Heroes & Culprits of Chernobyl

HBO’s "Chernobyl" Honors the Sacrifices of Ordinary Russians while Exposing the Corruption of Communism

In the early predawn hours of April 26th, 1986, Valery Legasov was startled awake by the ring of the telephone. There had been an incident at the Vladimir I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station in Ukraine, a power plant commonly called Chernobyl. As a conscientious scientist, Legasov immediately asked about the radiation level. When he heard the answer, he recommended that the surrounding area be evacuated, but he was cut off mid-sentence. The reason for the call was that, as deputy director of Moscow’s Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, he had been appointed to a committee headed by Communist Party Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev that would manage the response. His role was to answer questions related to the reactor should they arise. Beyond that, he was to keep his thoughts to himself.

By the time Legasov received this phone call, Party officials local to the Chernobyl area had already dispatched some 3,000 soldiers to the city of Pripyat, population 49,000. Pripyat lay just a few kilometers from Chernobyl, and the entire city had been awoken by the explosion and seen the strange colored glow beaming toward the sky. The officials had decided that the city should be sealed off “to prevent panic.” No one would be allowed to leave. And phone lines would be cut – to prevent the spread of “misinformation.”

And so, within hours of the explosion, hundreds (and later thousands) of people from different sectors and strata of the Russian population went about either conscientiously trying to do what the immediate situation called for – or about trying to cover it up while covering their own backsides and looking for someone who could plausibly be blamed. For example, even as Pripyat firefighters, who’d been called out of their sleep to put out a fire on the roof of the plant, were being transported to hospitals with deadly radiation burns, committee members were assuring Secretary Gorbachev that the situation was “fully under control” and that the radiation level was about “the equivalent of a chest x-ray.” Legasov, although he moved among the circles of the latter, proved to be one of the former.

HBO’s five-part miniseries, Chernobyl, has brought the Chernobyl incident to TV in a way that is remarkably faithful to the event and its aftermath. It exposes, without preachiness or overt comment, the self-serving, systemically inept and eventually catastrophic nature of the Communist system while also honoring the largely unrecognized role of Valery Legasov, who, as the full extent of the disaster came to light, kept fewer and fewer of his thoughts to himself.

Here are some of the people whose voluntary, selfless efforts are recognized by HBO’s telling of the events:

  • Countless doctors and nurses treated the firefighters and power station operators, knowing full well that they were exposing themselves to extremely harmful radiation. Most of the immediate casualties they cared for were dead within two weeks of the explosion due to radiation burns.
  • Seven days after the accident, some 400 coal miners began working round the clock to dig a tunnel so that a liquid nitrogen-supplied heat exchanger could be installed to stop the meltdown before nuclear fuel leaked out and contaminated ground water and the Pripyat River. They dug by hand to avoid destabilizing the ground under the melting reactor core. The men knew they were signing up for dangerous and difficult work, but they took it up willingly and completed the job in four weeks. Many of them died before age 40.
  • Once the risk of leakage into the ground was averted, more than 3000 men walked out onto the roof in protective gear to shovel radioactive debris back onto the exposed reactor core. They worked single 90-second shifts due to the radiation exposure the task required.

There were more, and their names and the extent of the sacrifices they made are recorded only in heaven’s records. The Soviets basically erased Legasov out of their own history because of his role in exposing their manifold failures that led to Chernobyl. Estimates of its death toll range from 4,000-93,000, but had it not been for his conscientious involvement, and that of thousands of others like him, millions (some say tens of millions) more might have died. A true telling of the events reflects well on them and poorly on Party apparatchiks up the food chain. The words of Jesus come to mind, that the first shall be last and the last first.

The Union of Soviet Socialists Republic (the USSR) was a dastardly system that rewarded the power-hungry and unscrupulous while squashing or eliminating truth-tellers, and Chernobyl was the result of a catastrophic collision of errors, omissions, and oversights that is apt to happen in a corrupt system with such perverse incentives. In keeping with its corrupt and self-serving priorities, its official death toll from Chernobyl was 31. At a time in American history when a large swath of the electorate is enamored with socialism, the Chernobyl series offers an eye-opening look at the risk we take if we move as a society in that direction.

** The photo above is taken from now-abandoned Pripyat. Chernobyl, with the exploded reactor now sealed under a massive containment dome, can be seen in the background.  

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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