“Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes” (2022). Cast (Interviews and Archives): Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Lyudmila Ignatenko, Vasily Ignatenko, Ihor Hodosov, Ihor Pismensky, Oleksandr Sirota, Nikolai Tarakanov, Oleksiy Breus, Ihor Yatskiv, Nikolai Kaplin, Yuri Samoilenko. Director: James Jones. Web site. Trailer.
The truth can be hard to face. We may want to deny it, dismiss it or cover it up, but it inevitably comes back to us in all its unblemished fidelity, forcing us to deal with it, no matter how dire the consequences associated with it may be. Attempts at imposing deception may work for a while, but cracks in the foundation of such lies ultimately emerge, enabling victims and onlookers to clearly view all of the excuses, exaggerations and dishonesty that went into the creation of this kind of fraudulent concealment. Such is the lesson we should all hope to learn from the riveting yet infuriating new documentary, “Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes.”
As bad as you might have thought it was, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster was far worse than any of us knew, as revealed in this unflinching new HBO documentary from director James Jones. With a wealth of previously unseen footage recorded at the facility at the time of the catastrophe and recent interviews with witnesses who managed to survive the calamity, the film serves up a telling account of what happened, often in horrifically graphic images (sensitive viewers beware). The environmental damage, death toll and genetic nightmares that resulted from this tragedy are incalculable and have left a legacy that’s lasted to this day. What’s more, this release provides a detailed account of the Soviet government’s efforts to deliberately downplay the severity of the incident, including calculated deception and outright lying to its own people and concerned parties around the globe (so much for the glasnost and perestroika of the era). It’s an event that sent a powerful message to the planet about the dangers of nuclear energy and contributed significantly to the downfall of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and the collapse of the USSR five years later.
As the film shows, it could be said that the Chernobyl nuclear facility and the nearby residential community of Pripyat, both located approximately 90 kilometers from the then-Soviet-controlled Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was built on lies from the outset. In 1972, under the direction of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, construction began on the plant and the adjacent living quarters for the facility’s workers and their families. It was intended to serve as a prototype for other such plants and communities to be built throughout the Soviet Union. And, in a decidedly propagandist move, Chernobyl and Pripyat were constructed to be quite modern and lavish by the country’s standards at the time. Those who moved there sincerely believed they were fortunate compared to what was afforded many of their fellow countrymen.
New residents were assured they were safe and should have no concerns about radioactivity, an assertion that most everyone accepted without question. After all, why would their government lie to them, especially when they were being enticed to locate to a community with such beautiful green spaces, good schools and a popular amusement park?
Unfortunately, the workers and residents weren’t informed about the inherent dangers lurking in the design of the plant. Unlike the facilities located in other plants around the globe, the Chernobyl nuclear reactors were not housed in containment buildings to trap released radiation in the event of an accident. This fundamental design flaw would allow dangerous levels of radioactivity to escape into the environment uncontrolled in the event of an explosion, fire or other mishap. This made the facility a potentially ticking time bomb from the outset, a caution not made known to residents or many of the workers.
In the early 1980s, the reactors gradually came on line amidst considerable fanfare, an alleged demonstration of the Soviets’ cutting-edge technological expertise. But, on April 26, 1986, something happened that changed everything – an explosion and fire that blew the roof off of the facility, releasing a dangerous cloud of radiation into the surrounding environment. It was estimated that the accident dispersed radioactivity equivalent to 400 times the amount released by the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.
The initial response to the disaster was wholly inadequate. Firefighters summoned to the plant worked at the site for long shifts, receiving lethal doses of radiation within hours. What’s more, officials did little to inform residents about what had happened. Many locals went about their business normally, with no clue that they were moving about in a cloud of toxic particles. Schoolchildren, business owners and their families were oblivious to what was going on around them, most likely because the deadly enemy enveloping them couldn’t be seen, felt or tasted. And, with no warnings from authorities, they assumed, what was there to worry about?
