All I remembered about the Chernobyl disaster were grainy photographs from my chemistry textbook sophomore year. It was the worst nuclear disaster in history. But, it felt distant, in the past, and too scientific for me to understand.
It wasn’t until I saw HBO’s “Chernobyl” miniseries in the summer of 2019 that I sat up and took an interest.
The miniseries focuses on the human side of the disaster. All it takes to pique my interest is a good story.
This led me to use Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham in my Argument Writing Book Club for my English 10 classes during the spring of 2020. I wanted some rhetorical writing on scientific subjects for my students with deep interests in STEM fields. I decided to read along with them.
We struggled through some technical writing, but even that helped us better understand why the nuclear chain reaction that occurred in 1986 affected us in 2019.
Really, Higginbotham doesn’t leave readers exhausted, treading water amid complicated scientific jargon. First of all, his focus on the humanity behind the disaster itself draws readers in, leaving us hopelessly engaged.
“It was a terrifying, apocalyptic sight: the roof of the reactor hall was gone, and the right hand wall had been almost completely demolished by the force of the explosion. . . .And from somewhere in the heart of the tangled mass of rebar and shuttered concrete — from deep inside the ruins of Unit Four, where the reactor was supposed to be — Alexander Yuvchenko [senior mechanical engineer] could see something more frightening still: a shimmering pillar of ethereal blue-white light, reaching straight up into the night sky, disappearing into infinity. Delicate and strange and encircled by a flickering spectrum of colors conjured by flames from within the burning building and superheated chunks of metal and machinery, the beautiful phosphorescence transfixed Yuvchenko for a few seconds.”
Second of all, he provides maps of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, and the atomgrad Pripyat.
Helpfully, there is a “Cast of Characters” and a description of their respective roles in the proceedings. I found this immeasurably helpful. The students felt confused about who was; they consulted this list of players at the beginning of the book. There is even a glossary at the end of the book to better understand the science, the culture, and the politics that all surrounded the disaster and its aftermath.
The 130 pages of research notes and bibliography make for an impressive visual aid when helping students understand the importance of documenting and citing sources whenever they do research. Students don’t question Higginbotham’s credibility when they rifle through those pages. They get to see what credible information looks like. Their writing can look just as believable when they follow similar procedures for documenting their research.
One of the central figures in the aftermath of the explosion was Valery Legasov, the first deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute; he is the protagonist of the HBO miniseries. He is an interesting person to follow in the epic of Midnight in Chernobyl. His story highlights the terrible position the Soviet mindset put experts in, causing them to make mistakes of their own. The physical and psychological toll the aftermath of Chernobyl had on the people trapped between government and scientific expertise.
“The burden upon Legasov was enormous: not only the reputation of all of Soviet science but also the future of the global nuclear industry was at stake.”
“In public, Valery Legasov continued to hold the Party line about the safety of the USSR’s nuclear industry. . . . privately, Legasov had been struck by what he had heard Prime Minister Ryzhkov tell Gorbachev and the rest of the Politburo more than a year earlier: that the explosion in Chernobyl had been inevitable, and that if it hadn’t happened there, it would have happened at another Soviet station sooner rather than later. It was only then that Legasov had finally recognized the true scope of the decay at the heart of the nuclear state: the culture of secrecy and complacency, the arrogance and negligence, and the shoddy standards of design and construction.”
I finished the book during the statewide shutdown brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. How humans deal with a disaster, especially in a political sense, was on my mind.
One of the Chernobyl disaster compounding factors was the Soviet Union’s emphasis on blind loyalty to the State.
“The USSR was buckling under the strains of decades of central planning, fatuous bureaucracy, massive military spending, and endemic corruption — the start of what would come to be called the Era of Stagnation.”
“The Era of Stagnation had fomented a moral decay in the Soviet workplace and a sullen indifference to individual responsibility, even in the nuclear industry.”
The Soviet mindset wasn’t reserved for just politicians. The Chernobyl plant operated under the same structure, contributing to the mistakes made in the dark of an April night in 1986. The deputy chief engineer, Anatoly Dyetlov, is the personification of how the Communist state-operated.
“Dyetlov — like the Soviet state itself — expected his underlings to carry out his commands with robotic acquiescence, regardless of their better judgment.”
Under ideological strain, dedication to what actually worked grew thin. The goal was to show that you were a loyal citizen, not an expert in your field. This led to inadequate manufacturing of the Chernobyl Power Plant itself and all the structures and procedures that went into maintaining and living near a power plant.
“The quality of workmanship at all levels of Soviet manufacturing was so poor that building projects throughout the nation’s power industry were forced to incorporate an extra stage known as ‘preinstallation overhaul.’”
Another factor that bloated the tragedy of Chernobyl was the Soviet Union’s denial of the event ever having taken place. The hush-up put its own citizens — and the rest of the world — at risk. The secrecy surrounding the disaster made it that much more difficult for scientists to investigate and learn from what happened.
“Many more hours would pass, and other men would sacrifice themselves to the delusion that Reactor Number Four survived intact, before Director [Viktor] Brukanov and the men in the bunker acknowledged their terrible mistake.”
Furthermore, as we know, secrecy and silence breed misinformation. Misinformation contributes to the panic and how humans react to crises in ways that have untold consequences.
“the traditional reflexes of secrecy and paranoia were deeply ingrained. The truth about incidents of any kind that might undermine Soviet Prestige to provoke public panic had always been suppressed.”
