The Chernobyl Podcast
Defending The Great Bitter Land
“What is the cost of lies?”
He did so two years to the day following the catastrophe that occurred in Pripyat Ukraine, in the commencing hours of April 26th, 1986. In fact, the title of the first episode is “1:23:45” which refers to the time in the morning that the core of reactor number four explodes inside of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Ironically, the explosion occurred during a routine safety test. The resulting nuclear accident in Ukraine is one of the most devastating ecological disasters that has ever occurred on our planet. It is a gripping tale from that standpoint alone but just as impactful are the humanistic and societal implications.
The Chernobyl Podcast is an audio supplement of the acclaimed HBO docudrama series aptly titled Chernobyl. The podcast is hosted by the NPR seasoned veteran broadcaster Peter Sagal with commentary from the show’s creator, writer, and executive producer Craig Mazin.
Each podcast episode was uploaded to the show feed on a Tuesday and accompanied the HBO television episode that aired the previous night. Sagal essentially interviewed Mazin as they broke down each week's episode.
The duo discusses the making of the show, behind the scenes production, the thought process behind the decisions of those involved in the tragedy, and the overall take on what happened during those fateful days as the disaster unfolded.
I find this series captivating especially because of the historical lessons to be learned here. Other than the obvious lessons that nuclear engineers should take an understanding of how to avoid a future nuclear meltdown, there are many aspects of what transpired to be considered not only from a political dynamic, but also from a social, civic, and a public relations standpoint as well. Not to mention the visceral human elements that are woven throughout the entire tragedy.
I am certainly no fan of communism and socialism with the differences between the two, in my opinion, being merely semantics. We should criticize the Soviet government here as I believe their political structure is to hold a large portion of the blame, however, I will concede that it was also the political structure of communism that deserves the credit for some of the heroic behavior that saved Europe from essentially being eradicated.
It is this paradoxical breakdown that makes unfortunate events in Pripyat worthy of remembering and The Chernobyl Podcast, with its long-form audio format, delivers us a stark and detailed reminder.
The Critical Factors Of A Disaster
There are a multitude of reasons that erroneous information was being spewed from the accident site to the government leaders and decision makers. For one, the engineers and physicist on the ground were basically in denial that the nuclear reactor core had just exploded.
It was not something that even occurred to the engineers at the time as being a possibility. If it had indeed just exploded, as it was being reported by folks on the scene, it meant almost certain doom. Therefore, it is hard to blame the key decision makers, as mortal beings, for dismissing the early reports based on the gravity and scope of the situation.
It was a perfect recipe of events and human emotion that drove old fashioned denial as a major factor in explaining the behavior of the decision makers at the time. Simply put, they just could not believe what was happening.
In the final episode of the series, Valery Lagasov breaks down in a dramatic and laypersons fashion over the series of events that occurred that directly caused the reactor to flat out explode.
Secondly, in this top-down, hierarchical style of centralized government, nobody wanted to admit or report that there was a massive failure of leadership at the power plant. The Soviet Union was a one-party system where politicians chose winners and losers, and your status with the local and federal government meant everything in their society.
Being an official in the Soviet system meant a better life, and nobody wanted to jeopardize their status, not to mention the punitive nature of being reprimanded in the system.
Finally, I think it is important to understand there is a mentality ingrained in the Soviet culture that alarmism was a bad thing. As a result, there is a key scene in the docudrama of old hard-line, Bolshevik party leaders reminding the decision makers and managers of the power plant that it used to be called the “Vladimir Lenin Power Plant”.
They reminded them that it was their civic duty as good communists to calmly manage this accident and remain as cool as they could. Subsequently, they cut the phone lines going in and out of Pripyat. Their civic duty arising out of that good old fashion Soviet Bolshevism would indeed have to save the day.
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The HBO series does a great job in the storytelling and the acting is superb. The podcast goes even deeper and we get first-hand information from creator Craig Mazin regarding his thought process and the background of essentially every scene. Mazin and Sagal pull no punches with their critique of the decision makers on the ground either.
Understanding that there is the low hanging fruit of criticism towards the bloated bureaucratic monstrosity of the Soviet system or the corrupt totalitarian nature of it as well does not take away from the compassion we feel for the people there.
There are tales of love, bravery, history, and sacrifice that tug on our heartstrings throughout the series. But in order to understand these unique social lessons, it is important to understand the context in which the Soviet political system formed and what the people of Russia and Ukraine had endured from their history up to this point.
I think the context in this regards explains some of the failures as well as the heroics, only adding to the complexity of dissecting it all. The podcast that supplements the television show allows for depth and breadth in reflection and gives the fans an outlet to digest what they have viewed the night before.
Episode Two begins with this poem that is being read on Soviet-controlled State radio by famous Russian patriotic author and poet Konstantin Simonov:
By old Russian practice, mere fire and destruction
Are all we abandon behind us in war.
We see alongside us the deaths of our comrades,
By old Russian practice, the breast to the fore.
Alyosha, till now we've been spared by the bullets.
