Chernobyl, the Soviet Union and Marxism

The superb new HBO TV series Chernobyl dramatises the Marxist understanding of the Soviet Union writes Andy Stowe.

Chernobyl captures that sense of shoddiness and bleakness in the final days of the USSR perfectly, down to the poor quality of the clothes and the cheap ugliness of the inside of people’s homes. It was no socialist paradise and all the Marxist criticisms of the Soviet state are there to be seen in every episode.

On April 26th 1986, a nuclear reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the city of Pripyat in Ukraine exploded during a safety test spreading radioactive material across the USSR and much of western Europe. There is an ongoing debate about the death toll during and immediately after the disaster and the ongoing health consequences for people in the affected areas. Some of this is legitimate scientific argument and some of it is politically motivated obfuscation by supporters of the Soviet regime and its heirs in Putin’s Russia.

As Boris Shcherbina, the Soviet politician in charge of the clean up who’s played by Stellan Skarsgård remarks, “this is a humiliation for a state that cannot be seen to be humiliated”.

Along with its space programme, the nuclear industry was one of the totemic symbols of Soviet achievement. It was intended as proof to the world that the Stalinist distortion of socialism could compete with and outpace the capitalist world. It was a lie fabricated by the Soviet leadership and, often in blatant contradiction to the evidence of their own eyes, promulgated by their international supporters

In his 1937 book The Revolution Betrayed, Leon Trotsky ripped apart the claims of the Stalinist bureaucracy and its international supporters that it was possible to build socialism in one country and that it had been achieved in the USSR. He said that it was “considerably poorer in technique, culture, and all the good things of life than the capitalist countries”.

Chernobyl was the resounding proof of that. It wasn’t just that Soviet nuclear reactors were built in the full knowledge that they were less safe than those in the United States and Europe because it made them cheaper. The series shows us how the Stalinist slogan “the cadres decide everything” led to a culture of fear, intimidation, deceit and thuggery which resulted in people doing things they knew to be dangerous when directed by a blustering incompetent. As Trotsky remarked “the bureaucracy enjoys its privileges under the form of an abuse of power”.

Ernest Mandel, the Belgian Marxist, writing fifty years after Trotsky in his book Beyond Perestroika, surveys Soviet society and the economy a couple of years after the nuclear disaster. It was not a state progressing a communist society in which all human needs would be met. There was a seven year waiting list if you wanted to buy a car; the growth rate in the economy zero and at a time in which virtually every major business in Japan and the United States was using computers only about a third of Soviet enterprises had them. And even though Mandel was writing in the mid 1980s home computers with printers were becoming commonplace in Europe.

However, such was the Soviet bureaucracy’s fear of its citizens that the idea of them having easy access to devices which would allow them to communicate freely was out of the question. Knowledge, opinion and discussion were things to be regulated by the state. What the KGB called “anti-Soviet agitation” Mandel calls the “perfectly normal and natural exercise of the workers’ right to express their own opinion on real life in a workers’ state, as Marx and Lenin expected and defended.”

All through the series, this interplay of repression of opinion, bureaucratic power, shoddiness and economic stagnation are seen to lead to the disaster. The central performances are all outstanding. Most of the characters are based on real people but for dramatic purposes Ulana Khomyuk, played by Emily Watson, is an amalgam of all those courageous Soviet scientists who defied the state to reveal the real scale of the danger, often at huge personal cost.

 And in the week in which the contribution of Soviet civilians and soldiers in defeating fascism has been airbrushed out of history, it reminds us of the huge sacrifice made by ordinary soldiers, miners and firefighters in preventing a disaster from becoming a catastrophe.

Chernobyl is compelling drama, a genuine masterpiece of its genre and a good introduction to what Marxists understood about the Soviet Union.

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