Photograph of a statue at Chernobyl, depicting two grim-faced men in hazmat suits turning valves and operating other equipment.

“Chernobyl” by Fraser Lewry is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I followed a reference to Serhii Plokhy’s 2018 book Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe from this New York Magazine article by Masha Gessen about the recent and much-lauded HBO miniseries on the same topic. Gessen takes issue with the show’s need to have its composite characters say aloud things that any real Soviet citizen of the day would never have given literal voice to, whether growling threats or wailing about consequences. This dialog may have helped clarify the situation to a Western audience in 2019, but the real people — Gessen writes — would have been extremely aware of the political weight they labored under, and far too inculcated (or simply resigned) to take any action that might resemble protest or even hesitancy against the state’s desires. Gessen holds up Plokhy’s book — more than the show’s producers’ own favorite, Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl — as an accurate chronicle of the disaster, one focusing more on the whole Soviet state as culpable, rather than than any individual-scale failing.

I haven’t watched the show yet, but I have stood downwind from it via social media, and it has stirred a personal hunger to revisit the topic. Everything I knew about Chernobyl came filtered through school and mass-media channels easily available to an American pre-teen during the 1980s; I felt ready for an update. And in the book’s preface, Plokhy lays out his mission of gathering up all the materials available to him as of the late 2010s, interleaving and summarizing them into the most up-to-date chronology of the accident possible, and filtering it all through his own insight and expertise as a historian of both Ukraine and the Cold War.

I found Plokhy’s style rather dry; perhaps to Gessen’s satisfaction, he has little interest in setting descriptive “establishing shots”, let alone playing up any drama in his narrative. He doesn’t make it easy to visualize the power plant itself, even as he walks us through its chambers and stairwells, or swoops overhead in helicopters. But: I didn’t know any of this stuff at all. Beginning with the fact that Chernobyl wasn’t even in Russia, but in Ukraine, on the Belarus border! So maybe it’s not the most dynamic book available on the topic, but it’s the one that found its way into my hands, and it fit the bill for what I wanted. I’m glad I read it.

In his book, Plokhy draws a startling through-line from the April 1986 explosion of the Unit 4 reactor and the complete dissolution of the USSR only five years later. Because that time-span neatly covered my own adolescence, it feels like an eternity in my memory, the Soviet Union a world power strong as ever until one day it suddenly and inexplicably fell apart. Outside of Chernobyl itself, this book sets its point of view firmly and exclusively in the corridors of Soviet power between Moscow and Kiev, the capital of its Ukraine vassal-state. While he acknowledges that the rest of the world’s view towards the USSR shifted for the worse in response to the half-secretive, half-belligerent Soviet handling of the disaster on the world stage, Plokhy names the ever-present Ukrainian separatists as those who truly held the Soviet system accountable for making the accident possible, and who carried out the Union’s death sentence via their own declaration of independence — with a thoroughly bankrupt Moscow utterly unable to stop them.

Plokhy describes a USSR completely incapable of dealing with strategic realities, but whose people could draw on both grim determination and an enormous population to crystallize around a crisis. The Chernobyl disaster did not result in much immediate loss of human life, or ecological ruin beyond its immediate vicinity, in part because the Soviet Union threw everything they had at it once they acknowledged the situation. This included not just the entire national budget, but hundreds of thousands of “liquidators” bused in to clean and calm the buried, sputtering reactor. Each liquidator worked on-site for only a few seconds before receiving a lifetime’s dose of ionizing radiation — just long enough to dispose of one handful of rubble, and make way for the next one. Older folks among those who participated couldn’t help but compare the swarming effort and its staggering human cost to the Russian resistance to German invasion.

The author describes the final outcome as a bullet dodged for the world, even if it ended up literally shattering its nation. The worst-case scenarios did not occur. Through the frantic and utterly self-sacrificing actions of the Soviet people, the blown-out reactor core did not melt down and poison the water table, nor did it detonate and throw truly unimaginable levels of radiation up into the atmosphere — either of which might have had devastating effects to all of Europe and beyond. But to hear Plokhy describe it, nobody really knows what stopped it, or how big of a role dumb luck played.

Chernobyl acknowledges, in the end, its own point of view from 2018, witnessing a resurgence of autocratic regimes around the world — many of whom eye nuclear power as a way to generate lots of electricity (to say nothing of other mateirals) inexpensively, and showing no more interest in international cooperation than the Soviets did. As an American reader, I also felt very troubled by the descriptions of the Gorbachev-led government’s immediate response to the disaster, which reflexively and openly denied all the objective evidence visible to the whole world, preferring instead to rant about enemies foreign and domestic rather than addressing the crisis with any honesty or transparency. Plokhy closes the book on a note of shrugging hope that the world leaders of today will somehow acknowledge and address the spiraling nuclear issue, applying Chernobyl’s lessons before it — or something much worse — happens all over again.

And what a bitter taste that left me with.

This article was also posted to the “books” section of Indieweb.xyz.

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