The Age of Forever Crises

We need to learn how to talk about our irreversible mistakes. Historian Kate Brown says the first step is to resist the Chernobylization of knowledge.

Linda Kinstler | Longreads | May 2019 | 10 minutes (2,527 words)

How does one recognize catastrophe, when it comes? What does it look like, how does it sound and smell? If it is an invisible catastrophe, how can you know when you are near it, and when you are far away? And what if it is an everlasting catastrophe, a disaster with a long half-life, so no matter how much time passes, it never quite goes away, and in some places, it only grows stronger? And when a decision from on high announces that it is time to try to move past it, to lay a wreath and get on with life, how does one mark the anniversary of a disaster still in motion, a crisis without end?

Last week marked yet another anniversary of the explosion of the Vladimir I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station’s Reactor No. 4. Thirty-three years ago, in the early hours of the morning on April 26, 1986, an ill-fated safety test unleashed an explosion equivalent to sixty tons of TNT, obliterating the reactor and sending the contents of its core — uranium fuel, graphite, zirconium, and a noxious mixture of radioactive gases — into the surrounding air, water, and earth.

The event has often been described as an unprecedented nuclear disaster, given that its effects imperiled vast swathes of the global population and threatened to make much of present-day Belarus and Ukraine uninhabitable. The word “Chernobyl” itself has become a metonym for a certain kind of calamity, one that unfolds dramatically, all at once, yet also unwinds silently and slowly, unleashing its litany of misfortunes upon the world at an epochal speed and scale. The paradox of Chernobyl, the same paradox that cripples all climatic calamities, is that it exists on several time scales at once. Some people, animals, and things process chronic exposure to radioactivity more swiftly than others; pine trees are more susceptible than birch trees, barn swallows more vulnerable than other birds, and winter wheat seeds are far more likely to reproduce contamination than soybeans, which alter their molecular composition to protect themselves from radiation. Chernobyl, as its most famous chronicler Svetlana Alexievich writes, “is above all a catastrophe of time.”

Its anniversaries, then, tend to reflect its paradoxical nature; they force the difficult question of how a city, a country, and the global community can commemorate an ongoing catastrophe, especially when its principle causes and effects remain partially obscured. The first anniversary of Chernobyl, in April 1986, marked the launch of a Soviet counterpropaganda campaign to contain negative foreign press reports about the scale of the damage and the risks that remained. The intended effect was not to suggest that the disaster never happened, but rather that it was over and the world could move on. On the second anniversary, Valery Legasov, one of the lead scientists tasked with investigating and mitigating the consequences of the disaster, recorded his final testimony about its causes and cover-up and hanged himself in his Moscow apartment. In 2011, the 25th anniversary, the Ukrainian government prepared to open the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone as a tourist attraction; in 2016, three decades after the explosion, an international team of architects slid a new, sparkling, steel sarcophagus called the New Safe Confinement over the remains of Reactor Number Four, and the Ukrainian president signed a decree designating the radiated and abandoned lands surrounding the nuclear site a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. An outgrowth of the UN environmental agency’s “Man and Biosphere” Program, the decree was part of an attempt reconcile humanity with its ruined environment, to fit man back into nature, to see if each can survive the other. The terrain would be “re-wilded,” its fauna recovered and conserved. Environmentalists hoped that this process would give the land “a chance to naturally rewind,” to undo its unfortunate history, to erase the final traces of the events of 1986.

How does one mark the anniversary of a disaster still in motion, a crisis without end?

This year’s anniversary, marked by a trio of new documentary and historical projects, feels different, and perhaps somewhat darker, than many of those that have come before. These new accounts of Chernobyl disabuse their audiences of the notion that the earth can ever “naturally rewind.” They uncover its hidden history and its lingering effects, and though they take very different approaches to telling its story, each portrays Chernobyl as a harbinger of environmental catastrophes to come. Moreover, these three new accounts of Chernobyl each offer their own answer to a literary question that may very well determine how long our planet remains hospitable to human life: What narrative form can adequately capture the planetary stakes of an invisible, climatic disaster, one that threatens everything and everyone and will never burn itself out?

Journalist Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster is a deeply reported and entirely accessible tick-tock account of the meltdown and the days and weeks that followed. His book, which opens with a series of maps and a cast of characters, often reads like a dramatic screenplay (and should win some kind of award for its first line: “Senior Lieutenant Alexander Logachev loved radiation the way other men loved their wives”). His account captures the dreary, silent calm that preceded the explosion; in the reactor control room, the deputy chief is exhausted and unhappy, the scheduled safety test yet to begin. And then there is terror, chaos, and confusion — no one can believe that the reactor core has exploded, and so one by one, these men march to their deaths, simply to see it for themselves.

