Luke Johnson is a freelance journalist in Washington who writes on politics and global affairs.
In the first episode of HBO’s miniseries “Chernobyl,” a Communist official suggests that the real danger isn’t the nuclear power plant that has just exploded, but the news of the tragedy. “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,” says Zharkov (Donald Sumpter), a party member who seems to have been a young man during the Bolshevik Revolution. “We seal off the city. No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation.” His suggestion is met not with horror, but with applause.
This speech might seem dramatic, but like the rest of “Chernobyl,” it represents a sincere attempt to convey the inhumanity, willful ignorance and lies that defined the Soviet Union in the 1980s. This quality has made “Chernobyl” a surprising must-watch summer hit in the United States. But in Russia, the series has run squarely into the historical revisionism favored by the Russian government and its amplifiers in the media, who treat critical explorations of the Russian and Soviet past as attacks on the country’s present.
The Russian government, much like the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union, invokes past greatness, most importantly the Soviet victory in World War II, to legitimize its autocratic regime. Victory Day remains a huge annual celebration of military hardware in Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin has attempted to recast the Soviets' Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Hitler, which divided up Eastern Europe and directly led to Germany invading Poland, as a noble attempt by the Soviet Union to broker peace after Western nations abdicated their responsibilities.
So it’s unsurprising that pro-Kremlin media outlets have treated “Chernobyl,” and American enthusiasm for the series, as a particular affront.
In a review headlined “A Wall of Lies: The ‘Chernobyl’ Miniseries Is an Excellent Propaganda Weapon” published in the government-owned newspaper Argumenty i Fakty, columnist Andrey Sidorchik argued that the series was a Trojan horse for a larger attack on Soviet history. “Look at the ratings — the audience loves it,” he complained. “And then, as the plot develops, they casually feed viewers something about the Holodomor [Stalin’s forced famine in Ukraine], and Stalin’s terror, and they equate Soviet soldiers with Hitler’s.”
In the tabloid Ekspress-Gazeta, journalist Yuri Tkachev called it a “brilliant propaganda victory” for the Americans, adding, “If anybody in the show looks like a superhero, it’s Mikhail Gorbachev, who’s traditionally revered in the West as the great reformer who put an end to communist ideology.” Gorbachev is a generally reviled — and often ignored — figure in Russia for presiding over the collapse of the Soviet Union, and therefore a positive Western depiction of him would draw suspicion.
And Russian state-controlled NTV announced it was making its own series about Chernobyl, based on an evidence-free claim that the CIA was involved in the disaster.
The reaction of pro-Kremlin media to “Chernobyl” illustrates a principle that undergirds Putin’s entire theory of how Russia’s history and its past relate to each other. The past must be recast as a period of national greatness in order for the contemporary political promise of a return to strength at home and abroad to make sense. If the past held tragedies, or even was merely mediocre, then it cannot be a model for the present. You cannot be great again if you were not great before. Chernobyl is hardly the only subject where this rule applies. Russian government figures have defended Stalin’s purges. Half of all Russian youths do not know about them at all.
“Chernobyl" depicts the Soviet Union as more of a Third World country than a great power. The nuclear power plant operators have no idea what they’re doing. The firefighters don’t have adequate protective gear. The Soviet leadership needs to ask the West for help in the cleanup. The series is ultimately sympathetic to the difficult choices made at the top of Soviet leadership and the heroism of ordinary people, but clear that the system is dysfunctional.
Yet some of the most dramatic elements of the show seem less drawn from Soviet realities than from the ideas of American screenwriters. The composite character of a Belarusan scientist, Ulyana Khomyuk seems more like the Hollywood idea of a whistleblower than a believable portrait of what it took to defy the Communist system. The show wraps up at a trial where Khomyuk and Soviet scientist Valery Legasov detail what went wrong. Though there was a real trial, Legasov wasn’t there, and the scene feels more like a conclusion from an American procedural rather than an event that took place in an authoritarian Communist state that distorted the rule of law.
Nevertheless, “Chernobyl” is a much more serious attempt to accurately portray the Soviet Union than what is to come. And Russian viewers and some Russian critics seem to recognize that: The show has a 9.1 viewer rating on Kinopoisk, the Russian equivalent of IMDb.
The Soviet Union may have fallen. But the reaction of Kremlin-allied critics to “Chernobyl shows us that in one respect, not much has changed. Blaming an external enemy for catastrophes to preserve the perception of national greatness didn’t guarantee a glorious Soviet future in 1986. The same strategy still won’t work now.