My mid-80s obsessions ran the gamut from Miami Vice to Ivan Boesky, from Andrew McCarthy to the hijacking of TWA flight 847. And of course, living through the last gasps of the Cold War was large part of my teenage experience. For me, the Soviet Union was this weird, romantic enigma. Sure, they were our enemies who had the potential to blow us off the map, but have you seen the video for Elton John’s Nikita? Nothing was hotter to a pubescent girl than fighting against your oppressive government to find love behind barbed wire. Some of y’all were reading reading Sweet Valley High, while I was reading John le Carre’s The Russia House.
And if there comes a time
Guns and gates no longer hold you in
And if you’re free to make a choice
Just look towards the west and find a friend
Oh Nikita you will never know, anything about my home
I’ll never know how good it feels to hold you
Nikita I need you so
Oh Nikita is the other side of any given line in time
Counting ten tin soldiers in a row
Oh no, Nikita you’ll never know
This is all to say that when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened in the spring of 1986, I was pumping that information directly into my veins.
She’s Gonna Blow
I say “she’s gonna blow” but I’m not sure if nuclear power plants are masculine or feminine. Since they give you what you want (power) with the chance to ruin you (fallout), I’m going to assume nuclear power plants are referred to as “she.”
On April 25, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor #4 in Pripyat, Soviet Ukraine, ignited during a flawed systems test. Radioactive plumes from the fire entered the atmosphere and eventually covered large swaths of the Soviet Union and into Europe, especially Belarus. One facility worker died during the explosion, and one firefighter died within hours due to immediate radiation exposure. Twenty-eight firefighters died within the next several months following their service trying to put out the fire which burned into the month of May, while hundreds more succumbed over the year to cancer-related deaths.
Two days after the explosion, the evacuation of the town began, and on April 28th, the following was read on the Vreyma newcast:
There has been an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the nuclear reactors was damaged. The effects of the accident are being remedied. Assistance has been provided for any affected people. An investigative commission has been set up.
Because the country also known as CCCP — thanks, Soviet Olympic uniforms! — was shrouded in secrecy, the Chernobyl Disaster had an additional layer of menace. It was a terrifying mix of bad Soviet crisis management and global health implications.
“There Was Nothing Sane About Chernobyl”
HBO’s “Chernobyl” premiers this week, starring Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson. The five-part miniseries dramatizes the events of the reactor explosion, the Soviet response, and the impact on the town, with the dark and creepy mood of a horror film. Radiation is the worst kind of a killer, because it’s one that we can’t see. Watching the townspeople stare up at the explosion or the workers splashing around the cooling tower water in what looks to be no thicker than hospital scrubs creates a “Oh honey, no, what is you doing!” sense of doom.
The Soviet regime wanting to diminish the impact of the explosion is alarming, while the sound of the Geiger counter going off is downright blood chilling. Containment was the word of the day: contain the fallout, contain the spread of information. Sounds a bit like our current regime when it comes to climate change. Harris’ plays Soviet nuclear physicist, Valery Legasov, and he puts it best. “Madness.”
I cannot wait to watch. The 13-year-old girl in me will be there with my Tretorns on and with Clairol Pazazz mousse in my hair. The show triggers a bizarre sense of nostalgia, and it also provides the true-crime content I shovel into my brain. And I would by lying if I didn’t say I was wondering how Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings reacted to the events in real time. I’m picturing Elizabeth standing in front of her beloved Kenmore dishwasher, listening to the radio, the vein on her forehead popping, cursing Gorbachev. “This would never have happened under Andropov.”