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Chernobyl (2019)

Updated: Nov 12, 2022

“Did you know the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster occurred because the Russians persecuted the Jews?” “Er, mate, I think you’ll find that the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster occurred because the plant managers undertook an ill-advised safety test in which the back up electrical generators were turned off and during which the reactor experienced what is called ‘xenon poisoning’, a situation that depressed the reactivity in the system and caused the technicians to remove all the control rods to generate any power at all—hence, when the technicians started their test, there was an energy spike that caused them to SCRAM the reactor, to shoot the control rods back into the reactor all at once to stop the reaction dead; the control rods were tipped with graphite, and the reaction from the graphite—an accelerant in those conditions—caused an explosion; so the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident was caused, in a way, by impatience and bureaucratic desire to complete a test that was three years behind schedule—if they had waited for the ‘poison’ to clear, as opposed to pushing on with the test, it would have been fine.”

Yes, all correct and in accordance with the technical details, more or less (not bad for a pub conversation—Ian is really into his nuclear reactors); and yet incorrect at the magical level, at the storytelling level; for, in accordance with Chernobyl (2019), a superior Sky-HBO miniseries, the Chernobyl accident was caused by the way the Russians have persecuted the Jews—in Tsarist times, in Soviet times, and today—and also because Russians do not listen to women (especially women scientists). Chernobyl is very well done—very atmospheric, with its ash-grey claustrophobic tint to its shots. The Chernobyl producers borrowed a conceit from The Death of Stalin (2017) and had all the Soviet characters played by English actors, mostly from the industrial North—indeed one actor, Ralph Ineson, essentially reprises the role he had in The Death of Stalin as a Soviet general (Marshal Zhukov).

It’s not played for laughs here, but somehow—there is probably a technical term from theatre or cinema for this conceit, like diegetic sound—Northern actors seem quintessentially “Soviet” to the English viewer (presumably also to the American viewer, because this is definitely an Americanski production); perhaps it’s because the Norf is fundamentally proletarian and, in places, “rough as fuck”—“Rough as aunty May’s Blackpool undercackers,” as they might say. So the idea that the Soviets—with their rationed loo roll (sandpapery) and stewed turnips—are really “Northerners” seems to work, steel mills and coal mines and all.

Anyway, we can tell Chernobyl was caused by Russian persecution of the Jews quite early on when the Pripyat Communist Party committee meets to discuss the crisis (Pripyat is the large city next to the Chernobyl plant where all the workers lived—now site for endless “haunting” and “post-apocalyptic” photos of abandoned public swimming pools). The Party committee is filled with bootlickers and cowards—as you would expect in late Soviet times—and so the priority is to hush up the enormous accident that has occurred, make sure senior Party officials know as little about it as possible (let alone the West), and also to cover arses (as they say ooop Norf).

Accordingly, the plan is to cut the phones and trap the city’s population right next to an accident that unloads a Hiroshima’s worth of radiation into the atmosphere every few hours or so. Hence while German schoolchildren hundreds of miles away were kept indoors as a precautionary measure, the children of Pripyat—right next to the bloody catastrophe—were left to waltz to school beneath the mushroom cloud; a move that can only be characterised as “typically Soviet”.

However, in Chernobyl there is one plucky man on the Communist Party committee who is prepared to stand up to the corruption, to speak truth to power—he says that the women and children should be evacuated and calls bullshit on the lies put about by the plant’s managers that the catastrophe is under control and the radiation levels safe. That man…is a Jew. It’s quite clear from his appearance below, the one man who is decent in local government in Pripyat is Jewish. Is this tikkun olam? Is this leadership unto the nations? Is this what really happened? Alas, the foolish Russians and Ukrainians refuse to listen to the good Jew and lo disaster unfolds—then again, perhaps if they never listened to Marx and Trotsky, two other “good Jews” with acute social consciences, they would never have been in this predicament in the first place.

tfw the Slavs ignore you.

This theme is picked up later, when the Party official delegated from Moscow to deal with the nuclear clusterfuck, Boris Shcherbina, gives a little speech to the scientist assigned to assist him in which he says, in paraphrase, “Do you know who lived here before we came [in Pripyat, by Chernobyl]? Jews. They were killed.” The interesting thing about this speech is that it foregrounds pogroms and only incidentally mentions the Germans (they “finished off whoever was left”; i.e. the burden of guilt falls on the Russians, not the Germans). The idea established in the viewer’s mind is the “Indian burial ground” trope: the Russians killed the Jews, built their high-tech gizmo on their graves, and now it has blown up—a punishment, a magical punishment. The Jews, being decent, still offer to help the Russians—suggest they evacuate immediately—yet are ignored by the evil evil Russians. Indeed, it is a Jewish technician in the control room when the test is unsafely executed who says “we should stop”—in other words, there was even a Jew on the scene trying to stop the crazy Slavs, but he was ignored.

