In his 1970 Nobel Prize speech, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said: “Those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force – they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.” From the mind of writer Craig Mazin, the HBO/Sky series Chernobyl is just such a work – an indictment of the very culture of lies that had no room in it for a prophet such as Solzhenitsyn. Chernobyl is five mesmerising hours of terror – and of hope.
At the start of Chernobyl we meet the character of Valery Legasov, who was the real-life scientist partly responsible for saving Eurasia from widespread radioactive contamination. Exactly two years after the unprecedented reactor explosion on April 26, 1986, Legasov (brilliantly played by Jared Harris) despairs that truth may ever prevail in a system designed to stamp out whatever jeopardises an artificial common good.
Echoing Solzhenitsyn, Legasov’s opening lines of the series set the tone: “The real danger is that if we hear enough lies then we no longer recognise the truth at all.” In one episode, a sad soldier who has the task of killing infected house pets in an abandoned village unconvincingly declares: “Our goal is the happiness of all mankind.” We know change is coming soon, but it seems too much for the characters to imagine at the time.
Chernobyl’s director Johan Renck depicts the infamous cloud of radioactive smoke as an almost demonic intruder no human organisation can control. The whole sinful world is a spiritual fallout zone. But amazingly, it is also redeemable. Soviet minister Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) and nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) shine in roles that embody different elements of the excruciating dilemma of living with madness or accepting the consequences of fighting for reality. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s minimalist score conjures a quiet anxiety reminiscent of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 masterpiece The Lives of Others.
Just five years after the catastrophe at Chernobyl, Pope St John Paul II used the word “truth” 46 times in his encyclical Centesimus Annus. As he contemplated the post-communist landscape of his native Poland and beyond, the pontiff noted: “If there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power.”
Chernobyl depicts many acts of heroic self-sacrifice, but no God. We therefore see the terrible allure of abandoning oneself to powerful falsehood in the absence of a real ground of being. Solzhenitsyn and John Paul both knew better. Certain historical moments prove Our Lord’s assurance that the truth really will set us free. Chernobyl is that rare gift of a bleak, breathtaking piece of art that teaches us to stay the course.
Andrew Petiprin is the author of Truth Matters: Knowing God and Yourself (New Growth Press)