HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries set out to document a harrowing disaster caused by a few men’s recklessness. It ended up memorializing all the victims of the Soviet Union’s negligence and disregard for human life, serving as a dire warning of what could happen if we ignore the same truths.
Among the tens of thousands of victims of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown may have been my paternal grandparents, both of whom lived not far from the disaster, and died of rare cancers at an early age.
Like the people of Pripyat (who were not evacuated for days following the meltdown), none of the millions living in the surrounding areas were warned of what had happened. My mother remembers having to march outside, in the rain, for International Workers Day, with no idea that deadly radioactivity was raining down upon her. To this day, there is a disproportionately high rate of cancer in Ukraine and neighboring Belarus.
My father, a conscripted fireman, was almost chosen to be among those sent to put out the Chernobyl fire without any warning about radioactivity. Many of his friends who were sent never came back.
These were but a few of a series of coverups implemented by the Soviets to shirk any blame for the disaster. In fact, had Western nations not detected the radiation, we may never have known about it at all.
At the center of HBO’s miniseries is scientist Vasily Legasov, who is given the Herculean task of preventing an all-out meltdown that would kill millions, as well as covering up the USSR’s failures. In the process, like many first-responders, he is exposed to a deadly amount of radiation. But, as is the central truth of the show, it is not the science of radiation but the wretchedness of the Soviet State that ultimately leads to Legasov’s demise.
The KGB demands Legasov bury the knowledge that it was a fundamental flaw in design, due to the USSR’s notorious cheapness, that helped cause the meltdown. But Legasov, knowing that the Soviets would never admit their mistake and fix the flaw that posed a risk to scores of other nuclear reactors, sacrifices his life and career to reveal the truth. It is only in suicide that his warning gets shared, the glitch gets fixed, and millions of innocent lives avert the same gruesome fate.
“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth,” Legasov tells the Soviet kangaroo-court in the series finale. “And sooner or later that debt is paid.”
Chernobyl’s scientists and managers, more concerned with satisfying the party than understanding nuclear power, saw the deadly, invisible truth catch up with them and thousands of innocent families. The Soviet Union, built by one lie atop the next, was finally forced to reckon with its truth five years later. Founded on deceptions that punished innovation and rewarded obedience, the Soviet Union ended with an implosion that resonated across the world, much like the nuclear core at the heart of Chernobyl.
To take the story of Chernobyl and expose it as a testament to the truth is a brave choice in our increasingly deceptive media environment. Today, many lend praise to murderous philosophies like socialism, ignoring history and the suffering of my family and the millions like it. They repeat the same stale lies as the Soviets, setting our nation on the same pitiful trajectory in an inevitable fiery clash with the truth.
To live under socialism is to live with the knowledge that you are not respected as an individual nor rewarded for your merit. Those willing to further the corrupt state get ahead, and those of the ‘wrong’ ethnicity or mentality are left behind. In Chernobyl, it was the responsible and truthful scientists who were silenced. Across the Soviet Union, it was individualists, Jews (like my family), the religious and other minorities who suffered persecution.
Those in the US today who are trying to minimize the genocidal legacy of socialism are no different from the communist party hacks who sought to obscure the causes and consequences of Chernobyl.
The estimated death toll for the meltdown, which may include my grandparents and other relatives who perished from cancers, reaches up to 100,000. The official Soviet death toll remains 31.