This theme is taken up again when Valery Legasov, the scientific adviser to Shcherbina whose investigations into what has really caused the accident upset the KGB, is interrogated after he starts to tell the truth about what happened at Chernobyl in public. The KGB place him in a bathroom-like room with tiles and a little plug hole (to wash the blood away cleanly when you’ve shot the detainee in the back of the head). In this interchange, the KGB chief pressures Legasov with reference to his personnel file. Basically, he pulls the old, “So you think you’re going to be a hero—so you think you’re going to be pure, claim you have clean hands and indict us? Well, you’re not so innocent—we know all about your dirty underwear, you’re just like us; you’re compromised, so don’t start playing Boy Scout.”

In this case, the evidence used is that Legasov held back Jews from being promoted to further his Party career—a-ha, the “original sin”; he was anti-Jewish (indeed, this scientist is portrayed as inferior to his female colleague, who is less senior than him). So, as you can see, this film is less about nuclear safety and totalitarian political systems and more about how the Russians persecute the Jews—and how they are deservedly punished for that, presumably by Jehovah.

“I’m telling you, Asten, we need to evacuate Pripyat now or millions will die. The Russians refuse to listen because I’m Jewish.” “Quincy, it’s 1973–Chernobyl hasn’t even happened and we’re in LA, what are you on about?”

The context, as discussed elsewhere, is that the Russians kicked out the oligarchs somewhat over a decade ago and the oligarchs are, for the most part, Jews—additionally, Russia has turned back to Christianity, tied up for the Jews with pogroms in Tsarist times. As a result, many Jews feel hostile to Russia and this comes out in media products upon which they have an influence (the man who wrote Chernobyl is a Jew). Hence we have in Chernobyl an abbreviated story that elides German persecution of the Jews and makes it look like it was all the Russians (and the Ukrainians—if we want to open another can of ethno-racial conflict; let’s call it “the Slavs” in this case). Mmmm…radioactive. Cultural commentary so dangerous it should be encased in a concrete-and-titanium sarcophagus and placed off-limits for 20,645 years or so—or perhaps until the crack of doom.

Aside from Jews, Chernobyl also has a thing about women—standard progressive political discourse, really; although there have been some notable changes. The main point: listen to women—especially women scientists (you know, with an MSc in Environmental Science and all). This is apparent in the first episode when the plant explodes: while a doddery old fool slaves over the dilated cervixes of mothers in labour at Pripyat hospital, his female colleague looks inquisitively out the window at the greenish tint in the smoke clouds that billow from the accident. “Do we stock iodine?” she says—being a woman, you see, she is very clever and has immediately grasped, a bit like the Jewish guy in the Communist Party, that it’s a full-scale nuclear accident that requires iodine to protect the thyroid (thyroids are very important to women, who often suffer from thyroid disease—and the topic of iodine to protect the thyroid recurs from other female characters for this reason).

If more women gave an inquisitive stare out a window, instead of doing their jobs helping patients in labour, many lives could be saved.

The idiot old man—just being a man, i.e. stupid—says something dismissive like, “You wot? Iodine? You mean like cleaning fluid? What are you on about you silly coot?”. He also pooh-poohs the idea the fire at the reactor is serious. Listen to women. He is only delivering babies of course, not staring out the window being beautiful and wistful and intelligent—so he is obviously an idiot.

Later, this doddery old male doctor is shown trying to treat the radiation burns suffered by firemen from the plant with milk (“So much better than water”) without realising—being an idiot man—that the firefighters still have radioactive contamination and need to have their clothes stripped off. Instead, he persists with his silly folk remedy “milk” (mother’s milk, birth—evil) and it’s up to our inspirational dottoressa to work it out and strip the radioactive clothes off (this character may also be a Jewess—I examined her nose very carefully, but it’s difficult to tell; so we’ll just put her down as “Nancy Drew” and not “most righteous”).

The theme is taken up by another central character, Ulana Khomyuk (whom-yuk), whose slogan is “I’m from the Belorussian Institute”; her role in the story is to provide exposition for the viewer—she plays detective to work out why the accident happened and through her dramatic investigations the information is conveyed to us in an enjoyable form. The character is actually a composite of dozens of scientists who worked out what happened at Chernobyl—some may even have been women, for all I know.

