The Banality of Evil in HBO’s Chernobyl

By Alexandra Hudson

“What is the cost of lies?” opens HBO’s new miniseries, Chernobyl, and the show that is IMDB’s current highest-rated TV series in history.

“It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then?”

These words—about the catastrophic nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl while Ukraine was under the control of the Soviet Union—are ominous, yet prescient. These remarks frame the theme that the Chernobyl series as a whole, powerfully explores: the danger of power so centralized that truth and falsehood become inverted, and the utilitarian thinking that places the “common good” above human toll.

Without the truth, “what else is left,” the narrator’s voice muses, “than to abandon even the hope of truth, and content ourselves instead with stories?”

Chernobyl is a story of a grievous disaster that had untold human and natural cost; no one intended the nuclear disaster to occur. But it is more importantly a story of how the culture of fear bred by totalitarianism made a mistake unconscionably worse. The denial, self-delusion, and blame—all couched in the language of being “for the good of the people”—is chilling.  

In the first ten minutes of the show, we witness the scientists managing the early moments of the emergency situation of the nuclear meltdown. “We need water moving through the core—that is all that matters,” commands Dyatlov, the head scientist. “There is no core! It exploded, the core exploded!” a man who had just come from the emergency site cries. “He’s in shock. Get him out of here,” Dyatlov orders.

“The lid is off. The stack is burning. I saw it,” says another on-the-ground witness.

“You’re confused,” Dyatlov maintains. “We need to pump water into the core.”

“What about the fire?” Another scientist asks.

“Call the fire brigade,” Dyatlov demands.

For Dyatlov, the man who the Soviet government ultimately blames for the disaster at Chernobyl, an error such as the core of the nuclear plant melting down is not just a scientific inconceivability—but so are the consequences of such a grievous error. As such, he moves forward managing the situation as if the meltdown around him isn’t occurring, essentially sentencing his team—not to mention innocent firemen—to painful and swift death by exposure to unthinkable amounts of nuclear radiation.

This willful self-delusion is bred from the top-down, but negatively affects the situation from the bottom-up: because Dyatlov, the highest ranking official who is closest to the disaster, tells his superiors that the disaster is nothing to worry about, they feed that optimistic yet horribly wrong message up the food chain, which only ensures that the drastic measures—necessary to mitigate human and natural harm—are not taken.

Totalitarianism as Collective Gaslighting

In one frightening scene from episode one, Dyatlov and other high ranking Soviet officials are asked to update group of powerful and influential leaders. “First, the accident is well under control,” Bruykhanov—the highest ranking official in the room—begins. “To prevent a panic,” he continues, the Central Committee has ordered a detachment of military police to Pripyat… between two and four thousand men.”

The room stirs: a militia that large to mitigate “panic” in a town so small seems to contradict the previously stated position that all is “under control.”

One local leader dares to question the information given: “What’s really going on here? How dangerous is this?”

“There is some radiation but it’s limited to the plant itself,” another high ranking official claims.

“No it isn’t,” the local man continues. “You saw men vomiting outside. You saw men with burns. There’s more radiation than they’re saying. We have wives here. We have children. I say we evacuate the town. The air is glowing!”

Bruykhanov pleads with the room to believe the party line, even as it conflicts with the evidence around them: “Gentlemen! my wife is here! Do you think I’d keep here in Pripyat if it wasn’t safe?!”

An old sage of the Soviet party begins to tap his cane on the floor to get the room’s attention, and shares the most evocative and disturbing monologue in the series so far.

“How proud [Vladimir I. Lenin] would be of you all tonight,” he begins. “Especially you, young man,” he says pointing to the gentleman who begged for evacuation. “The passion for the people. For is that not the sole purpose of the apparatus of the State? Sometimes we forget. Sometimes we fall prey to fear. But our faith in Soviet socialism will always be rewarded. Now, the State tells us that the situation is not dangerous. Have faith, comrades. The State tells us it wants to prevent a panic. Listen well! It’s true, when the people see the police, they will be afraid. But it is my experience that when the people ask questions that are not in their own best interest, they should simply be told to keep their minds on their labor, and leave matters of the State to the State. We seal off the city. No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labor. Yes comrades, we will all be rewarded for what we did here tonight. This is our moment to shine.”

