Cultural Dynamics in CHERNOBYL

Beth and I have been watching the Chernobyl miniseries on HBO; what a mesmerizing, disturbing show.

After watching one of the episodes, she said to me, “It makes me angry that the communist leaders don’t care about the people.”

I replied: “I think we think that because the leaders don’t care about the individual lives.  But they care–or at least, they think they care–very deeply about the people, the collective.”

This is one of the themes that comes through over and over in the series: individual lives mattered little to the communist leaders, because they have convinced themselves that sacrificing those individual lives will bring glory, safety, security, victory to the collective.  “If you’re going to make an omelette, …”

Some of the most heroic characters in the series are the miners. These men, as the reactor was melting down, created a space under the reactor, with only a concrete pad for protection, where a liquid nitrogen heat exchanger could be installed under the pad. The heat exchanger’s job is to keep the molten reactor from burning all the way into the aquifer.  If they had failed, or if they had been unwilling to do this task, or if the heat exchanger itself failed, the damage could have been catastrophic.

The miners did this with little protection and no efforts to make them more comfortable.  They spent their lives digging coal for the Soviet Union, ruining their lungs and bodies, and then–when a manmade disaster caused by others took place–were called upon to undertake what could have been a suicide mission.  And they answered the call.

I realized that the show was illustrating a difference in mindset between Eastern Europe (including Croatia) and America.  In Eastern Europe, the collective is often as important (or more important) than the individual.  Solidarity isn’t just the name of a political party, it’s part of the psycho-social makeup here.

The Chernobyl podcast brought this thought to the surface for me.  We listened to the first episode today.  One of the hosts was talking about this attitude of solidarity, of the value of the collective over the individual, and how this mindset made great, noble sacrifice possible.

Then he says (at 31.48):

Community and Communism: these words have connected roots.  It was understood that you were part of a collective.  You were there to support your fellow man and fellow woman. These pro-social messages were promoted by people who weren’t very pro-social at all, the leadership of the Soviet Union.  But the people often did believe it and feel it.  And you can see this in all the history of the twentieth century in Russia.

Some of this was a sense of Soviet civic duty. It is very noble, admirable, and beautiful, and of course profoundly sad underneath it.

If this had happened in the United States; for instance, if Three Mile Island [the American nuclear near-disaster of 1979] had exploded in this way, we would have evacuated the area very quickly and then put a rope around a large section of the middle Atlantic and said, “No one can go there any more, because we can’t send people in, because they’ll die.”  And that would have been it.

Whether you agree with him completely–Americans have shown the ability to make great, altruistic sacrifices–he has nailed the cultural value.  In this part of the world, “the people” (the collective) is more important than the individual, in ways we Americans don’t usually think

When the miners in Chernobyl accept the assignment, even though they think/know that this work will lead to their deaths, they affirm their place in the collective. 

When Americans choose similar acts of self-sacrifice, they do it to affirm/assert their autonomy, their freedom of individual choice. 

Same result, opposite perspective.

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