Chernobyl and Trump’s America

On April 26, 1986, a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine exploded, and to this day it is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history. Chernobyl’s legacy, however, is more than just the dangers of nuclear testing plants. Creator and writer of HBO’s Chernobyl Craig Mazin says instead, “The lesson of Chernobyl isn’t that modern nuclear power is dangerous. The lesson is that lying, arrogance, and suppression of criticism are dangerous.”

And it’s no wonder, then, that throughout much of the series I found myself shocked that many scenes only rang to mind one thing — the current President of the United States, Donald Trump.

The unsettling darkness that sets the tone of the first episode is enough to cue to the audience the eerie tragedy to come; a darkness exists both literally in the cinematography and metaphorically in the hushed secrecy of the Gorbachev administration. And in many ways, what is most haunting about the show is that the audience knows the facts of the situation, but the citizens on screen do not. Most of us watching already know the deathly consequences of Chernobyl’s radioactive explosion and how, even today, visitors can still see first-responder firemen’s uniforms in the ashes and children’s toys scattered in the debris of eerily intact homes that remind you this incident happened only 34 years ago.

What Mazin created with his Chernobyl is not so much a scientific commentary as it is a political one. Immediately following the power plant explosion in the first episode, USSR officials refuse to acknowledge the lethal harm of the leaking radiation and pass it off as “just a small chest pain” — exactly how Trump has been telling his citizens on national television that COVID-19 is “just a harmless cough.” As if when he started writing in 2017 he knew what was to come in 2020, Mazin tells the cautionary tale of a government of secrecy, of politicians who favor face over fact, and of a leader who ignores science for his own political gain at the deadly expense of the very people he rules.

After the explosion that intensely kicks off the series, the camera pans dramatically over civilians in nearby Pripyat staring in awe at the flames miles away from them, thinking it is just a harmless fire too far to reach them. And it’s almost beautiful, those bright yellow flames licking the stars, leagues away. Ash begins to fall like snow, dancing daintily on all the people standing on what will later be named the Bridge of Death. Children reach up, let the soot land on their anticipatory noses and tongues like snowflakes. Everyone revels in the strange beauty, naively reaching straight for death.

This eerie beauty is a cinematic technique employed throughout the film, as the death radiating within the surrounding area pumps with a sublime eeriness of slow, quiet, and unknown dying. During the evacuation scene a couple episodes later, military vehicles plow through the streets issuing a warning to evacuate, but the people do not understand why. Civilians pack their bags and load onto buses. They think it’s for three days; we know they will never return. There’s an implacable sense of eeriness as the bus drives away and homes stand still in ash, dolls on windowsills sitting half-up, suspended in play. Mazin creates an aura of understanding beyond language into feeling, as we watch silence kill.

As mentioned earlier, the point of the show is not to show you how radiation occurs; the point is to show you the distasteful social and political legacy secrecy leaves — how a government weaponized silence as its most efficient murder tool, all to save face and shrug off Ukrainian lives. For the sake of face, the Soviets do not reveal to the world the true degree of damage, so they consequently do not receive the aid they actually need, the help and resources that might have actually saved lives. And thus the government uses its own people, sacrificial volunteers, to clear away the graphite on the roof of the still highly reactive plant — just as President Trump sees workers in the pandemic not as essential, but as sacrificial. Mazin has done his job as a screenwriter with Chernobyl, as he has made us fear the world he has set up for us. Only what’s more terrifying about it is this world doesn’t feel fictional.

Towards the last moments of the show, Professor Khomyuk pleads with Professor Legasov to tell the truth to the world and to the townspeople who deserve to know the danger they are walking into, have already walked into. As she reveals an exposed Pripyat woman’s baby died only four hours after birth, she says, “We live in a country where children have to die to save their mothers.” And the moment I heard this, my gut lurched. Harrowing, isn’t it? Khomyuk says this while Americans live in a world where this is true right now, where an incompetent president dismisses a global pandemic as a fabricated farce, ordering schools to reopen and sacrificing children to save his face, already far lost, in front of the scrutinizing world who comforts their own citizens by saying, “At least we’re not American.”

In the final voiceover monologue that concludes the series, Professor Legasov reflects:

“To be a scientist is to be naive. We are so focused on our search for truth we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it…And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl; where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: what is the cost of lies?”

Lives. The cost of lies is lives. The postscript at the end of the final episode reveals the estimated number of casualties from the incident: up to 94,000 lives. The official Soviet death toll, however, stands at 31. The USSR chose not to keep track of deaths so as not to have a record of it. And, just as the Soviets sought to hide their numbers so the world would not know its failures, its murder and disservice to the people, so Trump seeks to limit testing to hide America’s COVID-19 death toll.

A poignant scene that struck an uncanny and fearful chord with me in its direct commentary of governing bodies occurs midway through the series when Professor Legasov discovers the futility of the 30km evacuation distance that a government official makes for the townspeople. He exclaims both angrily and helplessly, “Is this really the way it all works? An uninformed, arbitrary decision that will cost who knows how many lives made by some apparatchik, some career party man?”

Yes, it does appear that is the way the world works — in Gorbachev’s USSR, and in Trump’s America.

In nearly all of his COVID-related interviews, President Trump childishly protests that America’s case numbers are only high because we are testing frequently, even suggesting that other countries are hiding their numbers — rather ironic of a complaint, as that is exactly what he wishes to do. Trump sees honesty as a dark spot on our record; he treats the world’s knowledge of America’s failures, rather than his own handling of the deathly pandemic, as shameful. He acts like it is a shameful thing to be honest about our case numbers, and his desire to put a cap on testing to slow down our reported numbers only makes me think of the very dictators that seek to hide the truth of their failures from the world, the very dictators America prides itself on uprooting (as if it deserves to “police the world” when all it does is drop weapons into hotbeds of conflict in the Middle East). It truly baffles me that some people in this country do not recognize Trump’s behavior as reminiscent of a dictatorship weaponized by censorship and secrecy.

How can Americans boast of living in a democracy, when everyday we are witnessing a regression from it? How can we boast of living in a democracy, when our truths are being stifled? Sure, we may not be shot dead by the FBI for speaking out about our virus case numbers, but the military is being violently deployed to hotbeds of peaceful (democratic!) protest, and public mailboxes are being torn from streets only months before an unprecedented mail-in election. How can we boast of a country of “advanced” education and free speech when we selectively silence the ones who exercise it? How can we boast of anything, when our president has sought to strategically censor the voices of those against him on social media and issues executive order after executive order because it bypasses the very system of checks and balances our country was founded upon? How does Trump have the audacity to boast of a country he is taking apart with his big ego and small brain?

Craig Mazin writes Chernobyl as if he knew Trump would dismiss Dr. Fauci and endanger the lives of millions of Americans because a deadly virus was only worsening in his nation. Just as Gorbachev sought to stem the spread of information of Chernobyl’s deathly radiation, Trump seeks to stem the spread of information that America is now desperately failing — dying — due to his stubborn refusal to acknowledge science.

Chernobyl is a scary show to watch because we know what happens. People die, and they do not know they will, nor why. But perhaps now especially, it is even scarier to watch because politicians have not learned, have they?

Writer based in San Francisco. Stanford ’20.