Chernobyl and Nuclear-Accelerated Collapse

I’ve been watching the Chernobyl miniseries these past few days and, after finishing it the other night, I have been left with a particularly spicy (if medium-rare) hot take.

The series chronicles everything from the moment the core of the power plant explodes to its prolonged aftermath. And yet, the dramatised consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown unfold surprisingly quickly.

I always assumed the thing failed and everyone just got the hell out of there. I was surprised how wrong I was.

Whilst most of the “action” takes place over a 48-hour period and is followed by a few weeks of controlled collapse, during which the city of Pripyat is evacuated and a major clean-up operation begins, it is hard to calculate how many lives were lost following the disaster and its mismanagement — particularly those who knowingly (and unknowingly) sacrificed their lives to try to limit the full extent of the fallout.

It’s all incredibly depressing.

Workers are, as ever, the first to go — plant workers and skilled labourers brought in to handle the clean-up are sacrificed and die horrifically within days, quite literally melting into pools of irradiated goo. The bureaucrats and apparatchiks — or some of them at least — are like captains going down with their ship, accepting the inevitable if anticipating a slower demise.

Beyond this, we are shown every detail. Most harrowingly, one episode follows a group of soldiers tasked with clearing out the post-evacuation influx of stray irradiated dogs. Too adorable to want to kill, too irradiated to allow to wander the landscape freely, it’s a truly thankless proto-apocalyptic task.

All in all, the events on display make the Soviet Union look like a real shitshow. So concerned with their reputation on the world stage, the higher-ups who are out of harm’s way nonetheless endanger countless more lives in the future for the sake of saving face for five more minutes.

It is undeniably a particularly Soviet sort of mess but what surprised me was that it was not wholly unfamiliar.

The two years over which the series takes place starts to feel like a rapidly accelerated state collapse, foreshadowing the Soviet Union’s final death knell which would sound only five years later. But this sort of multi-dimensional incompetence nonetheless echoes the time in which we live and, perhaps more accurately, the times to come.

Who would have thought a television series about the past could feel so horrifyingly speculative…

As the 2020s loom on the horizon, the decades ahead feels poised to define themselves through a similar sort of gross state incompetence. Today the West, increasingly unsure of itself and its relationship to the truth, is mismanaging the unfolding climate crisis just as criminally as the Soviet Union mismanaged the Chernobyl disaster. The only difference is that the collapse which took the Soviet Union a decade is taking the West five times as long.

Still, our disaster — our climate Chernobyl — can’t be too far off. The unbearably dry heat of this year’s London heatwave makes that very clear.

In this way, it is blinkered to view Chernobyl as only a series about how ridiculous Soviet Communism was — especially when we consider that, in recent years, we have begun to treat our experts with just as much contempt and our labourers with just as little empathy as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The inconvenient truth at the heart of the series it that all state-forms are just as embarrassingly suicidal — if you give them the time and the opportunity.

There are still lessons to be learned within it for us all.

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