But when (for the third time) my life seemed to end,
I yet still felt proud of the dearest of countries,
The great bitter land I was born to defend.
I'm proud that the mother who bore us was Russian;
That Russian I'll fall as my ancestors fell;
That going to battle, the woman was Russian,
Who kissed me three times in a Russian farewell!
The Historical Context
Leading up to the Chernobyl accident, many of the Russian people had endured legitimate existential threats to their society all within a centuries time. So being told that something invisible and ominous such as radiation could possibly be a threat to wipe them out entirely was hard to imagine.
Initially, in the lore and memories of many of the Ukraine people, you still had the stories and legends of the Napoleonic wars with the Hessians of Europe invading the vast tundra of Russia. During World War I, the elite Monarchies of Europe herded the civilians into senseless trench warfare, depleting the blood and the treasure of the great Russian Empire. As a direct result of what people figured out to be a senseless war, the Bolshevik Communist Revolution was born and perhaps justifiably so, Lenin and his cohorts threw out the Romanov dynasty.
Although the change from the Tsar was an evolutionary necessity, sociologically speaking, most revolutions end up in bloodshed on many sides with leaders emerging that are just as oppressive as the previous regime.
Lenin gave way to Stalin, whose paranoia was so pervasive it drove him to murder all of his perceived political enemies. He was so ruthless he purged regular civilians in addition to his own party members within the Bolsheviks.
Eventually, this led to the wiping out of the successful landowners of Ukraine because they controlled the bread basket. Stalin viewed control of the national food supply as vital and a threat to his power. He did not tolerate this and wanted to mitigate that power of the collective.
The State control of the agricultural system ultimately led to mass starvation of the Ukrainian people. This occurred just a mere few years before World War II where more murder and suffering would occur at the hands of the Nazi invasion.
The invasion from Hitler and his Nazi war machine from Germany scorched the earth of Eastern Europe. The Nazi armies would murder, rape, and pillage the countryside of Ukraine as they made their way into the vast landmass of Russia.
Stalin, in a paranoid existential last stand, would often murder his own citizens that he thought may be working with the enemy, referred to as “partisans”. He would also throw people to their deaths in a kamikaze effort to beat back the German armies. The people of Ukraine were being systematically murdered by the invading German army and by their own totalitarian regime.
Needless to say, the Russian and Ukrainian peoples of eastern Europe have endured over one hundred years of severe oppression, warfare, starvation, and death on a mass scale. It was nothing new to the people and it was fresh in the minds of the older generations that were still there. It is within this context that this story must be viewed upon.
There is a scene in an episode where a soldier is carrying out orders to evacuate the countryside of Pripyat. An elderly lady stands in defiance of the soldier's orders as she continues to milk her cow, rather than get into the military evacuation vehicle as being commanded by the soldier.
She explains that she is over 80 years old and has seen the vast majority of existential threats come through her native Ukraine and she is not about to abandon the land that she has lived on her entire life because of the threat of this so-called radiation.
The soldier explains that she cannot even drink the milk of the cow that she has just labored over and dumps it out right in front of her. In protest, she picks the milk pail back up and milks the cow again. The soldier dumps the milk out once again in return. This goes on and on until eventually, the soldier must shoot the cow to end the spiraling tantrum.
There are countless mind-boggling actions that take place as a result of the Chernobyl meltdown. For one, the deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, after his foolish oversight, essentially caused superheated steam to explode the core. He also ordered firefighters to their demise and exposed his staff to an open nuclear power core.
The explosion caused highly radiated graphite to set fire to the roof of the Chernobyl complex. The presence of smoldering graphite could only mean one thing, which was that the reactor core was exposed somehow, something that Dyatlov refused to acknowledge.
His refusal to take the information from his subordinates put the lives of his personnel in danger. The firefighters on the scene were poorly equipped and lacked the proper gear to protect themselves from the radiation. The operations lacked the proper precautions causing many citizens to be exposed to deadly radiation unnecessarily.
Dyatlov is eventually arrested for this incompetence. It is pressure from consultants on the scene that finally convince the senior Soviet leadership of the true peril. This goes all the way up to Mikhail Gorbachev himself.
Soviet Style bureaucracy is mired in red tape, politics, and causes poor decision making. In one scene, we meet the governor of Pripyat who we find out was once a low skilled shoe factory worker. This type of nepotism was prevalent in the Soviet system. Those who were more Bolshevik and those who finagled political victories were the ones that garnered merit.
After all, a worker in a shoe factory is equal to a lawyer or doctor in communism. What qualifies you to be governor is not your education or experience, but who is a more ardent communist.
Failure of leadership caused thousands of people to get sick and die unnecessarily. A prime example of the incompetent leadership was after three days of indecision they evacuated only a 30-kilometer perimeter. There was no rationale behind that number. It was arbitrary and not based on any science. The evacuation perimeter was eventually expanded to 100 kilometers.