Khomyuk is depicted as an ultra-sleuth from the start, she independently works out there has been a nuclear accident and then inveigles her way into the investigation—at one point she works out that a course of action undertaken by Legasov will cause a nuclear detonation and millions of deaths; of course, as a “silly man” (and an anti-semite, as established) he naturally would miss something so elementary. It’s a good job we have our own radioactive Jessica Fletcher to help stop those silly men from killing us all. Indeed, Khomyuk even has a junior male assistant who is a total scatterbrain and whose sophomoric suggestions Khomyuk blithely knocks down “Yes. You would do that.”

Progressive beliefs have changed somewhat: at one point, Khomyuk confronts a fat ugly complacent bureaucrat in Minsk. He intends to let public parades go ahead even as fallout rains down upon the Soviet citizens who have lined the streets to watch the red banners march by. When Khomyuk confronts him, the crux is that the bureaucrat used to work in a shoe factory, whereas Khomyuk is a nuclear physicist. It’s literally, “I’m a girl scientist <stamps feet> you have to do what I say.” The interchange is ugly because Khomyuk acts like a genuine snob. Imagine a person in real life who went up to a man—even a corrupt man or an arsehole—and said, “You only worked in a shoe factory, I’m a scientist—so you better do what I say, or else.” You’d think the person who said that was a conceited, ugly snob—yet this behaviour, in Chernobyl, is seen as noble and correct.

The subtext to the exchange is the whole Trump movement and the deplorables—very salient in 2019. The idea is that the Soviet bureaucrat—obese, probably slaps women on the arse, calls them “pet”, and tells them to “put the kettle on”—is a “deplorable”; he’s uneducated and works in a manual job. He needs to sit his ass down and listen to women, particularly black women and women scientists (“I have an MSc in Environmental Science—that’s two sciences, two sciences; so you have to listen to me.”).

“Iodine?” “Thyroids?” “Fallout?” “Tell you what, luv. Why don’t you put the kettle on like a good girl, eh?”

The exchange marks a change in progressive ideology: gone is the last remnant from the New Deal where the working class—or “the working man”, as Americans put it—is seen as noble and oppressed, as with the Jews and women. No, he is now part of the problem—since he votes for Trump—and he needs, just like all the male characters but especially the working-class ones, to listen to women (and Jews—possibly the same thing); and to especially listen about environmental catastrophes, Chernobyl being an analogy for climate change in this morality play (“A global Chernobyl—nobody would listen to the science.”). The picture is both ugly and unrealistic—it basically says that to be an unbearable credentialed snob who treats other people like dirt because they only have a manual occupation constitutes a “heroic stand against the system”. I mean, really, fuck off, as they say oop Norf.

Although the demonisation of working stiffs is slightly offset by some heroic miners—again odd shades of the British working class and their Northern coalfields projected onto Russia—the main thrust is that women and minorities are definitely superior to white men who haven’t been to university (and need to help out the ones who have been as much as possible, since they’re all incapable idiots really). I think if this series were made thirty years ago, you’d see a lot more sympathy for “the worker”—Marxism still being a force then—and less interest in “the educated”, especially as heroes (indeed, they would probably be seen as suspect—being, per the hippies, too square and not environmentally concerned); and the Jewish issue would be more backgrounded, with the feminism more “wow, so we’ve got a woman working on this—well, times have changed” as opposed to open contempt for anyone who is not a university-educated woman or a Jew.

What this reflects is the very fact the USSR collapsed and the way our economy moved to a post-industrial situation in which credentialed women and ethnic minorities replaced “the proletariat” for the left—it also reflects changes, as noted, to international racial dynamics (if it were made in the early 1990s, more reference would probably have been made to Hitlerism and WWII—with the struggle to contain the accident being compared to the Great Patriotic War).

An effective drama, very superior for a television-streaming production, Chernobyl tells us more about the West’s contemporary ideological concerns—especially the fears of Western Jewry—than about life in 1980s Soviet Ukraine; essentially, we need to speak the truth to power (Trump) and that truth is “the science”—particularly climate science. Perhaps this is why, ultimately, the “Norf Russian” phenomenon, though clever, should not be overextended—Slavs are Slavs, not “Norferners”; and to have them played by the Northern English overlays a semiotic, particularly a class semiotic for English viewers, that does not exist in the Ukraine or Russia—indeed, they behave like English people whose actions and lines are dictated by Jews; and that is not far off from the truth in all manner of ways. Ultimately, these productions tell us more about the West today than the time periods they depict or about the Slavic response to catastrophes—and what they show is that we venerate nosey, pushy, conceited snobs.

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