The Godfather seen by the Left is not the same movie seen by the Right. A great work of art can appear different through the lenses we wear. So it is with HBO’s brilliant miniseries Chernobyl: It vivisects all things Soviet, yet many, including its creator, consider it also a warning about something a bit wide of Communism — Trumpism.
I can scarcely praise Chernobyl enough. Creator Craig Mazin’s five-part miniseries, which just wrapped Monday night, is a masterful suspense tale directed with nerve-shredding gusto by Johan Renck: a whodunnit looking backward in time as the characters try to figure out the cause of the 1986 catastrophe but also a mystery moving forward, as the specialists try to figure out how to save millions from dying. It’s a terrifically stimulating lesson on the details of nuclear energy that artfully weaves in reams of expository and technical dialogue without ever disrupting the drama. Around the edges it courses with Kubrickian black comedy: The phrase “It’s only 3.6 roentgens” ought to enter the language as shorthand for any absurd effort to downplay bad news. Chernobyl is an exceptionally compelling human drama: The soot-faced leader of a company of miners is an archetype for all of the brave and suffering working men down through the ages who have had to put their backs into the job of correcting mistakes made by their educated betters. The way Mazin distills the complexity of the situation into potent dialogue is a marvel. Overarching all of the above is Chernobyl’s most vital quality: Its devastating exposure of gigantic political failure.
The anti-Trump subtext that Mazin and others see in the series is not surprising if you understand their priors, but it suffers, as much analysis of the president does, from monomania or tunnel vision — a conceptual narrowness that excludes counterbalancing forces in the Trump era. What Trump haters see in Chernobyl is this: Like the Soviet bureaucracy, Trump is hostile to the truth and won’t budge even when told he’s wrong. In the Left’s caricature, Trump is also dangerously antagonistic toward science and reason. He is supposedly the bull-headed denier who won’t acknowledge the slow-developing Chernobyl that is climate change. Trump is the tech genius saying Reactor Number Four could not have exploded because that’s his opinion, and no facts can change it, even as chunks of evidence to the contrary rain down around him. Trump is the ancient party hack telling his comrades to knuckle down and remember that the priority is not to let the people know the truth. Trump is the spectacularly unqualified pol who gets told off by a feisty (woman) scientist: “I’m a nuclear physicist. Before you were deputy secretary you worked in a shoe factory.” Yes, replies the man, “I worked in a shoe factory. Now I’m in charge.”
Trump has his problems with the truth, but this is beside the point, because the epistemological difference between the Trump era and the Soviet era is so vast. The Soviet Union was a system of lies, an empire of lies that endured only because it was enforced by terror. Lying was effective in the USSR. Trump, by contrast, does not scare anyone into repeating his version of reality, except for a handful of his personal appointees, and the only thing they fear is losing their jobs. Lying is not only ineffective for Trump; it causes him — not the country — substantial damage. The president is not the state. He has not created, and would not be able to create, a system of lies. He does not, to take a salient example, enjoy the ability to order Jim Acosta what to say about him. The Communist Party did not have this problem. After Chernobyl, it didn’t have to worry about whether state television was going to disseminate a message the Central Committee might find disobliging.
The Soviet Union of the series, depicted with harrowing gravity and fascinatingly detailed production design, is nothing like the ever-contentious and self-questioning United States of America, in the Trump era or ever. The U.S. is undergirded not only by separation of powers among rivalrous branches of government but also liberties that create rival non-government institutions that exercise enormous influence and power. The media and the culture are free to take issue with Trump, and — have you noticed? — they do. Would Trump behave like a Soviet apparatchik if a Chernobyl-sized national emergency happened? Our friends on the left would emphatically say yes. I say it doesn’t matter: If he did, he wouldn’t be able to get away with it. It’s great to be American.
If the hermetically sealed USSR of Chernobyl reminds you of an American president, it ought to be not Trump but Woodrow Wilson. The scientists and apparatchicks and coal miners and jurists and soldiers are all part of the same unit, all calling one another “Comrade.” All answer ultimately to the same authority, General Secretary Gorbachev. Wilson was frustrated by the competition of power centers and famously likened government to a living organism that must operate under one brain rather than have its functions diffused: “No living thing can have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live.” The Soviet Communist Party is the realization of Wilson’s dream of a permanent, entrenched bureaucracy — the administrative state of technocratic experts who are too wise to be bound to any pesky acts of Congress. (“Administration cannot wait upon legislation, but must be given leave, or take it, to proceed without specific warrant.”)
Chernobyl is a warning about a completely contained state looking after its own interests instead of its people’s, with little cause to worry that anyone might go off-script because the price to be paid for that is known to all. As the political head of the energy department, Boris Shcherbina, played by Stellan Skarsgard, says to physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) when she threatens to blow the whistle on a coverup:
I’ve known braver souls than you, Khomyuk, men who had their moment and did nothing. Because when it’s your life and the lives of everyone you love, your moral conviction doesn’t mean anything. It leaves you. And all you want at that moment is not to be shot.
The only reason the world started to find out what was happening at Chernobyl was that windborne nuclear fallout, unlike information, cannot be bottled up. When contamination started showing up in Sweden, the world’s scientists started to grasp the reality.
It should not go unnoticed that Chernobyl happened to the Soviet Union at its best, when it was more or less functional, under the leadership of that (relative) sweetheart, Comrade Gorbachev. What would the reaction have been had Stalin been in charge? He would have started having people shot. Quickly he would have found himself unable to find anyone who was willing to tell him the truth. The exposed reactor might have continued to unleash its 48 Hiroshimas a day indefinitely. Europe might have been wiped out. Gorbachev at least proved willing to listen to experts instead of immediately looking for scapegoats. He applied the tourniquets needed to stop the hemorrhaging.
One of many tableaus of irony is the sight of a propaganda banner hanging limply in the contamination zone outside Chernobyl: “Our goal is the happiness of all mankind.” The soldiers who see this are spending their days wandering the land shooting the area’s cats and dogs so they can’t spread the toxin. A Soviet remote-controlled device planned for a moon landing that never transpired is redeployed over the inferno that is the reactor core — a handy symbol of Soviet imagination crashing from the firmament to a poison pit of its own creation. Here are the last pages of the fantasy of socialism, a conclusion whose soundtrack was not brass bands victory at parades but the terrifying high-pitched static of the dosimeters wielded by terrified men in hazmat suits. Five years later, the Soviet Union would die. Chernobyl was the emetic manifestation of the illness that was Soviet socialism.