The new HBO series “Chernobyl” serves to warn us about the danger of persistent lies in a society that refuses to acknowledge truth. It would be a grave error not to take stock of our own tendencies toward deceit, as if our lies are radically different from those that underpinned the Soviet Union.
Over several long plane rides I recently watched the HBO series Chernobyl about the 1986 nuclear reactor disaster. It is a masterful work of film-making. Just as a period piece alone, it is fantastic, but the way they present the story within the context of Soviet life is one of the best things I have seen in years.
I was in high school when the Chernobyl disaster happened, and seeing reports on the news everyone understood it was serious, but until watching the series I had no idea of the extent, or the possible danger, had things gone worse than they did. If another reactor had blown, or had they not corrected mistakes in mid-course, the explosion could have affected fifty million people and made large sections of the Ukraine and Belarus unlivable for hundreds of years. The series is so well done, that I bought it to watch again with my older children so they could learn what happened, and get some insight into the corruption and oppression of Soviet communism.
Layers of Deceit
Chernobyl depicts the crisis of the reactor explosion, and the entrenched corruption of the Soviet system in a way that is dramatic, but not overdone. The main characters deal not only with the deadly explosion, but must navigate layers upon layers of dishonesty, bureaucratic incompetence, and threats from the secret police.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn maintained that the core of the Soviet society was deceit.
The whole of society was riddled with lies. The prison camps were one of the only places that one could tell the truth. Twelve years before the Chernobyl accident in his Letter to Soviet Leaders, Solzhenitsyn wrote:
This universal, obligatory, force feeding with lies is now the most agonizing aspect of existence in our country—worse than all our material miseries, worse than any lack of civil liberties.
All these arsenals of lies, which are totally unnecessary for our stability as a state, are levied as a kind of tax of the benefit of ideology . . . it is because our state, through sheer force of habit, tradition, and inertia, continues to cling to this false doctrine with all its tortuous aberrations that it needs to put the dissenter behind bars. For a false ideology can find no other answer to argument and protest than weapons and prison bars.
As Daniel Mahoney explains in The Other Solzhenitsyn, he “believed that systematic mendacity was the defining trait of Soviet despotism.” In the Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn writes that, “the permanent lie becomes the only safe form of existence.”
Real language was replaced with “a collection of ready-made phrases, of labels, a selection of ready-made lies.” As Dr. Mahoney explains, “conscience, justice, and right and wrong” were replaced by what Solzhenitsyn called the “primary clichés” of ideological language.
All of this is on full display in Chernobyl.
The Human Spirit
Chernobyl doesn’t only focus on corruption. It also portrays the courage and selflessness that persisted even under decades of propaganda and oppression. While not hiding their ethical failings, we see the moral courage of the main characters Valeri Legasov and Boris Scherbina who rise to the occasion and resist political pressure and possible imprisonment.
We also see the heroism of regular people like the miners who, aware of the danger, take heroic actions, not for the Soviet State, but rather in spite of it, because they recognize their unique responsibility to save the lives of millions. This too reflects Solzhenitsyn’s description of Soviet life. Dr. Mahoney writes,
Solzhenitsyn emphasized that we are not totally determined by our political and economic circumstances even under the worst regime. Not even a totalitarian regime can succeed in making individual virtue wholly superfluous.
Deceit and Hubris
The lesson of the Chernobyl may be interpreted as warning against the dangers of nuclear power. And while we must be wary of hubris when we manipulate the environment, the real lesson of Chernobyl is the danger of persistent lies in a society that refuses to acknowledge truth and conform itself to reality.
The images and style of 1980s Soviet Union can make the deceit seem far away and foreign. It is easy for us, especially if you are anti-communist like me, to put this on other people or other systems.
Yet it would be a grave error not to take stock of our own tendencies toward deceit in our lives and work, or to see the increasing mendacity and abusive language in our society as something radically different from the deceit that underpinned the Soviet Union. From politically correct fashion, to woke capitalists; from the NBA coddling the Chinese government to make an extra buck, to fundamental untruths about the nature and biological reality of the human person and marriage, contemporary Europe and America are awash with obvious deceit and “primary clichés.”
At the core of the “primary clichés” and deceit in the West today is a debate over the nature and destiny of the human person. Does the human person have an essential nature or are we indeterminate, completely fluid and plastic—our essence defined by our desires and predilections? This struggle is not so different from what the Soviet Union experienced. We often think of Marxism as an economic system, but that is secondary to its anthropology. Marxism is first an ideology of a new man liberated from the constraints of nature. The state and economy were fashioned in the image of, and to create, this new man.
I am in no way suggesting moral equivalence. The Soviet regime exterminated tens of millions of innocent people and sent many other millions to the gulags. But deceit paved the way for this to happen. It would be a mistake to think that such things could not occur here. Every society is susceptible. And more so when we are unable to tell the truth about even fundamental things like biology. If the state and major social institutions can redefine biological realities like marriage and gender, where is the limit to state power? It may not seem like it, but these are acts of hubris and manipulation much greater than nuclear engineering.
Soviet citizens were routinely punished with death or sent to the gulag for not cooperating or holding the wrong opinion. It took great courage to tell the truth and the stakes were high. Yet we often give in to obvious lies just to get along, or to avoid the hassle of a twitter mob or activist campaign. I’m not suggesting these things are easy. And they are getting worse. No one wants to be called a pariah or a hateful person; no one wants to lose a job or be threatened for holding the wrong opinion. But comparatively they are benign. The punishment for telling the truth is not ten years hard labor, exile, or a bullet to the head.
A Debt to the Truth
Yet if we do not or cannot tell the truth now in the face of current pressure, why do we think we will be able to resist when the stakes are higher? How often do we think of Nazi Germany and wonder how it could have happened? How often do we think we would have stood up for the Jews and others sent to concentration camps? But think of all the times we are reticent to tell even simple truths about a problem at the office because we don’t want to hurt our career or rock the boat? Why do we think we would have resisted when the result would have been a prison camp?
Lies seem harmless or at least convenient, the easy path. But they come at a price. In what could be an homage to Solzhenitsyn and the many who gave their lives both at Chernobyl and in resistance to Soviet totalitarianism, Chernobyl ends with a warning from the main character Valery Legasov worth remembering in all aspects of our personal, professional, and political lives: “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.”
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 Mahoney, Daniel J. The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth About a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2014.
 Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Gulag Archipelago. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007.
The featured image is a still from the HBO series Chernobyl, and has been slightly modified for color.