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‘Chernobyl’, Culture Wars and 21st Century Truth



Chernobyl, HBOs hit drama is now the highest-rated TV programme on IMDB – no mean feat for a story ostensibly about 1980s Soviet energy politics. I was in my late teens in 1986, remembering reports of acid rain in Sweden and mutant sheep in Wales. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a child of the Cold War I viewed the series through the prism of anti-Communism – of course ‘We’ were right, and ‘They’ were wrong. As an army reservist I dug trenches in West Germany, waiting for an enemy we’d convinced ourselves would never attack.

Seeing a younger generation enthralled by the series, I saw parallels between then and now, about how we view the 'Truth'. And you know you’re dealing with a cultural phenomenon when Chernobyl spawns countless memes by people under thirty. I won’t pretend to be a political scientist or philosopher, although as an undergraduate when the Berlin Wall came down I studied critical theory – yes, I watched postmodernism’s vestigial tentacles creep onto UK campuses. The truth, I was told (by a lecturer who reminded me of a religious convert), was nothing but a social construct, designed by (Capitalism) to preserve an exploitative status quo.


I much preferred Hobbes, to be honest.


Later, as a policeman, I saw my fair share of crimes committed by the powerful, working in a complex (and often self-serving) bureaucracy. I suggest these experiences taught me a thing or two about veracity, about how people create realities to justify their dreams and ambitions. And, too often, their guilt.

Thanks to this long march, we now have truth a la carte, where anything you don’t agree with can be someone else’s social construct. Shouty, aggressive people accuse those who disagree with heresy. Gender, sexuality, race, the environment… all of them now have orthodoxies.


In Chernobyl, as the core begins to melt, the engineer Dyatlov denies the hideous reality – anyone disagreeing with the obvious is ‘delusional and sent to the infirmary’. This line alone has launched a thousand memes, young people intrigued how someone could deny such an obvious truth. Much as we all laughed at ‘Comical Ali’ during the Iraq War. Dyatlov is more scared of the political and career consequences of the disaster to process the danger… this is his reality. My message, to those born after Chernobyl, is this – don’t think you need a KGB or Politburo to create a cage for your fellow humans. Has social media groupthink and denouncement created a 21st Century version? One where people voicing a view contrary to someone else’s perceived truth can be vilified and excluded, subjected to virtual house arrest? Chernobyl is a metaphor for Communism – a failing machine nobody accepted was dying. Are the 21st Century culture wars our very own equivalent? Do we need to be careful, lest we accuse others of being delusional and send them to the infirmary?


Remember, while you worry about your reality being affronted, is the world beyond burning?

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