The Toxin of Chernobyl
Chernobyl, HBOâs latest hit mini-series, has thrust the catastrophic events of the infamous nuclear accident back into the public consciousness, prompting new discussions about how the disaster unfolded and who was ultimately accountable. As with any dramatisation of real events, the authenticity of the show has come under scrutiny; according to some outlets, Russian state TV is now planning its own drama about the events of April 1986. Watching the series over the past few weeks, we here at Adam Matthew were reminded of a Soviet-made documentary we had seen in the online resource, Socialism on Film: The Cold War and International Propaganda.
Produced just months after the explosion, The Toxin of Chernobyl (1987) documents the aftermath of the accident from May to early September. It makes for a fascinating yet equally harrowing companion to the HBO series. Whilst the latter revolves around the question âWhat is the cost of lies?â, the documentary focuses on the accident as a warning against nuclear war and an appeal for disarmament.
It blends footage of the wide-scale operations to eliminate the radiation with first-hand accounts from Chernobyl plant workers and evacuees who lived in the Exclusion Zone. Those interviewed express their feelings of displacement and longing for their homes. They discuss their fears over the unknown effects and extent of radiation poisoning, their heartbreak at the contamination of their land, and the âirresponsibilityâ that caused the accident.
Viewers of the recent TV series will recognise the frantic efforts of men on the roof removing radioactive debris by hand in treacherous minute-and-a-half shifts. Orders are translated in this footage by the narrator: âWhen you get to the 90, drop everything and run back.â Decontamination efforts of soldiers in the surrounding villages, so movingly recreated on screen, are also captured in The Toxin of Chernobyl, as are the efforts of miners. Boris Shcherbina, portrayed in the series by Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd, is seen briefly in this documentary in his role as head of the Government Commission for the accident and Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) is mentioned by name.
Nevertheless, while Chernobyl shows how Soviet propaganda and cover-ups were exposed by the scientific community, this contemporary film instead celebrates the clean-up operation and charitable donations, while condemning US defence policy and placing blame on individual plant managers - those who, in the words of Toxin's narrator, âtried to subordinate the greatest discovery of our age, the energy of the atom, to departmental interests.â Despite their differences, both productions effectively capture the desperately sad toll that the disaster would unleash, not only in the present, but for years to come.
Digitised from the archives of the British Film Institute (BFI), Socialism on Film: The Cold War and International Propaganda is a collection of documentaries, newsreels and features that reveals the world as seen by Soviet, Chinese, Vietnamese, East European, British and Latin American film makers.