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To revive my old hashtag, #TodaysRussianProverb, "Once you've grabbed the tug rope, don't say you ain't strong enough"... This is to say that I will indeed review tonight's Episode 5 of #ChernobylHBO with another dose of Soviet-era trivia and whatever else gets drudged up.
Let's start by saying that over the last week the state media and "patriotic" commentariat have finally gotten into gear with critical takes, calling it everything from a vicious Western attack on the memories of Soviet heroism to a mindless collection of fables and stereotypes..
The finale will probably only intensify this rhetoric, since here the Soviet bureaucracy and systemic failures really come into focus. I am not an expert on nuclear power, but I can offer my view on the "mindless stereotypes" angle. Once again, my area is authenticity of details.
The opening scene, shot on location in an ex-Soviet town with local extras, is a perfect little excursion into the 1980s USSR. A typical Soviet pool (with a ubiquitous cleaning lady), typical Soviet families, the antique stroller, the mandatory track suit tops on the males...
Enter the Patronymic! Hey, finally the traditional Russian deferential form of address makes an appearance. First name and patronymic (middle name based on the father's given name) is how you address someone formally or respectfully. Of course, it's an earful for Westerners...
But those who think that Soviets didn't just go around calling each other "Comrade this and comrade that...", well, yes, we totally did. In a formal setting, "comrade" was used quite often and, when said in Russian, it doesn't quite grate as its English equivalent.
To put it simply, in 7th grade, I absolutely wouldn't have called Yekaterina Alexeyevna "comrade chemistry teacher" (perfect as it was for that Bolshevik fossil) but, when I was first brought into a local police station (long story), "comrade militiaman" is what I definitely said
This typical Soviet "big boss" office is lovingly created by someone who's been in one. The flip calendar, the pen holder with an actual Soviet fountain pen, the blotter and, most importantly, the multiple phones (one for calls from party elites). The cubist mural is a nice touch
That will be very a very difficult task, Comrade Legasov, since there're no juries in Soviet trials. There are 3 judges. The decisions are announced by the chairman of the panel. Guess you could call it a "jury", but it's very different from the mental image English speakers get
I wish my uncle, who was a Soviet prosecutor, was alive to comment on the uniform, but as far as I can tell, the lapel insignia is for the Judiciary Counsel 2nd Grade, which was indeed the rank of the prosecutor in the Chernobyl trial. His nauseating speech is verbatim.
A note on the resemblance of the actors to the real defendants. Yeah, pretty high marks here.
Holy crap, this has escalated into a Soviet dissident kitchen conversation! All they need is a .75-liter bottle and some not-too-fresh tank tops!.. I sincerely doubt Legasov and Shcherbina would've ever voiced such anti-Soviet heresy to each other. But the point needed to be made
Shcherbina lasted another three years and was instrumental in alleviating the consequences of the horrendous Armenian earthquake of 1989. He is largely forgotten now, or mostly remembered for his uncomplimentary quotes about Yeltsin. He got no honors for Chernobyl.
Sunflower seeds, the Soviet popcorn. Our most common snack and often an addiction. Some folks ate them to suppress the need to smoke. The only food sold at most stadiums. This is just a delicious little detail. Oh, those shells everywhere you go...
This scene turns into an American courtroom drama, very effectively made. But did it actually happen? Journalists were allowed in the room only for the verdict, but I doubt that Legasov actually went there. His most damning "testimony" was in those suicide-note tapes...
Who are you? Why are you here? You do not look like Cheburashka, the lovable big-eared creature of Soviet cartoons. What land do you come from? What tales have you brought? Are you an American spy?
And what a parting shot! In this footage Legasov is filmed talking to the liquidators and telling them lies about the effects of radiation. Absolutely perfect!
The Ukrainian church hymn gives the episode its title, Vichnaya Pamyat (Eternal memory), which is also a phrase used in the Soviet Union/Russia ("vEchnaya pamyat" in Russian) to commemorate victims of disasters and heroes of wars.
The finale will surely give Russian critics more ammo in their attacks on the series, since Legasov's climactic speech is clearly artistic license, as is his meeting with the fictional Charkov in that creepy tiled room. But the scene obviously serves a clearly defined purpose...
The entire theme of the series is shouted loud and clear in every episode: it's the cost of lies. Like radiation in the human body, they accumulate and never go away until there is simply too much, and the result is fatal. This serves as a great teachable moment to any society...
