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I have finished watching the 3rd episode of @HBO's #Chernobyl. The second ended on a cliffhanger, so I kept on through midnight, which, in retrospect, was a bold decision... Well, "every generation must have its sacrifice." I will review it in the thread below...
I'll do something different here and start by answering the question I get a lot: how is this series perceived in Russia. It is perceived surprisingly well, in fact. The general tone is exactly of what I said in my original thread: "It's something we should have made, but won't"
But, of course, there is grumbling, too. As @clmazin has mentioned in his podcast, Russia is a country obsessed with not being humiliated. More broadly, it's obsessed with what foreigners think of it while also being utterly convinced that no foreigner could ever "get our soul"
Still, almost all the critics were eerily silent after the first 2 episodes, awed by the accuracy and the detail. I mean, when all they can muster is pointing out that some of the Soviet-era buildings have modern plastic enclosures over the balconies in one scene, that's... crazy
Episode 3, however, finally gave some Russian viewer fodder for criticism. Specifically, there is one part of it that is creating a lot of noise, and, of course, it's these glorious dudes.
Some of the criticism is completely unwarranted. Apparently, many Russian viewers had no idea there were coal mines in Tula (they all closed in the 90s, and Tula is mostly known for its famous cookies and weapons factories). But the biggest issue was with the "coal minister"...
So, yeah, this is probably not so much an inaccuracy as intentional artistic license (as it was with placing the radioactive incident in Sweden before the evacuation of Pripyat, though it happened a day after) for dramatic effect. But the real Mikhail Shchadov wasn't like this...
The real "coal minister" was pushing 60 and had worked in coal since the age of 15. He was a former miner who had worked himself up from a mechanic's apprentice in Siberia and by 1986 he probably bled and sweated coal. He'd be more likely to match the Tula boys cuss for cuss...
So, no, the hand-wiping scene never actually happened. But, don't you kind of wish it did? It works, dramatically, extremely well. It sets us up to understand these guys and care about them. It's a much needed comic relief. And it sort of gets to the deeper truth about the miners
Because, you see, even though Minister Schadov's image takes a bit of (quite literal) smearing here, the miners - they actually existed. And they did all the amazing (and, ultimately, pointlessly heroic) things that are depicted. These guys where all that. And more. Here they are
"No, I am not tired that much", says this paragon of Russian manhood while sweating profusely, in a never-aired TV interview. He is not from Tula, but from Siberia, and he mispronounces Chernobyl, speaking with a strong Siberian intonation. They came from many parts of the USSR.
They wore "the fucking hats", they suffered horribly, and they dug the tunnel just in case the worst happened. Which it never did. The fuel never melted through to the underground waters, and their tunnel was never needed. About a quarter of them wound up contracting cancer.
"Comrades! Our goal is to ensure a daily advance of the tunnel by 13 m!" The showrunners obviously used this footage for the coal miner scenes, since it's reproduced with shocking accuracy. But, more important, once again, is the human angle here. The acting, too, is remarkable
Glukhov is written and acted superbly. He is basically every single old, grizzled Russian professional I've ever worked with. Unkempt, unpleasant, uncaring about your feelings, supremely and indifferently competent, selfless and knowing exactly whom to trust and whom not to.
Even more strikingly, the Tula miners expose the dimension that not a lot of people see in Russia: their deep mistrust and contempt of authority. Which, of course, somehow coexists with their perpetual resignation to living under oppressive regimes. Take this joke, for instance
Jokes like these were common in the USSR. Here my fave: "What is Soviet robotics? It's when you push a button and - bingo! - the log is on your shoulder!"
Or here is one that parodies the braggadocio of Soviet propaganda: "Soviet microprocessors are the biggest in the world!"
All the miners scenes are pure gold, realistic and fictional ones, precisely because they expose deep human truths about us that no other Western production has ever bothered to look into. Maybe this is why some are grumbling? We're obsessed with not being humiliated, after all..
Another scene that gets noticed in Russia. The painting by Ilya Repin depicts Ivan the Terrible shortly after he accidentally murdered his son and heir during a heated argument. Of course, this painting wouldn't have been in the Kremlin. It's been in the art museum for 100+ years
I'm gonna guess (and let @clmazin correct me if I am wrong) that it's another example of intentional artistic license, done to make a dramatic point. Ivan's sorrow, regret and unmistakeable insanity is, of course, Mother Russia itself, in the way it so often treats its children.