The most convincing aspect of Higginbotham’s book is how he helps readers understand the biological, psychological, political, and environmental ramifications that a disaster like Chernobyl has in the global community.
His detailed look at how radiation exposure affects the human body helps us understand that it doesn’t matter what your social status is when disaster strikes. No one is immune.
The chapter “Inside Hospital Number Six” provides a harrowing look at the effects of radiation exposure on our bodies.
“It was the weekend, so it was hard to find a doctor, and, at first, no one understood what they were dealing with: the uniformed young men being brought from the station had been fighting a fire and complained of headaches, dry throats, and dizziness. The faces of some were a terrible purple; others, a deathly white. Soon all of them were retching and vomiting, filling wash basins and buckets until they had emptied their stomachs, and even then unable to stop. The triage nurse began to cry.”
Indeed, it goes without saying that Chernobyl and its aftermath deeply affected the psychology of the people directly — and indirectly — affected by it.
“the psychological burden of enduring the disaster only to be set helplessly adrift in a world so abruptly transformed proved too much to bear.”
The political harm the Chernobyl disaster wreaked illustrates how cover-ups and lack of accountability can truly hurt an entire nation, even one as large as the Soviet Union.
“the most destructive forces unleashed by the explosion of Reactor Number Four were not radiological but political and economic. . . . Once the Party relaxed its rigid grip on information, it proved impossible to fully regain its former levels of control.”
Higginbotham paints haunting pictures of the natural world in the wake of the explosion. We can see the desertion and hear the blazes and silences that befell the world in 1986.
“the twittering of sparrows that had once danced through the branches of the poplar and acacia trees on the streets below had long since ceased.”
“The forest posed such a threat that it, too, would soon be mown down by combat engineers and buried in concrete-lined tombs.”
It struck me as I read — thirty-four years after the disaster — that the blundered approach to the crisis by the state in many ways echoed the tragedies I’ve seen in my own time. The insistence on uncovering weapons of mass destruction after September 11, 2021; the aloof and tone-deaf response to Hurricane Katrina; the lack of accountability that followed the Great Recession; and now the secrecy and misuse of media following the COVID-19 pandemic all mirror some of the chaos that came in the wake of the Chernobyl plant’s demise. Just as no human being is immune to radiation poisoning, no institution structure is resistant to insecurity, defensiveness, and corruption.
“Even in the West, nuclear scientists continued to dwell in a culture of secrecy and expedience: an environment in which sometimes reckless experimentation was married with an institutional reluctance to acknowledge when things went wrong.”
Part of the problem appears to be that hindsight is 20/20. We don’t know we are unprepared until unprepared, as many of the power plant workers, firefighters, healthcare workers, government officials, and scientists discovered during the Chernobyl disaster.
“It was chaotic. No formal plans, either civilian or military, had ever been devised to clean up after a nuclear disaster on such a grand scale.”
I’m sure my American Studies students tire of repeat that favorite mantra of history teachers: “If we don’t learn from history’s mistakes, we are bound to repeat them.” But, we keep saying that because it’s true! Maybe we feel desperate to make sure these mistakes stop in their tracks. We feel like we can put the burden and responsibility on our students’ shoulders. And while it’s true that they will soon take the place of responsibility we now occupy, we aren’t dead yet. We have agency as adults, as voters, as individuals to make changes now.
The scientists and politicians who understood how a culture of secrecy exacerbated the tragedy of Chernobyl enacted change by speaking up when the State told them they shouldn’t.
“The scientists no longer saw themselves as cloistered academics working in the esoterica of pure physics, but as the only men and women standing between the ignorant fools in Chernobyl and a global disaster.”
“The global scale of the disaster ensured the international scientific community would demand to learn the technical details of the accident sequence.”
Their confessions wrought clarity and a sense of justice for victims of the disaster. Their honesty helped the rest of the world understand the severity of Chernobyl and why nuclear power warrants our care and attention.
“For the first time, Soviet scientists admitted that 17.5 million people, including 2.5 million children under seven, had lived in the most seriously contaminated areas of the Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia at the time of the disaster. Of these, 696,000 had been examined by Soviet medical authorities by the end of 1986. Yet the official tally of deaths ascribed to the disaster to date remained the same as that announced the previous year: 31. The health minister said that they had not discovered a single case of injury in the general population due to radiation.”
I can only imagine that this is precisely how our epidemiologists and healthcare workers felt when they saw Americans protesting masks, refusing to get vaccinated, or suggesting that we rid the body of COVID-19 with bleach or UV rays.
I want students to remember we are destined to repeat history’s mistakes if we ignore them. But, I also want them to use their voices to enact the changes that could prevent the same mistakes from happening again.
Higginbotham’s book helps us accomplish those goals. His ability to clearly lay out the facts of the disaster and its aftermath helps us understand our human history. His compassion for the disaster victims gives them a voice to know how those historical mistakes impact us.
Midnight in Chernobyl encourages us to think about responding to mistakes, crises, and disasters in the present.
Reluctance to admit to a mistake and take responsibility for it is, of course, what turns crisis into disaster into tragedy.
It begs the question: Will we blunder by covering up our mistakes and refusing to own them, as the Soviet Union did following a failed safety test? Or, will we take responsibility for our past and present, using what we learn to make the world a better place?
Trigger Warnings: death; graphic injuries; hospitalization; loss of a loved one; manipulation; medical stuff; pregnancy (miscarriage); terminal illness (cancer); trauma