Another example of negligence was Dyatlov sending engineers, firefighters, and first responders into harm's way unnecessarily. He ordered subordinates to look down into the reactor core itself when everyone at the time knew that meant certain doom. This deficiency of logic and reason all stemmed from the arrogance and ambition that the Soviet system perpetuated.
It is not until our real-life hero Valery Legasov is able to talk sense to the local and federal government leadership that real and effective steps are taken to begin to solve this crisis. And if it meant embarrassment to the Soviet Government or if it meant using precious resources and time, all of that was to be damned.
They began pouring sand and boron into the smoldering core which was able to extinguish the burning graphite which was emitting deadly radiation into the atmosphere. That was just the first minor problem they had. The ignorant high-level government officials thought that once the smoke and flames were extinguished the nightmare would be over. Far from it.
Valery Legasov knew that the big challenge must now be solved which was the out of control nuclear reaction that was taking place underground. The phenomenon known as a nuclear meltdown.
Although the advice from Legasov allowed the people there to get a handle on the situation, in science and physics, there are no absolutes. They live in the world of probabilities.
Another hero in this series is Ulana Khomyuk played by Emily Watson. We meet her in episode two in her office in Belarus. Ulana Khomyuk is actually a fictional character created by Craig Mazin. Khomyuk represents a multitude of scientists, engineers, physicists, and doctors that worked on solving the crisis at hand.
She points out to Legasov that there was an imminent danger. She notes that the millions of gallons of water in the reactor that was used to control the reactions could lead to a catastrophic explosion if that water was not shut off. This account was a real life scenario.
As a result, the Soviet government sent three engineers into the bowels of the reactor with just a flashlight. By doing so everyone knew, including the men themselves, that they were being sent to their deaths. The three men heroically went down there to shut the water off that saved arguably the entire continent of Asia and Europe.
If we are going to criticize the Soviet governments for their inherent faults and incompetencies, we must point out the aspects of the government and correlating culture that helped divert this disaster. The ingrained Soviet sense of civic duty is what enabled these men to go into a nuclear reactor core sacrificing their lives to save the empire.
The Ulana Khomyuk character also represents all of the women scientists, engineers, physicists, and doctors that were instrumental in helping to defuse the crisis and treat people that were injured on the scene. There is a communist notion of equality and of an egalitarian society where many women were equal to men in the realm of science and medicine. Although the Soviets were regressive in many ways, they were progressive in this sense. This was a virtue of their society that helped the situation.
A Shattering System
Although there had been cracks in the foundation of Soviet communism for years, arguably, it is the Chernobyl incident that opened the eyes to many hard-line Bolshevik party members and “true believers”. This included Valery Legasov who was portrayed brilliantly by Jared Harris in the HBO series.
Legasov was a fairly prominent outspoken member of the communist party. It was a painstaking and often futile task to navigate through the broken Soviet system to save lives and ultimately do the right thing. After all, most of the communist party members woke up each day thinking that what they were doing on a daily basis was the right thing and for the good of the people.
The failures of government during that Chernobyl disaster had awoken Legasov to the notion that the government did not act on behalf of the best interest of the people and in fact, cost more lives than necessary.
In another scene in the series, we follow the wife of a firefighter that was exposed to highly radiated graphite who travels to a hospital in Moscow where her husband was being treated. She was told that she could not see her husband in the hospital for her own safety, but the Soviet government was also trying to prevent information from getting out.
For one, the Soviet government did not want to be embarrassed. Secondly, and more importantly, they were trying to control the narrative to keep its stranglehold on the Russian and Ukranian people. They tightly restricted information flow to prevent all-out panic and disorder. The wife Lyudmilla Ignatenko who is a real-life character is played by Jessie Buckley. She ends up defying the nurses, doctors, and administrators orders by seeing and staying with her husband.
The HBO series and podcast ends with episode five, “Vichnaya Pamyat”. A defiant Dyatlov stands accused of crimes in a Soviet-style “show trial” as they were known as. We find out that the series of insane and reckless decisions that turned a functioning nuclear power plant into a nuclear bomb was all in the name of arrogance and ambition. Those decisions centered around a desire to achieve a test of inconsequential magnitude, just to say it was completed.
Ultimately our hero Valery Lagasov falls on his sword during his testimony and points out a catastrophic design flaw that almost all of the Soviet reactors had at the time, potentially causing worldwide disaster if anything like this happened again. Lagasov is reprimanded by the KGB, the Soviet secret police, and is shunned by the Soviet scientific community.
A Lesson For Humanity
The Soviet government did not want to admit that it had a major design flaw which meant that the Soviet government was infallible. This lack of transparency and accountability had allowed hack political pundits to operate with impunity.
This is the lesson that we need to take away from Chernobyl. Governments are only as good as human beings, who are inherently flawed. This is what our founders knew to be true and designed a system of checks and balances to hedge against it.
When a government is too scared to admit that it has made a mistake it puts people's lives in danger. We as citizens should demand more of our government and media in order to better strike a balance between the people and our institutions. If there is anything to be learned from the Chernobyl tragedy, it is that the citizen should be just as important as the system and not the other way around.