The room erupts in applause.

The moment the local leaders leave the meeting room, after being roused to have their faith in their Soviet government once again restored, a scientist from Chernobyl briefs the high ranking officials with an update on the radiation reading. Up until this point, officials had used the low roentgen (unit of measuring radiation) reading of one dosimeter (a device used to measure radiation) to feed their delusion that the situation was under control and really not that bad in the first place. The problem was that the initial dosimeter used only went up to 3.2 roentgen. The scientist begins by sharing with the room that a dosimeter that went up to one thousand roentgen burned out immediately upon turning on. They then used another dosimeter—which maxed out at two hundred roentgen.

“What game are you playing at?” orders one official.

“It’s another faulty meter. You’re wasting our time,” Bruykhanov dismissing the high reading.

“How do you get that number from feedwater leaking from a blown tank?”  Dyatlov demands, joining the pile on against the scientist sharing unfavorable facts about the horror and reality of the situation.

“I walked around the exterior of building four. I think there’s graphite on the ground,” the scientist murmurs, defeated, knowing full well that he will be the one written off as a lunatic for merely relaying his observations.

“You didn’t see graphite,” states Dyatlov flatly.

“I did.”

“You DIDN’T! Because it’s NOT THERE!” Dyatlov now loses his cool.

“Are you suggesting the core exploded?” asks another official, incredulously. “You’re a nuclear physicist. So am I. Will you please tell me how a RBMK reactor core explodes? I’d love to know.”

“I can’t.”

“Are you stupid?”

“I don’t see how it could explode… But it did.”

“I’ll go to the roof of building four and see it for my own eyes—” Dyatlov begins before vomiting on the conference table and collapsing, the gravity of the situation finally settling in.

The Origins of Totalitarianism

In her Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt offers an explanation of why there existed such a chasm between reality and what the society leaders could comprehend: in short, any sort of critical or creative thinking is antithetical to an authoritarian regime which has power that is premised of total control over the mind, body and spirit of persons. She writes,

Intellectual, spiritual, and artistic initiative is as dangerous to totalitarianism as the gangster initiative of the mob, and both are more dangerous than mere political opposition. The consistent persecution of every higher form of intellectual activity by the new mass leaders springs from more than their natural resentment against everything they cannot understand. Total domination does not allow for free initiative in any field of life, for any activity that is not entirely predictable. Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.

The opposite of a society that promotes human liberty and free inquiry is one where the individual’s mind is no longer capable of independent thought. It is one where facts and reality are contradicted by the “party line,” and where one must choose to exchange their reason for party loyalty.

Winston, the protagonist in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, experienced in Room 101. As O’Brien tortured Winston until he not just said, but truly believed that 2+2=5—contrary to everything he knew to be true—the Soviet Union leadership engaged in collective gas lighting of any person who offered information contrary to their neat narrative that they had the situation in Chernobyl “under control.”  In consistently questioning people’s thoughts and memories and perceptions, people began to question themselves—making them more inclined to believe and perpetuate the lies that the Soviet government told them.

Relatedly, the dangerous consequentialist reasoning the Soviets used time and time again in Chernobyl—the utter devaluation of human life for the sake of the collective good—is chilling. The decision not to evacuate the area surrounding Chernobyl was an easy one of for the old sage and the party officials to make—especially since it was as simple as making a phone call, and, of course, they and their families would not be subject to the lockdown themselves.

This is reminiscent of themes explored in another of Hannah Arendt’s great works, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Evil comes in many forms, Arendt argues. Sometimes it is grand and bloody; other it is demonic in its triviality. Making a call that seals the fate of thousands in a nuclear wasteland, or stamping paperwork that sentences Jews to their death in concentration camps—those that do or did both, while detached from the act itself, are just as evil and culpable as the person pulling the metaphorical trigger.

Arendt wrote, “The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.”

Let us use reminders of the evil in our past, such as the vivid depiction of the horrors of Chernobyl, to stay mindful of this.

Let us also be quick to foster and celebrate the humanity and dignity of one another each day.

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Alexandra Hudson

Alexandra Hudson is a Research Fellow for the American Insitutte for Economic Research. She earned her graduate degree from London School of Economics as a Rotary Scholar and is working on a book on civility.