Chernobyl: A verdict on the meaning of truth
Some thoughts about HBO’s historical drama “Chernobyl” and subsequent reading about “Chernobyl prayer” by Svetlana Alexievich
On 26th April 1986, the core of reactor №4 in Chernobyl exploded during the running of a safety test, shooting graphite from control rods and radioactive remnants from Uranium-235 all over the city. A reading of 15,000 Roentgens was detected near the scene. (A reading of 25 Roentgens was the acceptable standard; 1100 Roentgens would be fatal.) Two engineers in the building responsible for maintenance died on the night of the accident after exposing themselves to the exploded core. No one in command realized or acknowledged the brutal reality of the calamity, and the chief operator Dyaltov insisted that it was the hydrogen tank that had exploded and took measures to deal with a problem that had never existed. For 4 days, 2 others and he reassured everyone that things “were under control” while all the signs were telling them otherwise — the graphite found on the ground, the glowing fire, and the blisters which covered every inch of those being nuclear-poisoned like a persistent parasite, burrowing and sucking until there was nothing flesh-like resembled. Many chose to ignore the signs. Four days may not seem much, but it was all it took to kill 31 workers and firefighters. The leaks in air, soil, water continued and in a whirlwind invading every single part of Chernobyl: bringing hell down to the breathing. Oblivious to what was going on, parents brought their children closer to the site of the blast to admire “the magnificent, glowing fire” and play in the “snow” which was, in fact, highly radioactive dust. Life went on as usual. Nothing seemed to be wrong.
“We are so focused on our search for truth that we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there, whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants.”
— Professor Legasov in HBO miniseries “Chernobyl”
During that period in the Soviet Union, every one had his interpretation of truth. To some, “truth” meant only the necessary facts in the absence of those that worked against their favours; to others, it was all the details laid bare for the world to see no matter the consequences. Unsurprisingly, the former was the ideology adopted by the Soviet Union. This was the fixed mentality deeply ingrained into the minds of USSR leaders. They believed their country was infallible and held devotion to the higher authority. They did not want to accept what had happened or ask for help from other countries because being perceived as “weak” was the greatest shame. We ask ourselves — asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It is the first step towards finding a solution to this crisis.
Professor Valery Legasov was the only one with the expertise who stuck his ground in front of the USSR leaders. He convinced them it was the nuclear core that had exploded instead of the hydrogen tank, so the real problem could be fixed without further ado. There was a lot that needed to be done promptly but with limited knowledge and zero experience: nobody had training about dealing with radioactive fallout. Numerous helicopters were sent to place boron and sand to contain the fire, thus limiting the spread of radioactive dust in the air. The situation seemed to be temporarily contained, but they had missed a key detail. Due to the use of sand (as one of the containment measure), meltdown inside the core was sped up, which might reach tanks that were then filled with water. Water would be vaporized, leading to another explosion. A new dilemma arose consequentially — the digital control system was down, so the only way to drain out the water in the tank had to be done manually; going back inside the reactor was, without a doubt, a suicide mission. The ones who went down there would suffer a miserable death in the years that followed. But someone had to do this, or thousands of millions of people would be dead. Additionally, this had to be done by someone who knew the building in and out along with the essential skills to perform the task. Of course, it was difficult to ask someone to volunteer for the job. Speaking the truth was never easy but necessary. Whoever went in deserved to know that the very least. It somehow brought out a strange kind of comfort in the stark reality.
The same happened in the clean-up operation subsequently. Radio-controlled bulldozers and robots were initially used to clear graphite debris on the roof of the reactor so the radioactive area could be completely enclosed. However, these machines soon failed as the radiation destroyed their circuitry. The remaining option was to use bio-robots: men to remove the debris by hand…all the while charged subatomic particles ravaged their cells and shortened their life spans. Healthy young men and women were recruited for this task. Whoever volunteered was not doing it for the “greater good” (well, at least not entirely) or to be called a hero. They did it because they saw the truth more clearly than the others, so they embraced it. They had to; they knew there was no other way. When they walked out after completing the mission successfully, there were momentarily joy and hope. It was ironic how this victory for humanity was also the pending, inevitable, merciless death for them. The deaths were gruesomely awful. It was not the blood oozing out of their noses or how unnatural their postures had made it revolting and grim but because of the events leading to each of their deaths. Yes, they felt ill and agonizing at the beginning, yet for a couple of days, they would feel better as though they were going to recover. They had hope again. Only this is the worst kind possible. This “hope” they felt would be stripped off once more as a matter of time. These people were told they would die, but how could they make peace when they were still clinging to that pathetic shed of “hope”? Their life ended in a pointless fight against demise. People have never learned their names as they saved the world in silence.
Most people in the exclusion zone could not sense the danger of radiation nor comprehend what had happened because radiation is invisible to the naked eye. The urge to see, to touch, to feel in order to believe was simply too strong. Without any of that, there was only a constant feeling of surrealness in their minds. The measures implemented, i.e., the evacuation, recruitment of soldiers, and setup of restricted areas, were akin to what people would normally experience during wartime. Except there was no apparent enemy. Trees were thriving; animals were breeding; food was abundant for all family members. The normality of things displayed was overwhelmingly far too confusing. In the years that followed, many attempted to go back despite how dangerous it was in reality. The Soviet government never once told them the truth.
As a series of containment measures continued to be carried out, one question was inevitably raised. How did an RBMK reactor core melt? None of the data made sense. Professor Legasvo was determined to find out what happened so that the same error would never recur. He was fearless and devoted to finding out the truth. A fundamental design flaw in the fail-safe button (AZ5) had initiated this chain of disaster. The KGB threatened him, saying he would be sentenced to house arrest if he told the truth about the design fault. It was beyond devastating to see how the Soviet government would silence the outspoken than to simply be responsible and face the truth so the same mistake, the same fault, the same catastrophe would cease to exist. What would it take for them to understand that? Perhaps their loved one was also experiencing the same nuclear poisoning as the workers and firefighters? Or maybe they were one of the dying? History said otherwise. It was unlikely that even personal experience would spark any action because those who objected would just be replaced by another soulless puppet. In that sense, indifference made sense to be their rationale. What does it take? A revolution? But too little knew of the truth. Doing the right and the essential thing came with such an outrageous price in this event. Can’t they see what was at stake? Professor had to make a call on whether to expose the truth in front of the world. He had already sacrificed his life. (The radiation he had been exposed to would kill him in about five years.) Isn’t it unfair for him to be robbed of his freedom too? After all, he was just a human with flesh and blood. As much as he hated to admit it, he knew revealing the whole truth was what he needed to do. Yet, even that wasn’t enough to force actions, but he had nothing left. No friend. No life. No freedom. A noble soul pushed to the brim of a cliff. They just kept stealing what was left of him. The ultimate tragedy was him throwing away the dignity that he held onto by killing himself. It worked. Actions were provoked. He was heard, but he would never know. Where was justice for the one who risked everything to reveal the truth?
History witnessed the intelligence, perseverance, power of humanity when groups of people worked together in unity to solve the impossible. But, at the same time, it also uncovered the underlying foolishness and ugliness of some. The Chernobyl lesson was a haunting lesson on the meaning of truth.
“The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That’s what tragedy means.”
— Tom Stoppard.