explores the human cost of misinformation, not only on those caught up in the disaster itself, but in the psyches of those that survived. As Mazin explains, over the course of a wide-ranging hourlong discussion, Chernobyl wasn’t a disaster that happened to other people, but rather to people like us.
details the delay it took for the news of this disaster to hit the world; one this story’s many aspects that seem unthinkable now. What do you remember of Chernobyl as it happened?
And then, almost exactly three months later, we hear about this incident in the Soviet Union, and I remember feeling, for the first time in my life, we were talking about Soviet citizens like they were us. Not potential recruits into an army that was meant to kill us, but rather people going through a similar traumatic experience to the one we had just gone through ourselves.
But my real inquiry into Chernobyl began about five or six years ago. It began very casually. I become interested in things and start reading about them. There’s no upside, it’s not purposeful, I just like reading. I like knowing things. I’m curious. But this one kind of dragged me in, in a very deep way, and I had a psychic connection to it that, at least for me, was profound.
Which book, or books, were your gateway drugs? The show foregrounds the story of Lyudmilla Ignatenko and her husband Vasily, who was a firefighter at the disaster; her story is told in
Correct. Prior to reading that, I had read quite a few books that were straight historical analyses; breakdowns of what happened. Obviously, scientific work needs to be done to understand the science. But when I read
not compelling for me otherwise. I might as well at that point be making a documentary, or one of those awful videotapes that substitute teachers show their class when the teacher’s out. I don’t care to do that.
Just as your experience with this disaster put a human face on the Soviet Union, so long considered ‘other’, it was hard to watch this show without seeing parallels with the way we treat the people considered other today. Are we incapable of learning the lessons of history?
There is no question that, when I was writing this, I wanted not to suggest that the villain was some kind of Soviet system that could never exist anywhere else, but rather that the villain was a kind of Soviet thinking that absolutely can and absolutely has existed everywhere else. It comes in all different colors. Sometimes it pretends it’s on the right, and sometimes it pretends it’s on the left. But what it is, in reality, is a system of human beings controlling each other, demonizing each other and ruining each other, out of a kind of inherent human madness.
Was there a cathartic aspect for you in the writing of the show, to work through all these thoughts?
I’ve long harbored a dream to visit the exclusion zone and the abandoned city of Pripyat to see the place for myself; pay tribute to the lives lost there. Did you get to make that trip?
There were things that, just because I’d visited, I was able to say, “OK, here’s something I didn’t realize.” Often very tiny things, like how on the side of the Polissya Hotel, which is a centerpiece of Pripyat, they ran these long strings of lights, like little Christmas lights. I never saw them in photos. I never saw them switched on, really. And our guide who grew up there, he said, “Yes, those were on at night and it was very lit up, they loved these lights.” So we were able to reproduce the lights when we made our version of the exterior of Pripyat.
Did you go before or after the New Safe Confinement—the massive shelter built over the entire Reactor 4 facility—was built?
There’s a great documentary about the construction of it, and one of the things that is so remarkable is how they moved it into place. They couldn’t build it in place, because that would be too dangerous. They built it probably 500 meters away, and then had to move it into place. The way they did that took just the most remarkable engineering. The whole thing is mounted on hundreds of tiny little hydraulic things, like little shoes. But the problem is you’ve got them all on one side, and you’ve got them all on the other side, and if one of them is literally a millimeter off, the whole thing starts to torque and twist. So it is all being controlled by a computer, at incredibly slow speeds, to move exactly uniformly in place. And they did it! It’s incredible. I mean, the triumph of technology here, and we need it because this problem of Chernobyl is going to be the birthright of many generations of humans to come. Long after you and I are gone.
The irony of Chernobyl is that, when handled properly, nuclear power is a lot cleaner than the other forms of energy that are fast eroding the planet.
Got Wrong About the Soviet Union,” but what I can’t do is write a
And that’s one of the reasons I did the podcast. I wanted to be accountable for all of that. What I never wanted anyone to say was, “Oh, did you not know that Valery Legasov wasn’t present at the show trial of Anatoly Dyatlov?” The podcast is my way of saying, “No, I’m well aware. But I made a choice, and here’s why…”
was also like going down memory lane. You got everything right. You got the glasses right. You got the shoes right.” That, actually, is what we mostly hear. The complaints were, you know, a couple people I think felt like maybe we had wandered into their domain. That they are the sole gatekeeper of Soviet culture and what happened. People who grew up in the Soviet Union, or people whose parents had grown up in the Soviet Union, what we’ve heard from them has been overwhelmingly appreciative,
I am so excited to go. I’ll be there for the Creative Arts Emmys too, because all of my people are going to be there, and that is going to be quite a party. I am rooting so hard for all of them, because the work they all did was so extraordinary. There’s a collective sense of pride for the work we’ve put into this show.
The Russians put out a trailer for their theoretical Chernobyl show, where the KGB is trying to stop a CIA operative. People have been like, “Oh god, what did you think?” You know what I think? I think it’s hard to make television shows, and regardless of what’s going on with politics and Putin and the government, in my heart I will always sympathize with whoever is out there doing the work. Even if the point of the show is to smear us, or propagandize some false narrative about what happened, mostly I’m watching them get beaten up on YouTube—even Russian commentators are killing them—and I’m like, “I know how that feels.” I kind of want to take those folks out to lunch and go, “We’re in the same business, you and I.”
I think that’s really a perfect word for it. I think people should be empathetic for the process. They don’t have to like the end result. We are entitled to our opinions, and when we put stuff out there, we’re not saying, “Here it is, please watch it, but for the love of god no opinions please.” We want people to say, “Oh, we love it!” When they don’t, it’s upsetting, and when they do, it’s wonderful. But an empathy for the process I think would be great. Someone who says, “Listen, I appreciate what you tried to do, but I hated it.” I would say, “No problem.” That’s better than, “You’re an idiot and you’ve done idiot work yet again.” And yet, you see a lot of that.
In part, it’s because, like everything else, the conversation on the internet is essentially about hurling yourself to the far extremes of where the most clicks will occur. That distorts everything. When you look back at the kind of reviews Roger Ebert wrote—or even Pauline Kael, who in her day was considered inflammatory—it’s not like what you see now. A lot of it feels like its own performance. It’s a kind of theater.Read more: Deadline Hollywood
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