Circumstances changed quickly, however, when officials began to register how high the radiation levels had become. They hurriedly organized evacuation plans for the residents of Chernobyl and Pripyat, who were told to grab their essentials as quickly as possible and prepare to relocate to an outside safety area that would become known as the “exclusion zone.” But, even in the midst of this swiftly expedited effort, authorities still weren’t honest. They assured evacuees that they were under no threat from the radiation, that levels were within normal and acceptable limits. They also told residents that their evacuation was to be only temporary and that they’d be able to return home soon.
As word of the disaster slowly began leaking out of the Soviet Union, officials like President Gorbachev scrambled to keep matters quiet and to downplay news reports about what was happening. This was true not only within the country, but also in announcements made globally. It’s a plan that didn’t hold up, however, especially when significantly elevated radiation levels were being reported in places like Scandinavia, hundreds of miles away. Even more far-removed places like the United Kingdom were experiencing the effects of radioactive rain. And other world leaders, like US President Ronald Reagan, were demanding answers.
Still, though, the deception continued as new tasks were initiated. For example, containment of the radiation at the reactor site proved to be an enormously arduous task. Many procedures proved inadequate, and efforts that relied on technological solutions, such as robotic drones to do the most dangerous work, were unsuccessful. It soon became apparent that the only way to get the job done was to employ manpower to carry out these labor-intensive practices. The government recruited “volunteers” to do work that amounted to a virtual death sentence. However, in doing this, officials again soft-pedaled what the laborers were up against. They were given the euphemistic title of “liquidators,” an innocuous, seemingly wholesome label to characterize the nature of dangerous tasks they about to take on. What’s more, they were widely proclaimed “heroes of the Soviet Union” for the valiant work they were about to do, an “honor” that many of the liquidators proudly yet naïvely embraced. And, when they each received their rewards of 800 rubles, they reverently accepted their payments, often with tears in their eyes. It’s unclear how many of them lived long enough to spend their money.
As time passed, containment was gradually achieved, but workers, residents and liquidators began dying horrible deaths from radiation poisoning. They were given heroic burials by the state, many of them being interred in Moscow, far removed from their homes in Ukraine to prevent any remaining local residents from being able to find out what happened to their onetime friends, neighbors and loved ones. And, to help ensure that the truth about these deaths remained secret, their immediate survivors were coerced into signing nondisclosure agreements that carried severe penalties.
Even as word of what had happened was beginning to make its way around the world, the Soviets continued to do whatever they could to conceal the truth about Chernobyl. But, as Gorbachev’s ruling initiatives involving glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) began to take hold throughout the government and culture, their influence couldn’t be prevented from finding their way into efforts aimed at fostering revelations about what happened at the nuclear power plant. And, while this catastrophe alone wasn’t enough to bring about the collapse of the Soviet regime, it certainly played an important part in the leader’s and the country’s downfall. So much for trying to hide the truth.
When we buy into the kinds of ill-conceived beliefs employed by the Soviets here, they invariably impact the outcomes we achieve. And, if those beliefs are fundamentally flawed, masquerading as lies attempting to conceal the truth, calamity is almost certain to result. Disappointing though that may be to those seeking to pull off such hoaxes, that’s one of the hard truths associated with the practice of conscious creation, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents in materializing the reality we experience.
It’s difficult to say if any of the Soviet professionals or authorities involved in this scenario were aware of this school of thought. In fact, given how events played out, it’s unlikely that they had, considering that the outcomes they attained poignantly reflect what happens when we purposely embrace beliefs that disregard the truth. Those “distorted” beliefs led directly to what occurred – a debacle that embodied the lies on which they were built.
In a backhanded way, this scenario illustrates how conscious creation works and how the results it engenders accurately reflect the thoughts, beliefs and intents that went into the process. And, if that in itself isn’t enough to convince skeptics about its functioning, there’s undeniable evidence in the cinematic records of what happened. As the footage shot at Chernobyl clearly shows, the presence and impact of radiation are readily apparent. Much of the film from the time of the accident is pockmarked by small flashes of white light. According to the picture’s narration, those flashes are not due to the aging of the celluloid but to radioactive particles that struck the film emulsion at the time the recording was made. The proof, as they say, is truly in the pudding.