Midnight in Chernobyl is a tale in two parts: the first, “The birth of a city,” describes the construction of Chernobyl and the aggressive scale and scope of the Soviet nuclear project, until the night when it all comes undone. Part two, the “death of an empire,” documents the rushed efforts to avert doomsday scenarios. The cleanup effort, in Higginbotham’s telling, is dubbed “The Battle of Chernobyl,” a containment effort that required nearly the whole strength of the Soviet armed forces, a campaign that turned the exclusion zone into a “radioactive battlefield encircled by a besieging army.” Five men are put on trial for a breach of safety regulations “resulting in a loss of life at an explosion-prone plant,” which Higginbotham points out, is “an inventive legal gambit — never before had Soviet jurists considered a nuclear power station an installation likely to explode.” A few years later, the ones who don’t die in prison are set free, their sentences annulled, “since the state responsible for imposing [them] no longer existed.”

Chroniclers of Chernobyl have often been tempted to portray it as a catalyst for the collapse of the Soviet Union. The disaster strained Mikhail Gorbachev’s program of “openness,” and presented his government with a virtually insurmountable health, environmental, and political crisis. Belief in the system made it impossible to believe that the system could fail. “Our faith in Soviet socialism will always be rewarded,” an elder statesman admonishes a group of Soviet bureaucrats gathered in a Pripyat bunker in HBO’s forthcoming drama miniseries, Chernobyl. “The state tells us the situation here is not dangerous. Listen well.” In a later episode, a trio of soldiers tasked with hunting and killing irradiated house pets takes their lunch break in front of an abandoned building marked with a banner that reads: “Our goal: Happiness for all!”

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The series, written by Craig Mazin, follows a similar script as Midnight in Chernobyl, taking viewers from the control room of Reactor Number Four to the meeting rooms of the Kremlin — in neither space can the men believe that the reactor core exploded, so Gorbachev dispatches his deputy Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgård) to go to Ukraine and peer into the abyss. The first three episodes depict the grim explosion, the hushed evacuation of the residents of Chernobyl and the neighboring town, Pripyat, and the anguished cries of the firefighters sent to extinguish the radioactive flames as they lie in their Moscow hospital beds and their skin melts into their sheets. (Everyone speaks with British accents; casting director Nina Gold searched London for “Chernobylly type[s].”) Jared Harris delivers an emotional performance as Legasov, who has the unhappy role of telling Gorbachev the bad news. “An RBMK reactor uses Uranium-235 as fuel,” he tells the general secretary. “Every atom of U-235 is like a bullet, traveling at nearly the speed of light, penetrating everything in its path, woods, metal, concrete…Every gram holds a billion, trillion bullets. That’s in one gram. Chernobyl holds over 3 million grams, and right now it is on fire. Most of these bullets won’t stop firing for 100 years.”

Perhaps that’s the way to convey the danger of climatic catastrophe, to render it in terms of more familiar threats. Both Higginbotham and Mazin choose to depict Chernobyl as a singular event, another dark episode of history. They document the dramatic eruption of uranium bullets, yet only begin to trace what happens when and where they land. That work is left to the historian Kate Brown, whose new book, Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide To The Future, takes the form of an epistemological quest, an effort to document the true extent of the damage Chernobyl wrought: “I set out to substantiate every claim, cross-reference it, and use the archives as my guide,” Brown writes. Her goal, “to provide a better guide to survive nuclear disaster,” is informed by her conviction that “underestimating Chernobyl damage has left humans unprepared for the next disaster.” Looking into the past, Brown traces the acceleration of the environmental fragility and societal precarity that will define generations to come.

Her slow, elegant approach to capturing the true nature of the disaster is starkly at odds with that of Mazin and Higginbotham. Like most of Brown’s work, Manual for Survival is concerned above all with the status of the archive, with the difficulty of preserving invisible damage and discerning the truth from shelves full of lies. The Soviet apparatus went to great lengths to cover up the extent of the disaster, yet some citizens took it upon themselves to document it all the same, and it is their work that Brown champions and upon which her findings rely.

