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TV Review: Chernobyl - Workers' heroism vs sclerotic Stalinism
Ryan Aldred, Plymouth Socialist Party
This five-part docudrama focuses on the disaster in 1986 that took place at the Chernobyl (now part of Ukraine) nuclear facility in the Soviet Union.
The mini-series manages to encapsulate so much without overloading the viewer or rushing the content. Even the score is perfect with the haunting sound of a Geiger counter rising in volume and tempo as some of the more dramatic events are portrayed.
Chernobyl hits hard right from the off, beginning with a suicide; the significance of which only reveals itself at the end of the series after the show trial scene.
We're then thrust straight into the immediate aftermath of the explosion, followed by officials scrambling to maintain the Stalinist bureaucracy which remains a consistent theme throughout.
One of Chernobyl's greatest strengths as a docudrama is that it seamlessly intertwines an imagined dramatisation of the events while largely remaining true to the events that actually took place.
It gives a precise account of the real technical mistakes made by the engineers in the hours and then moments leading up to the disaster while also revealing the overarching political reasons for the maverick attitudes which led to the reactor exploding.
Even some of those most responsible can come across as sympathetic characters as the mini-series does well to highlight how severely the state machinery bears down and tries to cover up its culpability for ignoring what was by that time a known safety flaw with Soviet RBMK reactors.
Under the rule of this bureaucratic caste the planned economy, which underpinned the Soviet Union, was devoid of any elements of democratic workers' control - the prerequisite for genuine socialism.
Chernobyl paints a very intricate and detailed picture which doesn't simply portray the Soviet state as some unquantifiable entity but exposes its contradictions. It struggles against workers, soldiers and scientists to maintain itself while relying on them to avert more serious disasters from developing.
The heroism of the Russian coal miners, the three men that opened the sluice gates, the firefighters, the soldiers and the scientists that in many cases sacrificed their lives makes for powerful viewing.
Many of them did so not because the Gorbachev regime ordered them with the threat of a bullet reserved for dissenters but because they understood the gravity of the situation.
On the other hand some, like the firefighters, acted without being fully aware of what they were dealing with.
To this day the official death toll for Chernobyl according to Soviet records is 31, despite scientific estimates of thousands dying from the effects of radiation exposure.
The mini-series shows the constant clash between the scientists who were desperately attempting to fix the multitude of problems that arose in the immediate aftermath and the Stalinist state under Gorbachev. It saw the maintenance of its prestige both nationally and internationally as much more important than the truth.
The potential of a planned economy and the utterly stifling effects of the bureaucracy are laid bare.
This is made so glaringly clear when, for instance, 5,000 tonnes of boron and sand are so quickly sourced from across the Soviet Union to put out the reactor fire, as are thousands of workers and soldiers brought in to handle the situation.
However, Pripyat (population 49,360), only three miles away from the reactor site, takes days to evacuate and is only done when it is learned that school children in Frankfurt, hundreds of miles away, are being kept indoors to shield them from the radioactive fallout.
Chernobyl is gritty, emotionally charged and yet incredibly informative all at the same time. It pulls no punches in portraying some of the dark tasks that many of the workers and particularly the soldiers had to face.
Clearly deserving of the highest ever rating of 9.7 out of 10 on IMDb; Chernobyl is as harrowing as it is spectacular.
In short, it is a masterpiece rich with political insight while providing chilling entertainment. For that reason it is an absolute must watch.
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