HBO’s Chernobyl: An Environmental History of the Invisible

A helicopter sprays a decontamination liquid nearby the Chernobyl reactor in 1986.

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The following blog post contains spoilers for HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries which first aired in May-June of 2019.

It is probably a bit odd that one of my first memories is of the day the Berlin Wall fell. 

I can distinctly remember the shaggy brown carpet of our basement recroom, the dark wood panelling, the texture of our giant oatmeal-coloured sectional, and on our tiny TV,  the same images over and over: Strange people cheering in the night, dancing and drinking as they dismantled a concrete wall.

The adults in the room, a collection of neighbours and family friends, were celebrating as well. At some point, someone leaned over to me and said, “This means the world will be safe for you.”

Now, as a five-year-old growing up in the comfort of middle-class suburban Ontario, I had no idea that the world was, in any way, not a safe place. I didn’t know that my parents had spent their entire lives under a low-grade but constant threat of total annihilation. And I had no idea that this invisible, previously unknown threat was a nuclear one.

In essence, I was as innocent and unaware as the children of Pripiyat were on April 26, 1986, five and a half years earlier, when reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded.

I’ve held this memory for a long time, but I didn’t really think about it until very recently, after watching the first episode of HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries. The episode filled me with powerful but conflicting feelings of horror, regret, pessimism, nostalgia, and hope.

My reaction to the show is not unusual. HBO’s Chernobyl is unusually adept at connecting its audience personally with its narrative, a historical event that happened, in my case, in a foreign country before I was born, to people on another continent, under a political system that no longer exists.

This visceral, emotional connection people have to the show would be an accomplishment for any historical docudrama, a genre that typically appeals to a small but reliable audience. Instead, Chernobyl has been a hit, immensely popular and amassing 19 Emmy nominations. The result has been a renewed curiosity in nuclear safety and increased tourism to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

This blog post, however, isn’t intended to be a review of the show itself. With a rating of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, it is acclaimed by critics more qualified than I am. I’m also not comfortable discussing the quality or accuracy of the history or science presented. I’m not a nuclear historian, and am not equipped to praise or criticize these aspects of the show.

Instead, I’d like to discuss how the show addresses one of the key challenges of communicating environmental history: ‘‘How do you tell a compelling story about the invisible?”

Environmental history is filled with invisible actors: Non-human threats and forces that can’t be seen or heard, smelled or felt. These imperceivable forces can have monumental impacts at the local, regional, or even global scale and can affect both the history of humankind and the ecology of the planet.

Aside from nuclear actors related to uranium mining, nuclear bombs, and radiation-related accidents, environmental history addresses a plethora of these invisible forces. These include: Infectious disease, microscopic invasive species, pesticides like DDT and neonicotinoids, microplastics, air pollution, and industrial contamination from any number of chemical toxicants, including persistent organic pollutants and endocrine disruptors.

And, of course, there are the most insidious invisible historical actors of all: Greenhouse gasses, like carbon dioxide and methane.  HBO’s Chernobyl has been repeatedly described as an allegory for the climate change emergency, especially the political response to the crisis. Not only does the show communicate the invisible threat of nuclear radiation, but it is able to communicate social, cultural, and political challenges across these disparate environmental issues.

I think about the invisible environment a lot, because I know that if I don’t, I will inevitably forget. Just as we have, by and large, forgotten theflocks of passenger pigeons that blotted out the sun, the herds of bison that shook the ground”. This type of environmental or ecological amnesia is a powerful force, one that environmental history aims to counteract.

Many documentaries have already been produced about the Chernobyl disaster. These tend to be dry and procedural, minute-by-minute accounts of what led up to the disaster, followed by a brief description of the clean-up effort. Despite this, I knew very little about the disaster prior to watching the series, beyond what I could recall from a late-night Wikipedia binge and a few articles on the wonders and relative ‘safety’ of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

So why has this adaptation been so successful in communicating the invisible to so many people?

Every episode of Chernobyl accomplishes this in three ways: By visually communicating its authenticity, sensorially communicating the imperceptible, and emotionally communicating a human experience.

Stories about the invisible invite inaccuracy. The invisible provides the opportunity for propaganda, for exaggeration and for advocacy. Between Soviet propaganda, Western media sensationalism, and the black box of very complex science, there is a lot of space in the Chernobyl story for differences in interpretation. Yet, as we learn very early in Episode One, the core theme of the show is Truth.

Some of the most significant acclaim for Chernobyl has come from people who lived in the Soviet Union during this time period who personally experienced the disaster. The show has also been praised for its extreme attention to detail, something evident when comparing the series with archival footage.

One of the ways HBO’s Chernobyl communicates this dedication to accuracy is through the visual representation of the architecture, landscapes, and material culture of Soviet Ukraine. The showrunners painstakingly recreated the many locations of the show. Chernobyl was predominantly filmed at Chernobyl’s sister power plant, another RBMK reactor in Ignalina, Lithuania. The control room of reactor No. 4 was meticulously rebuilt in an old warehouse. The adjacent town of Vilnius, which was built at the same time as Pripyat, was also used.