Then there’s the underlying intent that went into the filming of these events in the first place. True to their propagandist intents, officials ordered the creation of this footage to provide a record of the so-called “gallant heroism” of the Soviet people who were involved in the cleanup effort. But, considering what was actually captured on film, this cinematic project exposed the folly, if not the outright inhumane cruelty, of what Soviet authorities were doing. Indeed, one’s stomach might easily churn at the images of smiling, uninformed laborers being sent off to clear massive amounts of radioactive debris with the faux, ungrateful blessings of authorities. The images of liquidators embarking on carrying out the officials’ dirty work doesn’t glorify the laborers’ heroism; it instead exposes – in a bona fide record – the heartless insincerity of those desperately trying to cover their tracks. (This is not to suggest that the laborers weren’t making a heroic sacrifice; they were. It’s just unfortunate that they didn’t know that going in. At the very least, however, the footage unwittingly evidences the disingenuous intent of authorities, documenting the betrayal callously being thrust upon the laborers by officials.)
Even in the wake of all this, the Soviets and their contemporary successors still won’t own up to what actually happened. For instance, the released radiation affected more than just the residents of the area at the time; it persisted long after, even to this day. Also, many former residents who left Chernobyl later went on to give birth to children afflicted with serious health conditions (most notably different forms of cancer) and bizarre birth defects. These issues have been seen in animal populations as well, such as livestock being born with deformities like legs growing out of their necks. Then there’s the death toll, which has been estimated at roughly 200,000 individuals, despite official records claiming that it was only 31, a figure that has remained fixed for nearly 40 years. Some lessons, it would seem, are hard to come by.
The bottom line of this chronicle is that it effectively illustrates the principle of un-conscious creation or creation by default. This occurs when we’re so focused on outcomes that we disregard the consequences that often accompany this kind of tunnel vision approach to managing our beliefs. By ignoring the potential fallout (no pun intended) in this, we may incur unwanted side effects or grossly distorted versions of our hoped-for creations, something that I’m sure most of us can agree came out of what happened at Chernobyl. Such results make it incumbent upon us to consider the nature of our creations and the beliefs that underlie them more scrupulously. Indeed, the Chernobyl incident painfully reveals what can occur when we don’t.
It’s also important to recognize some troubling parallels between what happened in Ukraine under Soviet rule and what’s unfolding there currently in the wake of the attempted Russian takeover. The same kinds of lies that the Soviets used to downplay the Chernobyl incident are being employed by the Russian government to dismiss the severity of and reasons behind the war in Ukraine. One would like to hope that humanity is making progress in evolving toward a greater state of enlightenment, but the situation that has been playing out in recent months would seem to indicate otherwise. And, what’s worse, it’s saddening to see the same kind of deceptive reporting practices being put to use by Russian officials yet again. The circumstance may be different, but the tactic is the same; we can only hope the result isn’t.
In a sense, we should truly be grateful that a record was made of what happened at Chernobyl, difficult though it may be to watch at times. It exposes what really happened, not the sanitized pronouncements that were deliberately devised to keep the truth obscured. Director James Jones has amassed and effectively organized an impressive collection of footage that simultaneously captivates and appalls. In particular, the stories of the Chernobyl survivors will both touch and sadden viewers, but the heroism of these individuals should be recognized as well, given that some of them have spoken out despite the potential retribution they face for violating their confidentiality agreements. “Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes” is must-see viewing for anyone who cares about the dangers of hiding the truth, as well as the dangers of nuclear power. It’s a potent warning to us all; let’s hope we’re paying attention. The film is currently airing on HBO and HBOMax.
If the foregoing isn’t convincing enough to illustrate what can happen when attempting to dodge the truth, I don’t know what is. Deception should be seen as a tactic that’s fundamentally dead on arrival, because it ultimately cannot survive. We should be cognizant – and thankful – for that. Unfortunately, many of us still try to make use of it when we don’t want to face up to our own missteps. In the end, though, it would behoove us to recognize that, for it’s far easier – and more preferable – to deal with our missteps than with our misgivings.