Chernobyl: A reason to remember, a way to learn

What is a thrilling drama for the Western world, is still a code word for Soviet horror for the successor states in the East. How does a TV-series about Chernobyl manage to equally excite the most diverse audiences and shape public opinion?

I was a second grader at a suburban school in Hungary when a part of the nuclear plant in Chernobyl exploded, on April 26, 1986. For me, that day was nothing special. Nor the weeks immediately following it. While the Financial Times reported about the major disaster a few days after, the news broke in the then Soviet ally states much, much later.

This is how things worked at the time. We knew what “they” wanted us to know, all else could, at any point, be considered rumour. Still, in the summer of 1986, adults were quietly but frequently mulling over “possible polluted” vegetables. A bit later, I overheard conversations about unborn babies because of… “Hush!” Many things have only become clear while writing this post.

Most of the large-scale disasters from the nearest past of humanity have been processed to feature films already. Except for one. Until a screenplay writer, Craig Mazin, decided to explore topics for a new series addressing the “global war on truth.” He ended up crafting a television series about the disaster in Chernobyl, and HBO and Sky signed up for it.

Already the first shows have proved them right. For some, it was the human heroism and tragedy. For others, it is the historically accurate representation of an era. It also certainly helped that the affected generation is still alive: hundreds of survivors told their (and the victims’) stories in thousands of feature articles, news pieces, videos, accompanied by the shocking photos of the past and current landscapes of the area.

This recent realm of proofs has made many realize the scale of the tragedy. And many need tangible proof. Disaster tourism is in full bloom, with about 30% more bookings to the site and the area than a year before. Around 300,000 photos are tagged #chernobyl on Instagram. The Lithuanian city of Vilnius uses the main shooting site for the series in its touristic campaigns.

But have either the tourists or the rest of the world drawn any lessons out of the nuclear disaster? For the energy industry, the lessons were instantly clear: the nuclear plants of today meet the highest security standards and protocols are in place to minimize the chance of human error. The debate over the use and misuse of nuclear power is constantly on the agenda.

For the wider public, there are more abstract lessons as well. Concealing errors, creating the illusion of perfection and collective lies, sacrificing human life in masses to save a few – these phenomena are not gone with the Soviet Union. Our duty is to learn how to resist and protest them and call the attention of others to do the same.

It is important to not only look in the direction of Chernobyl searching for the truth. Instead, let us take a full 360-degree turn around and then inwards. Neither we nor the generation that follows will regret it.

Written by Anikó Jóri-Molnár

Blog entries: