‘Chernobyl’ and the USSR in 1986

I’ve been binge-watching HBO’s Chernobyl. As some of you know, I’m a sucker for any show about the Cold War or the 1980s. What can I say?

Yes, I’m old enough to remember when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was current news, and not the subject of a cable docudrama. (I was a senior in high school in April 1986, when the catastrophic radiation leak occurred.) 

There was, in 1986, a great deal of optimism about what was happening in the USSR….before Chernobyl, that was. 

After the long Brezhnev years, the USSR went through two short-lived premiers, Andropov and Chernenko. (Both died in office of natural causes.) Relations between the USSR and the West were not generally good during this time. 

In fact, they reached an absolute nadir. In 1983, the Soviets and NATO came very close to an accidental nuclear exchange (though no one knew it at the time). Also in 1983, the Soviets downed a Korean Airlines passenger jet.

Then came Gorbachev. To gush about Mikhail Gorbachev in 2019 is to engage in a cringeworthy act of anachronism, so I’ll refrain. But Gorbachev really was fresh and exciting in 1985, when he took the helm in the Kremlin. Many people dared to hope that the USSR could become a normal country, after all.

But of course, the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 (and the Soviet government’s secretive mishandling of it) reminded everyone that the USSR was not a normal country. And in the post-Soviet years, we’ve seen time and time again that Russia is far from a normal country. The commissars may be gone; but the czar is back, and the new one is more ruthless than any of the Romanov czars. (Vlad, I’m talking about you.)

Once upon a time, though, the Russian outlook was more hopeful. 

Anyway, I recommend HBO’s Chernobyl regardless of your memories of the 1980s, or your feelings about Russia today. Chernobyl is well written and acted; and it may inspire you to learn more about the history of the USSR and the Cold War.