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midnight in chernobyl
31 may 2020
I was drawn to Adam Higginbotham's Midnight in Chernobyl after seeing the TV series Chernobyl. The two works, though both appeared in 2019 from British creators, are quite separate undertakings; Higginbotham is even quoted as being critical of some of the dramatic license taken by the makers of Chernobyl. But the two works tell quite parallel stories and take the same intertwining approach to the material. Perhaps the narrative approach, with its foci, its exemplars, its interlocking dynamics, is dictated by the material. There may be no other way to tell such a complicated, nightmarish story.
There are major differences. At the end of the Chernobyl series, which is harrowing and brilliantly made, the filmmakers acknowledge that they have compressed the action and created composite characters, to manage the dramatic impact of the story. Composite characters who are entirely fictional seem a useful liberty to take, but the series goes a step further by redistributing roles in the events among historical characters. Now that I've read Midnight in Chernobyl, I think they might have been better-advised to come up with entirely fictional characters, rather than mis-attribute motives and actions.
The Chernobyl series makes scientist Valery Legasov into a quixotic, disinterested hero of science; Higginbotham portrays Legasov as a well-connected Party loyalist who nonetheless did his best to solve the problems posed by the disaster. Boris Shcherbina is another hero in Chernobyl, from the Party-management side; Higginbotham's Shcherbina is more imperious and definitely not someone who bucks the system. One might say that the film's Legasov and Shcherbina reflect different sides of the real-life Legasov himself; but in which case, why attribute these sides to historical personages? The filmmakers had no trouble creating an entirely fictional composite (Ulana Khomyuk) to represent the entirety of the response from glasnost-committed Soviet scientists. Probably they should have created fictional parallels to Legasov, Shcherbina, and others.
And even the actions depicted in Chernobyl seem to have become skewed in the telling. One central storyline has the Soviet authorities deciding to bombard the burning reactor with sand and boron, which puts the fire out – only to find that the core is still melting downward. Whereupon they get miners to dig a pit beneath the reactor to put in a heat exchanger and cool down the molten mass. In fact, Higginbotham relates, the sand and boron seem never to have hit the reactor core at all (it was too dangerous to fly directly overhead). And the core cooled down on its own; the heat exchanger was never even installed. Probably these cruel real-life ironies were too absurd for TV melodrama.
Chernobyl also makes the Soviet system of the 1980s more bloodthirsty than it really was. Apparently the KGB didn't shoot people anymore or even whisk them away to the gulag (though show trials and awful prisons still existed). The TV series depicts totalitarian silencing of discourse, braved by a few lonely and doomed resisters. As Higginbotham portrays things, though, there was far more vigorous debate and dissent than the series would allow.
The heart of the story comes through in either version, though, and of course for information no film can match an exhaustively detailed prose history like Higginbotham's. The Chernobyl disaster came about via the confluence of poor judgment on the part of the reactor's engineers, coupled with basic flaws in the reactor's design. As Higginbotham explains, perfect, robotic precision could probably have prevented the explosion and meltdown. But designing a nuclear reactor that requires perfect, robotic precision to keep it from blowing up and irradiating much of Europe was the more ultimate cause.
And behind either of these more proximate causes, the real problem behind Chernobyl was the Soviet Union itself. You don't have to be a die-hard Cold Warrior to see that the Soviet system had certain problems. Not want of technical know-how or intrepid execution, but problems of corruption, of a determined refusal to accept facts, of a belief, well into the era of glasnost and perestroika, that the Communist Party could bend the laws of the physical world to its will.
Higginbotham recounts an emblematic confrontation in the middle of efforts to decontaminate the disaster site. A general entrusted with aspects of the clean-up estimated that the work would take seven years. A furious Politburo member said that he could have seven months, "And if you haven't done it by then, we'll relieve you of your Party card!" (249). The general said that in that case they could have his card right away. The exchange is fascinating both for the Communist obliviousness to material constraints, and for the notion (again) that the fate worse than death was to be expelled from the bosom of the Party. By the 1980s, the threat was more hollow than it once had been. People who had long been cynical about Soviet rhetoric and its divorce from reality were starting to care more about reality-based consequences than political or rhetorical ones; and as Higginbotham shows, it took the nightmarish scenarios of Chernobyl for reality finally to win out.
Higginbotham, Adam. Midnight in Chernobyl: The untold story of the world's greatest nuclear disaster. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.