16 September 2019

Chernobyl- a city wherein the bleak future came earlier

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Chernobyl is a city in Ukraine. Chernobyl is also the name of an atypical English-American series, with only 5 episodes, aired in May-June, when it was celebrated 33 years and a month since the April 1986 nuclear disaster, which ended the enlightenment period, the reformation of the communist bloc, initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev. Today, Chernobyl is a space where hundreds of tourists come, per year, to visit the city which is still in the security area, and meet with the few hundreds of inhabitants left of all 14.000 existent when the disaster took place, to take pictures believing that they were, for some hours, in a post-nuclear world. A world that we and our country were so close to at that moment.

Image source: Mediafax

The series which opened an old wound

On a map with radiation levels recorded after the Chernobyl catastrophe one can see the areas infected with the isotope to have the longest life of all elements surviving a nuclear accident and which can, therefore, seep in everything that has life on earth and in the water or in the atmosphere, remaining, for decades, the most dangerous radioactive substance after a nuclear disaster. The area contaminated in Belarus represents 25% of the country (however, inhabited by 35% of the population), in Ukraine 7%, and in Russia, 1,7 %. There were 27 kg of Cesium 137 for only a few tens of thousands of square kilometers.

But that happened 33 years ago, when Belarus, Ukraine and even the great Russia were not actually countries. In the meantime, many things happened: revolutions, the iron curtains’ collapse, broken walls, small or big wars, unifications and dismemberments, attacks on the Twin Towers, migrations, climate changes, hence, the event, the tragedy or the catastrophe from April 1986 was left behind, even for the nations which, according to the map, had to live all this time with the tragic consequences of the Chernobyl Nuclear Central Station explosion.

However, those events were, somehow, brought in the spotlight again, when the series “Chernobyl” was launched on the market, a West-European and American coproduction, which has opened an old discussion about the past, but which has, indeed, some connotations for both the present and the future. Despite the disputed historical, artistic or political aspects, some things are really worth noting:

-it opens, again, the debate on this event, a postponed and old analysis, which was somehow left behind due to the recent spectacular evolutions in Europe and around the world as well;

- it is presenting, in an artistic-documentary manner, the event and its consequences, so it has not only historical lessons to give, but also lessons about the political and social reality of that time, with strong technical connotations, wherein the coordinates the nuclear energy and the involved consequences are produced and used is, clearly, educational;

- it shows how the peaceful Soviet nuclear scientific accomplishments war was working and how false it was, built on a technology whose issues were not presented for the public;

- it analyzes the internal bureaucracies, the procedures that were blocking or temporizing the decision of a system that was hardly admitting its mistakes and which was, therefore, postponing the solutions for life or death problems;

- it shows that, alike any other system, the tragedy has also human consequences, filled with heroism and cowardice, detachment and involvement moments.

Thanks to the informational blockage at that time and the bad, non-transparent and arbitrary functioning of causes’ management and investigation system, incident’s evolution and consequences, no one knows exactly the number of the victims, the diseases directly created by it or the long-term effects.

Therefore, reintroducing this issue in the public eye, when in all three countries the civil society has different interrogation possibilities of the authorities comparing to what they had 33 years ago, it cannot but bring more light in a controversial and sensitive field. And not just in these three countries. Let’s not forget that recently, in Fukushima, Japan, there has been another similar incident, for different causes. A documentary about the latter also says a similar story about the technological issues, human heroism and the consequences to be felt for decades.

The Chernobyl series causes some problems for the current authorities. In Moscow, but also Minsk, however less in Kiev, the 80’s are part of an assumed history, with the good and the bad, having also a nostalgic tendency, which makes some of the former East-European Soviet space citizens, the Western focalization, even artistic in terms of one of the unhappy moments of that time, to be regarded as insidious, interested, propagandistic, unfair, unilateral. And there are also some obvious limits the production put:

- it only tells the story of that specific event and the period after;

- it focuses on the immediate effects;

- it addresses a Western audience, which is somehow distant in terms of the event, not the local one, not the survivors;

-it was supposed to be a documentary, but some of its elements are purely fictional, with no real correspondents, which allowed the Russian propaganda to question the issue the producers highlighted.

When everything is secret, solutions comes later, too late

The film offers a series of critical approaches, not only ideological, but also technical ones, perhaps the most obvious example being the presentation of radiation’s effects as contagious (which are not), casting a stigma not only on the radiated ones, but also on all the inhabitants from the border region between Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

Those presenting a controversial reality of the Chernobyl reactors type are, of course, more numerous. We are talking about the decisions made during time when choosing the reactor model, its potential use and the decision to get fuel for atomic weapons, the design of the concrete structure around the reactor, made at minimum costs for economic reasons.   

We are talking about carrying out experimental operations and procedures done by violating the instructions, at an inappropriate hour, with a less efficient work exchange, interested in completing this experiment as quickly as possible. In a condensed presentation, this is an issue-based reactor, managed by a team not properly trained for the procedures they had to experiment, also postponed several times.

