gas and Energy, inject a powerfully redemptive theme into the story as they expose themselves to dangerous levels of radiation to lead the effort. The series documents that battle in both its overwhelming scale and agonizing detail.
An army of over 700,000 Soviet workers is brought in to evacuate all the people in the 2600 km “containment zone.” They cut down trees, overturn top soil, and kill all exposed animals left behind, most of which are pets.
The graphite from the exploded core, now strewn over the roofs of three other Chernobyl reactors, must be removed. A lead-shielded moon rover is not heavy enough to finish the job so a special German machine arrives to help. It immediately fries in the radiation.
Turns out the officials that reached out to Germany didn’t tell them nearly how much radiation the machine needed to withstand. When Shcherbina asks why Germany was not informed of the tremendous radioactivity, he is told, “The official position of the State is that global nuclear catastrophe is not possible in the Soviet Union.”
The question at the heart of the story: Why did it explode?
Just as arduous and daunting is the search for the reasons why the reactor blew. The scientific investigation hits dead ends and locked doors and more “official positions” that can’t be questioned. Crucial books and articles are missing from the archives. Pages of books have been torn out.
One way in which the series differs from reality is in its depiction of dissent, questioning and frustration with the secretive system. While these elements ramp up the tension of the story, dissent is not allowed in a real socialist system where the government has to be in control. Where everyone knows this is “how it works.” Where people who have questions or want to make changes sink into resignation. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” a weary Legasov softly confides to a colleague.
When Jack taught theology in Russia he recalls a class he taught on ecclesiology (church governance). At the end he asked his students, “What changes would you like to make in your churches.” No answers. He teased his students, “Are you telling me your churches are perfect? If that’s the case, then you need to come to America and teach us.”
Finally an older man who had been imprisoned by the State ventured, “We are just so glad we can meet in public without fear. We’re not even thinking about making any changes.”
Even now as I write this, in an effort to warn the Hong Kong protestors, China is releasing videos of tanks and major force being used to shut down protest. Dissent in a socialist system is not allowed. As Francis Schaeffer summarized Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s description of the Soviet gulag, “he correctly identifies the root cause of the lawless expediency [of imprisoning millions] as the willingness to assure internal security at any cost.”
There is no historical example of any socialist system succeeding without significant to severe loss of freedom. Even oppression. And because the church can be seen as a competing authority, socialist countries are usually suspicsious or hostile to an independent church.
Venezuela is the most recent example of a socialist fail. And the Scandinavian countries that are most often held up as shining examples of democratic socialism are increasingly turning to free market economies. Although the tax rates remain high. Sweden's is 61%.
In the final episode of Chernobyl, the series delivers a powerful reveal of both the human error that April night in 1986 and the story of how the lies and cover-ups of the Soviet socialist system made the explosion inevitable.
The high price tag of freedom and a fair shake for all is pushing countries to the financial brink. Those who promise expensive social programs without control and security are sliding into financial stress, even bankruptcy.
On the other hand, oppression and secrecy and socialist stories eventually hit the wall of reality. As Legasov says, “You can contain information. But you can’t contain nuclear isotopes.” In the final episode, he adds, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid. That is how an RBMK reactor core explodes. Lies.”
Legasov's words powerfully capture the very nature of truth and reality. God created and sees reality. When the apostle Paul says, "we speak truth in the sight of God," he means that our words agree with reality as God created it and sees it--both physical and moral reality. I "tremble for our country" when I consider our increasing debt to God's truth.
In April, 2006 the real Gorbachev wrote, “The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.”
As we approach 2020 and a vote on embracing socialism, Chernobyl is a cautionary tale that exposes the foundational weaknesses of socialism and State lies. It should help us resist lies on both political sides, and demand truth and compassion, freedom and accountability.
[Note of caution: There is language you might expect from reactor operators as things are exploding. And in one scene miners working in 120-degree heat strip completely down. But male bodies are not shown in such a way as to elicit desire.]