In Brown’s telling, it becomes abundantly clear that Chernobyl cannot be described as a domestic incident, and neither can its cover up. While it is true that Soviet propaganda “was written into governance, into the warp and weave of daily life,” she underscores that Soviet scientists were far more familiar with the effects of radiation poisoning than their western counterparts, some of whom, in the decades following the disaster, would arrive like white knights in Kyiv and Moscow only to make matters worse. Foreign experts, like many Soviet politicians, considerably downplayed the toxicity and extent of the radiation exposure, in no small part because information about previous nuclear accidents was either classified, missing, or faulty. Brown elaborates upon the inner workings of foreign agencies in order to “spotlight the arsenal of tactics scientific administrators deployed to make the reports of a wide range of health problems in the Chernobyl territories go away,” she writes. “They drew from a well-known toolbox of tactics familiar from controversies surrounding lead, tobacco, and chemical toxins. The playbook was rich and varied: classify data, limit questions, stonewall investigations, block funding for research, sponsor rival studies, relate dangers to ‘natural’ risks, draw up study protocols designed to find nothing but catastrophic effects.” Admit only what cannot be denied. “The politics of science surrounding Chernobyl,” she explains, “shows how people who were paid to produce knowledge generated instead a lasting ignorance.”

Manual for Survival is concerned above all with the status of the archive, with the difficulty of preserving invisible damage and discerning the truth from shelves full of lies.

Then as now, part of that ignorance is historical: Chernobyl was neither the first disaster to strike the land beneath it, nor did it unleash a truly unprecedented amount of radiation into the atmosphere — that honor is shared jointly among Cold War nations, whose nuclear weapons tests collectively released radioactive emissions a thousand times worse than those from Chernobyl. “In this global context, Chernobyl wasn’t the largest nuclear emergency in human history,” Brown writes. Instead, she claims, the disaster “was just a waving red flag pointing to other disasters hidden by Cold War national security regimes.” It was not an accident nor a singular event, but rather “a point on a continuum” of exposures, “an acceleration on a time line of destruction or as an exclamation point in a chain of toxic exposures that restructured the landscape, bodies, and politics.”

Chernobyl, in this sense, is a crisis that has never stopped unfolding, or as Brown puts it, it is a calamity “with no perceptible end.” It is just as much an environmental disaster as a crisis of information; Cold War politics prevented the free exchange of scientific knowledge, making a bad situation infinitely worse. Brown explains how, in 1986, Russian scientists asked UN officials for “precise information” about how the “Life Span Study” of Japanese survivors of the nuclear bomb was carried out; they were instead presented with data about a chemical explosion in Italy. Likewise, when US television networks aired footage of what was purportedly the burning Chernobyl plant, “the shots were actually of a fire at a cement factor in Trieste, Italy.” Manual for Survival has been met with strident criticism from some sectors of the scientific community, particularly from the physicists and environmentalists whose methods she criticizes. They argue that she misunderstands how radiation impacts the body, that she mischaracterizes their research, and take issue, in particular, with her reliance upon the research of the Belarusian scientist Yury Bandazhevsky, who in 1989 founded the first institute to study the impact of the disaster in the country it hit the hardest. These responses to Brown’s work seem to almost make her point for her, underscoring how the scientific community continues to overlook and undermine unorthodox sources of knowledge. Scientists, like storytellers, are hardly immune to “fuzziness of memory,” she writes. The bodies, trees, and berries she comes across in Ukraine and Belarus betray the long-term impacts of radiation, even if their condition has not been peer-reviewed.

Underestimating the damage, and clinging to the false hope that a similar catastrophe could never unfold in an “open, democratic society,” Brown claims, “left humans unprepared for the next disaster.” Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, “Japanese businesspeople and political leaders responded in ways eerily similar to Soviet leaders,” she writes. They obfuscated the scale of the damage and dismissed concerns over health and safety, Brown writes. “Without a better understanding of Chernobyl’s consequences, humans get stuck in an eternal video loop, the same scene playing over and over.” Manual for Survival is a guide to breaking free of this bleak, recursive story, an attempt at decelerating the frequency of exposures. Unlike Soviet manuals for life after Chernobyl, Brown’s book comes with a single recommendation: if we are to survive, not only must we educate ourselves about the full extent of the danger ahead, but also, and most importantly, we must understand that we are already living with our mistakes.

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Linda Kinstler is a writer based in Berkeley, California. Her writing appears in The AtlanticThe Guardian Long ReadThe New Republicand elsewhere. 

Editor: Dana Snitzky