Václav Janoščík

It appears that the emotions in social, public or political sense lay more and more bare open in front of us. From environmental grief and apocalyptic experience of time, through populist fear and fake news indifference, to all sorts identity politics or dopamine waves.

While some people are prone to follow easy solutions and social media rage spirals, in various liberal bubbles (like the artworld one) we may fall prey to tacit self-heroization while facing various burnouts, indifference or hypercriticality. Where are those times where therapeutic functions of art, pop and politics were considered amateurish, vain or dangerous? Nowdays, it appears, as if all our effort to share, politicize, and bear the conditions of our world inhere some sort of emotional and soothing work.

The challenge now is not to come with a solution or program. We know we should rather “stay with the trouble” (Donna Haraway) than fall prey to belief in some sort of technological or even political (Chantal Mouffe) resolution. The call may consist in work of balancing, tuning, dramatizing, sharing, mediating and understanding our affectivity. And this is what the TV miniseries Chernobyl achieves.

Some reviewers argued whether its main message is the fight for truth, dangers of technological advancement, clash of science and politics, invincible force of nature[1]or even the safety of nuclear industry (beyond Soviet Union). I see no point in attributing such grand intention to the show – since such commentary simply degrades the actual power of the show which lays rather in the radical opening of plurality of different issues and situated perspectives.

The TV series expands our view and basically even knowledge about the catastrophe, about nuclear fission and eventually about ourselves (no matter if you are a nuclear physicist or not). It does so not through inclusion of information (although even this is done so meticulously and naturally). Rather it forces us to situate ourselves in respect not only to what happened but against the bullet like particles and radiation emitted from the “fuel”. 

When we observe and sympathize with various people at Chernobyl or Pripiati – we are co-present at a space permeated by gamma rays. And that is not only because of the elaborate storytelling of the show that would “draw us inside” the filmic space, but because we are actually sharing the historical and geographic conditions with what happened and could still happen (I have been born 1985).


Therefore, it is the ontological, not political dimension that interest me the most. And it is an actual ontological experience that we may gather from a TV show. When we listen to the dosimeters or the disconcerting music, when we see the bodies of exposed people decay and disintegrate, when we witness the struggle to stop the radiation – we learn about physics and in some sense metaphysics of our world.

Usually we care about how things work, how cells or atoms usually behave. How to cultivate and use the entities and the knowledge about them. Here we face and get intimate with disintegration, ontological corruption and cancerous proliferation. When the bodies of affected people disintegrate into nonhuman shards we feel not only the physical limits or ourselves, but we may see beyond into the world of particles and waves that actually tear the bodies apart.

I myself fight with cancer disease for many years, although I have never discussed that publicly. Before, I approached cancer as abstract and somehow ultimate disease. I associated it with genetics and something inevitable. But now that I know bit more (and again it is not informative but highly situated knowledge) I see how much it is connected to our environment, behaviour or biopolitics if you will.

Chernobyl miniseries do this with radiation (that not only causes cancer, but follows its logic and ontological aggressiveness to certain extent). It is not just an abstract cataclysm. It does not end with dramatization of the event or with the bare and lethal physics. Chernobyl connects both of these layers. Characters, and I think even the viewers, actually inhabit the space permeated by radiation. The field between deeds, stories or ideas and neutrons and photons on the other is filled with tension, music and affection.

Of course there are some downs to the miniseries too. First of all, although it tries to depict the Soviet Union in realistic or maybe even unbiased way (as a space where heroism, science or self-realization still have place) it end in many simplifications (heroism and science is romanticized as the seeking of truth and connected to martyrdom). 

Even more so, basically all the characters are representing some sort of position class or identity involved in Chernobyl breakdown and its aftermath. We follow stories of careerist manager of the power plant, self-centered main engineer, uninformed and unprepared employees, but also honest and dedicated scientist, KGB, bad apparatchiks and even a good one, the fireman, his wife, people from Pripiati, cleaining crew member.

This is not a problem on its own. After all, the movie explicitly wants to make a tribute to people that fought against the disaster. On the other hand, the blueprint becomes maybe too visible at times, particularly when the apparatchiks and scientists have pathetic discussions about living in lie and fighting for the truth (as if there is no problem with truth today).

And Trauma

Trauma usually refers to psychic damage taken due to some distressing event. But more precisely it is thing that haunts us because its presence or absence. It is something that should have been gone (or should have never happened) and yet it is still here. Or the other way around, it is something that was supposed to be here, but still is missing. We know this haunting presence from cancer maybe more then from anything else.

Moreover, this is also historical context of trauma (and Chernobyl of course still is such thing). And we have even physical trauma or simple an injury – external force that interfered with our body. The TV miniseries Chernobyl connects all these three layers of trauma. It articulates the an event that still haunts our political and energo-technological imagination. For instance, in Russia the show raised huge displeasure and there is serious discussion about making its own series.

Actually, there is a certain patronizing aspect in this western elaboration of the event of the director Johan Renck and writer Craig Mazin. Nonetheless what it achieves is meticulous articulation of the trauma – not only in its historic and psychological contours, but also physical ones.

We have not only science, ideology, fuelled economy and electric infrastructure, we have also bodies and time both of which are very limited.

But maybe if we get there. If we face the limit. If we have the resilience to go through the trauma. 

Eventually we may reach the other, the inhuman, the real or ontology, and radical empathy or however you call it.

[1]Even Guardian, that generates a lot of good cultural and pop cultural criticism ends its review in comepltely enchanted romanticizing way: “In one moment in this final episode, Skarsgård’s Boris Shcherbina pauses to watch a tiny green caterpillar climb up his thumb. It is like a prophecy in itself – amid unimaginable horror, tragedy and decay, nature always has the power to rejuvenate. “Ahhh,” he sighs. “It’s beautiful.” I quite agree.” Tom Seymour, Chernobyl finale review – when the dust settles, it will be considered a classic. Guardian 4.6. 2019 Online: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/jun/04/chernobyl-finale-review-when-the-dust-settles-it-will-be-considered-a-classic

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