This week I watched the amazing HBO miniseries, Chernobyl. The production had one feature that left me chuckling all the way through the first episode: it follows the American cinematic tradition that all foreigners must speak with British accents. The performances and the whole production were so good, however, that this didn't bother me for long. The high drama of the story begins when some Russians in a high rise apartment actually see, and hear, what they do not know is a nuclear explosion. It then turns to the battle to contain the disaster before something much worse happens. Without some quick thinking and the sacrifice of some emergency workers to radiation sickness, water tanks around the reactor might have turned to steam and created a four megaton explosion sending radioactive fuel all over Belarus and Ukraine and making huge areas uninhabitable forever. I was also struck in the first episode by parallels to Randy Shilts's classic about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On. While some smart people low in their hierarchies immediately grasp at least that they are dealing with something completely new and different, higher management refuses to believe it. In the last episodes of the series, however, as the government of the USSR tries to handle the aftermath, another analogy occurred to me--one with tragic historical implications, and terrifying contemporary ones.
The two heroes of the story are nuclear physicists who not only help bring the disaster under control, but try to understand how it happened. One, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris, whom I recognized from Mad Men, but not from some of his other work), was a very real person; the other, Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) is a composite, as the closing credits point out, introduced in part to give Legasov some one to talk to. In the course of their investigation they realize that while operator error played a big part in the disaster, it did not tell the whole story. A design flaw in the reactor--one of more than 20 of the same type in the USSR--led directly to the explosion at the critical moment. This the government of the USSR, now led by Mikhail Gorbachev, refused to admit. At the climax of the series, in the trial of the operators whom the regime wanted to blame for the whole catastrophe, Legasov, who knew that his own radiation exposure during the disaster was certain to kill him fairl soon, told the truth. He lost his career as a result, and committed suicide a few years later.
This triggered my memory of a book I haven't looked into for more than 40 years, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's August 1914, the first volume in his huge, multi-volume historical novel of the Russian Revolution, The Red Wheel. (It's the only volume I've read.) The Legasov of August 1914 is fictional: Colonel Georgi Mihailovich Vorotynsev, who is suddenly attached to General Samsonov, the commander of the Second Army, now advancing into East Prussia in the first month of the war. Vorotynsev, Solzehnitsyn explains, belonged to a group of younger officers of relatively modest origins who had witnessed first hand the disaster of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-5, which included both a humiliating military defeat and a revolution that had nearly toppled the throne. They had tried to learn from this experience and from the example of Germany, their foe in this war. They knew that another defeat might mean the end of the empire, although they did not know what would follow it. As the book continues, Vorotynsev watches in helpless fury as the higher-ups botch the campaign, eventually bringing it to a disastrous conclusion by ordering a completely unnecessary retreat. Then, in the wake of catastrophe, he gets the opportunity to attend a postmortem conference that includes the very highest authorities of the Russian Army, and he is determined to discuss the broader failures within that army that led to the disaster, rather than simply blame Samsonov, who, like Legasov about 75 years later, has committed suicide. I have never forgotten the riveting argument he has with one of his best friends, who counsels him to keep his mouth shut, since speaking out will only ruin his own career while remaining silent might allow him to do some good. What made the scene so riveting to me as a graduate student back in 1972 was the knowledge that the argument was meaningless in the context of the history to come. The whole system, we knew then, had only two and a half years to live, and nothing Vorotynsev could do could change that. As it was, he did speak out, only to be excused from the conference when he became too frank.
And the same was true, of course, of the USSR in 1986, when Legasov, according to the miniseries, told the authorities at the trial that the reactor explosion had been so disastrous because the authorities had refused to find the necessary resources for containment towers and other safety features that were standard in the West. The authorities' refusal to face facts, to admit error, and to listen to lower-level officials who had not given up their power to think had led the whole regime to the brink of collapse, and they went over it just a few years later as well. Gorbachev, indeed, once remarked that Chernobyl was the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union. I would call it the last attack of a progressive disease that was bound to result in death, sooner or later, whatever the specific symptoms of the final crisis. And I cannot help noting once again that the collapses of 1917 and 1989 were separated by 72 years--not exactly the 80 anticipated by Strauss and Howe, but close enough, as one might say, for good meta-history.
We do not live in an empire or a party dictatorship. In my opinion we have too little central authority over our institutions today, not too much. Yet I could not watch Chernobyl and review August 1914 without asking myself if our leading institutions are not similarly corrupt, and whether the election three years ago of Donald Trump signals a more general collapse that will have undreamed of consequences.
Certainly this does look true in the institutions I know best, our institutions of higher learning. They operate almost entirely for their own benefit now, run by bloated bureaucracies. The few men and women they still contain who really care about their educational mission keep to themselves and never reach positions of power and influence. They are dominated by an ideology that has very little resonance among the public at large, and which actively undermines faith in our institutions. The public knows that they cost much too much and has some sense of their ideological nature, but it does not realize how bad the education they provide has gotten. They provide a gateway to our economic elite. They no longer create a real intellectual one.
Much of the corporate world has also lost any sense of responsibility. Wall Street had no real second thoughts after a speculative frenzy brought the world economy to its knees in 2008, and successfully fought off any attempts at major reform. The food industry inflates its profits by addicting us to fat, sugar and salt. Purdue Pharma, we have learned, pushed the addiction of millions of Americans to its new legal narcotics, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands and the destruction of their families--and no one has ever been criminally charged for it. A recent New York Times story reported that most of the pharmaceutical firms that have been trying to develop desperately needed new antibiotics to fight superbugs have shut their doors, partly because there isn't enough profit in drugs that cure a fatal illness within a week or so. And today's New York Times describes horrifying internal communications within Boeing, whose refusal to spend the money on essential simulator training for pilots of the new 737 Max reminds me of Purdue's refusal to admit their drug was addictive. And perhaps our most powerful institutions--our energy companies--have decided to do everything they can to avoid any attempt to deal with global warming. Meanwhile, our government remains paralyzed by partisanship, unable to deal with any of the problems I have listed here, or many others as well.
The cycle of greatness, decline and renewal has of course dominated history since the beginning of recorded time. Exactly how far we shall fall, what the consequences might be, and what we can do now, I do not know. Yet I could not watch this miniseries and review this book without raising these questions. Legasov and Vorotynsev rightly argued that only a proper diagnosis could lead to a real cure. In that spirit I have written this, perhaps the most important post I have made here in the last 15 years. I hope it will be widely shared.