The poet Rilke once wrote that “beauty is the beginning of terror”. An odd, paradoxical observation, but perhaps he meant that our experience of the sublime – that orientation we humans have towards wonder at the world – first demands that we accept our fragility in relation to it.
Nature is beautiful, for example, not because it is merely a pretty view we gawp at from behind guardrails or plexiglass. It is beautiful because it could turn at any moment and, with majestic indifference, crush us. We are not at a safe remove from the world. We are implicated in it. We are subject to its blind forces.
The greatest surprise of Chernobyl – even greater than learning the HBO series’ creator and screenwriter, Craig Mazin, was formerly best known for penning parts two and three of the comic bro-epic The Hangover – is how beautiful such a terrible story can be.
The local textures of Ukraine circa 1986 are not inherently lovely, though director Johan Renck does his utmost; the series’ rendering of material culture from that time and place is almost faultless. The buildings that house the citizens of Pripyat, which was the closest city to the reactor and was forcibly evacuated as part of the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl plant, are closer to hives than homes.
Nor is the Soviet modernity that the five-part series re-creates particularly glamorous: the cars, clothes, office spaces and public parks are careworn and makeshift, the visible manifestation of an empire running on the fumes of its revolutionary hopes.
And yet it is achingly beautiful. Beautiful because we viewers are privy to the knowledge that even that frayed existence is about to be swept away by the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Beautiful because we know that the city and surrounding countryside are set to be abandoned for the millennia it takes for radiation levels to dim.
Beautiful because these locals – whose families and communities are poisoned, torn apart and displaced, first by the accident, then by state-sponsored fiat – work alongside first responders from elsewhere to save the reactor meltdown from becoming an even greater disaster. And despite the mounting knowledge that their task will likely kill them, they persist with selflessness and quiet, determined, laconic heroism.
Despite the lies told by their leaders. Irrespective of the bureaucratic idiocies that led to the accident in the first place and stymie its clean-up. Even though they are people who have suffered more from bad history than most during the 20th century: pogroms, war, collectivisation – the long slide from utopian dream to cynical daily reality. All this, and still they bend shoulder to wheel.
The first deft decision of Mazin’s rendering of this story, then, is to leave the fault-finding to last, in order to concentrate on ordinary suffering and sacrifice. He drops us without preamble into the control room of the No. 4 reactor in the early hours of April 26, 1986, just as a safety test goes wrong, causing an uncontrolled chain reaction followed by a massive explosion.
It is the struggle to contain the fallout that takes centre stage over the following episodes. First to arrive are local firefighters. They put out the initial blaze, absorbing so much radiation in the process that their skin sloughs off and their internal organs dissolve within weeks. Their bodies are not buried as much as entombed in lead-lined coffins and concrete.
Later, when graphite remnants of the reactor core need to be pushed from a portion of the reactor’s rooftop, it becomes clear that no machine is capable of doing the work by remote control. The authorities turn instead to “bio-robots” – hundreds of men who perform 90-second shifts, the maximum amount of time their bodies can cope, to physically throw the material back into the blast crater.
Meanwhile, below, coalminers called in from Russia work naked – one of the series’ few laughs –
at temperatures above 50 degrees to manually dig a space for a heat transfer unit to be placed beneath the reactor’s core. Should the core become hot enough
to melt through containment barriers, we learn, the water supply for 50 million people will be rendered unusable forever.
The numbers sound dramatic, the human risks massively outsized. But Chernobyl’s most impressive aspect is the restraint with which Mazin and Renck approach the material. To take but one instance, in most histories of Chernobyl an account of three men sent into the flooded reactor complex to perform a crucial task has them fully immersed in water and dying soon after. Late in writing the series, Mazin found a book disputing this. The author’s research found the men were never fully immersed and two of them survived. Mazin went with the less dramatic version.
Chernobyl’s three main actors mostly hew to these imposed restrictions. Jared Harris plays Valery Legasov, a member of the Academy of Sciences and a specialist on the RBMK reactor that exploded. He has the haunted look of a man who sees a mountain of corpses but must pretend he does not. Even more constrained is Stellan Skarsgård, who, as Boris Shcherbina – the member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee who is responsible for the clean-up – must balance the irreconcilable demands of duty to the state and duty to the people who are dying to save it. As his awareness of the situation grows, he gives every appearance of a man drowning in fathoms of silent hurt.
No less superb is Emily Watson’s performance as the Byelorussian nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk, although it is more troubling. She is the only member of the triad who is a composite, standing in for a group of scientists who sought to establish the cause of the disaster, and it is her obstinate refusal to bend to Soviet-era reality that strikes a false chord.
She is, from the outset, a truth-teller and a pillar-shaker. She insists the facts of what happened at Chernobyl be released to the outside world. Those old enough to recall the explosion may remember how pathologically reticent Gorbachev and his apparatchiks were to share information or seek foreign assistance.
The problem here is that Khomyuk functions as a definably Western creature – a lone individual standing up to the full might of the state. In a series so determinedly wedded to re-creating, down to the last buttonhole, the lived experience of the Soviet Union at that time – a series, moreover, critical of the way the state’s apparatus sought to privilege ideology over reality – this kind of imported fantasy figure could be seen as one lie deployed to attack another. Masha Gessen, writing recently in The New Yorker, saw this refusal to accurately depict Soviet power relations as the fatal flaw of Chernobyl.
Of course, there is a reading where this series is not about the disaster itself – a particular event at a particular time and place – but about something larger. The decision to permit the cast to use their own accents is fascinating in this regard. It may seem strange to find an old peasant woman furnishing a monologue with the inflection of a Royal Academy of Dramatic Art alumna, but the effect frees the series from those accumulations of cliché that encrust Soviet-era characters on the screen.
This is a series built largely from oral histories, first among them Svetlana Alexievich’s remarkable Voices from Chernobyl from 1997. By feeding those stories through various accents, Chernobyl universalises the experiences they relay. It points us towards those aspects of the disaster that remain meaningful.
A single scene makes this impetus clear. A young woman, Lyudmilla Ignatenko, played with wounded grace by Jessie Buckley, bribes her way into the Moscow hospital where her firefighter husband is dying. Having been granted a brief visit to him by a kind nurse, she is refused entry to a critical containment ward when he is moved.
Remonstrating, she says: “But he is my husband.” To which the nurse replies: “Not your husband anymore. He’s something different now.”
Having persuaded the staff to let her remain by his bedside, Lyudmilla enters the gloomy ward, notes the thick plastic curtain around the gurney with arm-length gloves built in, and looks, left, right and straight ahead in dull perplexity – the expression of someone encountering a strange new reality.
This is the true story of Chernobyl. It is perhaps the first instance in which a modern environmental uncanny, a vision of our world that is at once similar yet disquietingly mutated, has been brought to screen. There are established narratives for war and politics: pre-existing structures we can wrap our thoughts around. But Chernobyl was unprecedented. There were no old stories to match with it.
As we digest the news of a planet being weirded by climate disruption, a sense of alarm mounts. But we now have one story of beauty and terror to think with. What we learn from Chernobyl is that the first run of our collective future took place in northern Ukraine more than three decades ago.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 22, 2019 as "Future history". Subscribe here.