But in the Soviet Union I knew, this was especially true. To me, a teenager who grew up listening to a set of unshakeable truths and then, suddenly, just as I reached physical and mental maturity, to discover that ALL of them were lies... Well, that was... exactly like this:
It's hard to agree with Gorbachev here (BTW, the infamous fool Ryzhkov referred to in the series is to the right of him in this shot). The USSR didn't collapse because of Chernobyl. It was a doomed country that was slowly dying of its own accord. But Chernobyl is a great metaphor
The very beginning of the episode exposes the vicious chain reaction of lies in Soviet life. Industrial bosses in Kiev want to report increased productivity at the end of the month. Bosses at the power plant want to report a successful test. All of them are after material rewards
...not for the "happiness of all mankind", not for advancement of Leninism. By the 1980s even the true believers weren't this blind. The Soviet system had degenerated to the point where lies build up so that a few people could enjoy precious few benefits, a purely capitalist goal
Life in the Soviet Union was an exceedingly dull affair. The most mundane, trivial tasks, like buying a new refrigerator, would turn into exhausting long-term projects that consumed your very soul. But all of it was supported by the shaky foundation of beautiful lies...
Once the truth was introduced into the society (at this very time, as it happened), it was impossible to control. Once I, an unremarkable provincial high schooler (the proof is attached), learned that SOME things said in school weren't true, I soon learned to doubt everything...
So, yeah, if any modern society comes to mind where lies seem to have taken over and exert the power over your life, it's probably good to take heed. This type of stuff rarely ends well...
But enough with editorializing. This has been an amazing, gut-wrenching ride. Finally...
I want to recap some of my favorite moments in the series...
First, the "milk scene" in Ep 2. Yes, Soviet citizens were incredibly devoted to quack remedies, and that even included doctors. You have no idea how much hatred I still feel when I remember the fucking mustard plaster!
If you don't know what it is, it's a remedy based on the belief that delivering a severe first-degree burn to an area of skin would cure common cold. It's exactly as nuts as it sounds, yet it was actually prescribed by glorious medical practitioners of the Motherland
Suction cups was another favorite. Rubbing the chest with alcohol and/or honey. Breathing over a pot of boiled potatoes (my doctor was a serious believer in this scientific breakthrough).
Also, to fight anemia, we ate candy bars made out of processed cow blood. I shit you not
I also loved the decision by the creators to not translate the poem at the beginning of Ep 2 or the song in Ep 4. The poem in particular is crucial to the theme of the episode but explaining it would've been too in your face. This approach holds through most of the series...
With only a few exceptions ("The Hero of the Soviet Union... our highest honor"), realities of the Soviet life are never specifically explained. There are no clunky dialogues designed to let the viewer know the background. We are left to immerse ourselves into this world...
We are not force-fed the details and the authenticity. It's simply there, in the background, giving the art a certain feel. You may not know what the Russian poem says, but it's unmistakably Russian, vaguely haunting, with bitter, harsh intonations. You know it's not happy stuff.
These subtleties are everything here. You might now know that the Swedish-Lebanese actor portraying Bacho is (by design or accidentally) being a pitch-perfect Georgian macho, but you know on a subconscious level he's a different kind of Soviet from, say, the Slavic innocent Pavel
And finally, and most importantly, I am in awe at how perfectly the series captured the Soviet (and, actually, Russian as well) mentality that leads to so many disasters. Quite opposite of what you may think of us ("mindless automatons following the will of the Party"), we were..
... always skeptical of rules, regulations and even orders. It's past midnight, so here is a new #TodaysRussianProverb. "The strictness of our laws is greatly compensated by the lack of necessity to follow them."
Sometimes, this is a blessing (don't we need more Tula miners?)...
... more often, it's a curse. Keep this in mind the next time you are laughing at a "Meanwhile in Russia" meme.
Thankfully, "Chernobyl" isn't a meme or a stereotype. I am deeply grateful to its creators for this piece of art.
It made the transformative event of my adolescence (I am talking of the slow collapse of the Soviet Union) somehow more real. It was immensely powerful and deeply touching. It made me process things that lay dormant for 30 yrs. I don't know of other films that had such an effect.
Oh... And that knockoff Mickey Mouse? Yes, it's actually real. And goddamn terrifying.
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