I am not done... Just had to break for a bit to talk to someone important
Episode 3 is also where the acting comes into its own. The relationship between Scherbina and Legasov develops to a point where it's almost a buddy-cop drama, which leaves one wondering whether it's really possible for a scientist to talk to a party bigwig like this...
Of course, @JaredHarris and Skarsgard do such a great job, we are ready to believe this all happened exactly like it. Did it really? Probably not exactly, but truth is, Scherbina was a very complicated individual. He was definitely an old-guard true believer. Not anyone's liberal
He was anti-reform, personally detested Yeltsin and would have welcomed the 1991 coup had he lived to see it. But he was also very dedicated to his job and not in it for himself. Two years later, he was in charge of handling another catastrophic event - the earthquake in Armenia
25,000 people died in Armenia in 1988, so Shcherbina had to handle two Hiroshima-like tragedies in two years. He died in 1990, at the age of 70, and most people who knew him thought that his exposure to Chernobyl radiation had greatly contributed to his demise.
As for Legasov, he was a brilliant scientist, he was apt to say careless things to wrong people, he definitely rubbed the apparatchiks the wrong way (Gorbachev personally made sure he was never rewarded for his efforts) and his priorities were morally right, and politically wrong
I won't talk much about the hospital scenes, which are harrowing and... shit, let's just go with harrowing. I am not a doctor or an expert on radiation and I have no idea how accurately they portray the effects of radiation sickness. I'll say a couple of things about what I know.
First of all, were Soviet hospitals really this squalid? Yes. Yes, they were. The Soviet Union achieved a great thing with free universal health care, but you got what you paid for. Make no mistake, it was still amazing considering where the country was before the Communists...
But I've spent a few weeks in a hospital in 1986 (it had nothing to do with Chernobyl, but I remember being super bummed about missing most of the World Cup), and I shared a room with other kids and pregnant mothers. The peeling paint, the horrible lighting, the roaches...
Let's just say, I learned very quickly to sleep perfectly still with my mouth tightly shut... Ugh, don't even get me started on Soviet hospitals!.. Also, this scene, where Lyudmila slips a bribe to the hospital worker to get into the building. Realistic? YES!
Doctors had insanely low salaries in the USSR, and bribing them was often essential and always expected. My mom once openly handed 25 rubles, a quarter of her monthly salary, to a therapist for looking into my congenital olfactory problems. His results were inconclusive.
Doctors never had any qualms accepting bribes and patients never had any issues giving them. This type of "vzyatka" wasn't even considered criminal by most people. Most of them were payments in kind. Chocolate candies and cognac were among the most common doctor "vzyatkas."
But again, this episode left me less willing to analyze the minutia of Soviet life, which are as always faithfully depicted (the cars! the uniforms! the tea spoons!), and more amazed at the deep, insightful, bordering on imposing, analysis of that very "mysterious Russian soul"
In 2004, I spent two weeks on a journalistic assignment with an old Russian photographer nicknamed Boroda (The Beard) who is basically a twin of the fictional miner Glukhov. He could drink like a battleship pump and he would only crack a smile for a person he truly cared for...
He got friendly with me, which is still one of the best compliments anyone ever paid me... Anyway, one day we went drinking in a bar in a small Czech town. The bar was full of Czech factory workers who wanted to talk to "Ruske novinari" (Russian reporters)...
I still remember the surly Boroda responding to a pat on the back from a 300lb Czech worker with an annoyed grunt, followed by, "Yes, I'm Russki. What the fuck does it mean to you? What the fuck do you know about the Russian soul? Even Gogol couldn't get it, so what's your hope?"
This is exactly how we see ourselves. This is also why we're so paranoid about Western depictions of us. We are desperate to be understood and we are desperate to be liked and respected. More than anything, we want foreigners to see through the terrible facade at the inner beauty
But we are sure nobody every could. We are sure all the portrayals are always going to be caricatures... No country anywhere screams as loudly of hating foreigners while longing so earnestly for their affection.
Anyway, Chernobyl comes closer than anyone ever could to nailing it
Chernobyl gets the beauty. It gets the ugliness. It gets the mystery. Does it get all of it? Probably not. But it does a better job than anyone and, like I said in the original thread, it does a better job than most of our own films do. This, more than anything, blows me away.
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