They all, eventually, led to this tragedy, produced at 01.24 am (the experiment began at 01.23 am), local time, April 26, 1986, to the explosion that instantly evaporated the Soviet technological achievements myth. And it revealed, instantly, but also in the weeks that followed, how harmful system’s opacity was in communicating at an interinstitutional level, but also with public opinion:

-an accident with similar characteristics, at a smaller scale, happened at the atomic center from Leningrad/ Sankt Petersburg, in 1975;

-reactors’ design issues, identified at other centrals (Ignalinia, 1983), were not acknowledged by the Chernobyl’s personnel;

-there were some issues in adapting and adopting the security measures at the modern technology;

-it was made permanent the error in the public communication, hiding the event and its consequences, which lead to distrust’s increase in everything that was previously communicated by authorities.

Consequences, lessons that were learned, postponed or avoided

 The consequences of the Chernobyl accident are numerous and different. The most visible was the political and ideological plan, the event being interpreted internationally in a pacifist, anti-war and anti-communist, anti-Gorbachev key. It is still regarded as one of the elements that led to Soviet Union’s collapse, alongside the "star wars", the campaign in Afghanistan, the protests in Karabakh, the nationalist movements in the Baltic countries and Georgia. But there are consequences and lessons learned on other levels as well. Lessons learned, but not always considered:

- when dealing with such an accident, there is not a single cause, but evolutions and circumstances involving both the technology and the human element;

- the security measures imposed after Chernobyl, especially in the Western states, led to raising the nuclear centrals’ price and has imposed finding alternative solutions;

-they have returned to oil and carbon-based centrals, which led to increasing pollution and produced negative effects, including human victims, more numerous than the Chernobyl ones;

-other environment contamination sources, highlighted after human tragedies or ecological disasters, like Bhopal in India or the Aral Sea, in Uzbekistan/Kazakhstan continue to exist, because states, especially those which want to spend less and get more, cannot give up the chemical fertilizers used for infertile lands, nor the water necessary for irrigations in the dessert.

Chernobyl has also become a registered trademark for a number of areas. The film itself uses this perspective and presents a subject that, however, sells with all its controversies. It is also the tourism industry. The region, still depopulated by the disaster and prohibition measures, attracts a large number of curious people. The film doubled their number. A selfie with the "sarcophagus" makes you famous among your friends. There are also computer games about this event, and the "Atomic vodka", produced - by scientists, of course! – made of decontaminated water and cereals in this area.

And the film contributes, to a great extent, to debate’s intensification on this tragedy, a debate that is both about what happened 33 years ago, but also about how some of the present, political leaders, the media and the population are treating this tragedy.

A movie review, but not that consistent

The reactions emerged after the movie was launched were not a surprise in the West, nor the East. By East were are mean Russia mostly, Ukraine’s nostalgic population and Belarus, but also other former Soviet republics which, even if they were not directly affected by the tragedy, they have felt it after contributing with people, military personnel, volunteers or goods at that time.

 The Western audience made contact with the Soviet reality before, through the historical or artistic documentaries, hence their reaction was quite moderated by production’s qualities, but also its imperfections. Acknowledged by the Western media itself. It is no secret that there are things that took place after the Iron Curtain fell that the Western people are still hiding, as it is also no secret that the big issues of the communist system were rigorously analyzed, especially those related to human rights, economy’s functioning, leaders’ elections or the meaning of the created society.

The Eastern side, however, Russia mostly, had a series of controversial reactions, among the political leaders and official media, but also positive one from the population, which was already connected at the online video channels. It is somehow surprising how those denying or criticizing this movie’s realities are standing, given that the nuclear accident took place in a country that no longer exists, during a political system period that is also gone.

There have been proposed, even realized, some countermeasures to this documentary. Some nationalist parties called for a halt to its broadcasting in Russia. A television station, NTV, has tried to create its own series on the same subject. The trailer made public suggests the presence of a CIA agent during the tragedy, in the Chernobyl area. He is not involved in those events, but he is still a shadow, suggesting that the game may have a different turn that the one made publicly. In other word, an American spy, you know ... nothing's wrong.

One explanation for Russian authorities’ attitude is that if Russia is officially the political heir of USSR, unofficially, but assumed, it is also the heir to the former state’s history. Of the communist mythology, which got also a Russian national tendency, an orthodox faith, Slavic spirit. Of the heroes of yesteryear. Of the great sacrifices. Which should not be minimized by Western propaganda. Which must be counteracted. In 2009, during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, it has been established a commission which had to correct the attempts to "falsify history to the detriment of Russia's interests". It only worked for three years, but shows how sensitive the past is for Moscow.

As this analysis is not a movie review, it cannot but relatively show the qualities or imperfections of this artistic documentary.

Its impact was not the result of its qualities or imperfections (mostly the qualities), but the results of alluding to a quite recent history, whose hidden truths are slowly starting to come to light, still provoking pain for those who lived it and rejection for those who still believe that Chernobyl was just an accident and not the consequence of a system that no longer had resources.

Translated by Andreea Soare