These locations were retrofitted with visual references, not only Soviet-era posters and propaganda, but also playground equipment, lighting, and street furniture. Clothing, baby strollers, city busses, old ashtrays, everything conforms. The protective gear used by the liquidators is also accurate, down to the DIY lead-lined underwear.  This obsessive attention to detail also extended to sound. Sound engineers collected era-authentic Soviet alarms, sirens, buzzers, and vehicle sounds to flesh out the soundscapes presented in the show.

The show recreates these landscapes of the past, rather than using analogues within the present.  This is something that drives me crazy about Victorian-era shows filmed in unaltered contemporary landscapes. Anyone with more than a passing familiarity to the living conditions and environment of the era can easily dismiss these interpretations as a washed fiction. The dirty, polluted truth of urban industrial cities is often lost. Although the locations in these shows consist of a built form established in the 1800s, the patina of centuries of use, restoration, and changes in quality of life are all visible on screen.

Environmental historians also communicate the authenticity of their work. One of the most powerful tools historians use is archival photographs and footage. These resources provide a window into the past and connect an audience through space and time to an experience distant from their own. Now, photographs, no matter how old they are, can lie, as can HBO miniseries, but the reaction the human brain has to seeing something ‘as it was’ is undeniable. When communicating history, one of the basic tenets of storytelling applies: Show, don’t tell. 

Another way that Chernobyl connects individuals to the past is by making the invisible visible. Radiation isn’t easily perceivable by humans, it can’t be seen or smelled, heard, or felt. (It can, apparently, be tasted. The early throwaway line “Do you taste metal?” is one of the most horrifying in the series.)

HBO’s Chernobyl uses the tools of the horror genre to communicate this invisible, lurking threat. Chunks of graphite become stand-ins for death, a secret danger visible to only a knowledgable few. The smoke over the reactor looms, ever-present even when the worst of the fires are out, illustrating the effects of wind patterns on the distribution of radioactive particles. Ash floating in the air lands on onlookers the night of the explosion; they are curious and oblivious.

But by far, the most effective tool used was sound. Dosimeter clicks haunt the series, entering the narrative whenever characters are exposed to unseen terrors. Some of the eeriest and most disturbing scenes in Chernobyl are marked by quiet. The ambient instrumentals of the soundtrack use silence and stillness to isolate the viewer, to create suspense and to heighten the sense of danger.

Chernobyl radiation map from Wikimedia recreated from the CIA handbook.

Environmental historians are also able to illustrate the invisible using illustration, visualisation, and interpretive and interactive mapping. Using new GIS tools like digital, mobile, and web mapping apps, environmental historians can communicate complicated information about the past in a comprehensive way. Historical sites can also immerse the public in a time and place no longer accessible to them. The sights, sounds, and even smells of the past can be integrated into a greater understanding usually only accessible to academics. For example, at the reconstructed Iroquoian longhouses at Crawford Lake Conservation Area located near Campbellville in Milton, Ontario.

The third way Chernobyl communicates the invisible is through its focus on the human impacts of the disaster, as opposed to the disaster itself. Traditionally, all of the drama of Chernobyl story came from the build-up of tension leading to the explosion, something that viewers already knew was going to happen. Craig Mazin, the Writer-Producer of the show, addresses this approach in the supplemental podcast.

“To me, the explosion is actually the least interesting thing that happened, I wanted it to occur right away and in an odd way, sort of quasi-silently, because everything in this show is from the perspectives of human beings…” – Craig Mazin

As a person who was in the womb when Chernobyl exploded, Ludmilla Ignanetnko’s story was especially impactful. The series follows Ludmilla and her husband, a firefighter, through his radiation sickness and death, and through her pregnancy. As a mother, the feelings of love, powerlessness, loss, and pain woven throughout her narrative are all too real. Many of the invisible threats addressed in environmental history are known to or are likely to affect pregnant women and babies prenatally. Whether it is lead in Flint, methylmercury in northern indigenous communities, or radiation within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, these invisible forces can exist in our environment without us even being aware, and as individuals, we have very little power to avoid them. Ludmilla’s story and the experiences of hundreds of firefighters, liquidators, physicians, physicists, and citizens included in the series, connects us beyond barriers like gender, sex, race, and nationality, into the realm of human experience.

Like HBO’s Chernobyl, environmental historians also seek Truth, unmired as much as possible from the biases that lead to propaganda, advocacy, exaggeration and sensationalism. But truth doesn’t have to be limited to strictly rational statements of fact. Human truths are more than just a timeline of events, a collection of data points, predictive models and scientific consensus. The narratives of environmental history are also deeply emotional and have the power to connect people across all boundaries. If they can’t be seen, they must be felt.

History is itself an invisible force: If you aren’t actively looking for it, it can remain unseen. Our landscapes are scarred with invisible marks, impacts of human misuse, abuse and misunderstanding that require interpretation to be understood and communicated. Historians tie the past to the present to inform the future. This is one of the greatest contributions they can make in the increasingly fragile social and political environment surrounding the ecological and climate crises that threaten our existence.

How do you communicate the invisible in your work? What are some of the challenges you encounter? Have you found any interesting solutions to this problem?

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Lauren Walker

Cultural Heritage Specialist at WSP
Lauren Walker is a Cultural Heritage Specialist with over nine years of experience working in the cultural heritage planning and conservation field. Lauren is interested in the cultural heritage landscapes of the Great Lakes region, the manufacturing of land and the role of environmental history in the environmental assessment process.

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