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My Chernobyl

☢ ☢ ☢ a tv show

In an early scene of the recent HBO mini-series Chernobyl the local Pripyat town council is called to a meeting. By this point in Soviet history, these meetings of official Communist Party functionaries—like those portrayed in the scene—served no purpose beyond employing whatever means necessary to save the Party embarrassment from another ideological failure. The set-up is borderline comic, appropriately so, with a tableful of actors portraying crusty, back-slapping Soviet nomenklatura—honest to goodness bad guys—all too ready to swallow the demonic proposal offered by the crustiest Party hack in the room: Shut down the town. Nobody in or out. Cut the phone lines. We can’t allow a general panic. Particularly, the old man insists, since there’s nothing to panic about.

I wondered, though, whether Ukrainians and Belarussians watching Chernobyl wouldn’t guffaw their borscht out their noses at another “Hollywood” attempt to dramatize their aching history. More cultural hash, devoid of nuance, stuffed with comic book Soviet citizens. Had HBO screwed up, casting Anglophone actors who wouldn’t know a Ukrainian from a Taresian from the Delta Quadrant? The actors around that table were not the unflappable, taciturn eastern Slavs I’ve spent half my life among. Not even close.

I was pretty sure of myself: In giving life to Chernobyl, HBO, in a gloriously unintentional blast of irony, had birthed a mutant. A flop. It would sink like a pebble in a pond. Too windy. Far too nuanced for the 280-character generation. And anyway, ancient history. 1986? Pre-internet. People wouldn’t care. For proof, look to the five million Kyivites living within 80 miles of the Chernobyl dead zone, our city hyped by an endless string of millennial puff-pieces about “Kyiv: The New Berlin!”—how bad can the damage be, really? If nothing else, the series would fail because as an internet troll once scolded me: Ukraine is irrelevant. By writing about it I was just promoting American hegemony—a CIA acolyte, a baby boomer stooge pining for the Cold War and looking to disparage Marx.

An assertion that was, of course, as ignorant as it was beside the point. I love Marx. But the exchange did provide a delightfully ironic rendering of what happens when an ideologue bastardizes an otherwise worthy piece of technology—be it the internet or a nuclear reactor—to serve parochial interests.

Back on point: Admittedly, the Chernobyl series faced challenges. People would rather forget. Nuclear physics is hard, and conversely, easy to ignore. Ukraine’s new president, a comedian by trade (there is no joke in this sentence), is currently prodding the Ministry of Culture to turn the Exclusion Zone into a “Tourism Magnet,” and I wish I were kidding about the formulation he chose. Ukrainians who earn their bread and board in the cultural sector have largely adopted an exasperated pose toward the subject of Chernobyl—it’s boring. Insignificant. Ukraine has so much more to offer. A sentiment that oddly recalls Cousin Eddy in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation describing “the Yak Woman” at a local carnival: “She’s got these great big horns growing right out above her ears. Ugly as sin but a sweet gal, and a helluva good cook.” Chernobyl casts Ukraine as Europe’s Yak Woman. And if radioisotopes have anything to say—and they do—it will continue to serve in that role for the next 10 millennia, give or take.

☢ ☢ ☢ the history

Here’s the gist: In the early morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine exploded—the worst nuclear disaster in European history. It came about because a young Ukrainian engineer, Sasha Akimov, did exactly what his boss told him to do and punched the malfunctioning reactor’s big red OFF button.

There’s more to the story—and the HBO series tells it well, with clarity that few physics professors could match—but that punched button would force the permanent evacuation of 350,000 people, kill tens of thousands more, embitter tens of millions, contaminate the greater part of Europe with random showers of radioactive fallout, poison sheep in Britain and Sami tribes in Norway, take a solid $225 billion bite out of an already flailing Soviet economy, and provide a fatal kick to the groin for the USSR.

In the 33 years since, the accident has also resulted in a shitstorm of mendacity, double dealing, and unprecedented opportunity for fiscal corruption in a state celebrated the world over for its genius-level capacity for graft fueled by disinformation. It has produced enough scientific and sociological studies to level a forest, grist for Ukraine’s competing hard-right political factions, and helped fashion at least two nation-states that suffer from chronic, somatically mutated socio-political cynicism.

☢ ☢ ☢ at home in Kyiv

By accident of history I am better positioned to spot the little flaws in the Chernobyl production—the rare anachronism, the even rarer info-dump passing itself off as dialogue and the very-non-Slavic staginess in some of the acting. An example of the latter: In one scene the male lead—in what is an otherwise knee-buckling performance by British actor Jared Harris—stands alone at a bar, knocking back jigger after jigger of vodka with nary a zakuska (munchies, hors d’oeuvre) in sight. Clueless that a true Soviet man, uncharacteristically deprived of zakusky, would take a deep snort of his own sweaty wrist after each gulp.

Yet, I kept watching long enough to confirm a thing or two, namely: goddamn HBO. They don’t make flops. My initial skepticism was wrongheaded. Chernobyl, the mini-series, is good. In places, great. A series to rewatch, if not by me. All it took was a single long crane shot filmed on a street I know well.

The scene in question shook me—wrong word—sent me into a sobbing fit that scared the hell out of my sons, three and five. It was filmed not three blocks from our flat. The Soviet penchant for cookie cutter architecture surely helped in the scouting for locations that resemble those in the ghost town of Pripyat and 1980s Kyiv. My neighborhood had provided one.

Military-drab personnel trucks with the word LIUDY (“people inside”) spray-painted in capital letters on the tailgate pull onto Kyiv’s Kostiantynivska Street. Soldiers fan out along the street to begin the work of conscripting some of the 700,000 volunteers it would take to restore the devastated area to something resembling order. Kostiantynivska is bisected by tram tracks and lined on either side by modernist apartment blocks. When it came on screen, I knew the place immediately—my sons’ kindergarten is in the left of the shot. And there, on the right side, hangs the mistake: a single plastic-aluminum balcony extension for a top-floor flat. If Google street view is dated correctly, that balcony went up during the past four years. It certainly wasn’t there in 1986.

An ugly anachronism, but one that reminds me that in life, as in art, the past, present, and future will meld any damn way they please and there’s nothing we can do about it. Nothing. Particularly when Chernobyl-related relevancies—strontium-90, caesium-137, and plutonium-239 and its 24,000-year half-life—come into play. The spectrum of radioisotopes produced by the 60-ish metric tons of uranium that spewed from the Chernobyl reactor core and were carried by prevailing winds that dropped nuclear fallout across the breadth of Europe before it could be controlled, well, those chunks of burning stardust have a different concept of time.

Yet, Kyiv is home. Safe as Chernobyl milk. My family stays in part because we lack viable options. Also, partly because, despite attempts by cynicism, that relentless bitch, to seduce me, I will show that I am tougher than her. Or at least tougher than I was before I started allowing her room in my heart.

Chernobyl made me mad—not at all what I expected when I sat down to watch in preparation for this essay. Full disclosure: Chernobyl—the accident, not the HBO series—and I have some shared history.

☢ ☢ ☢ an ancient history

I used to be a pastor, a priest, a performer of ancient Christian ritual. As such, I, like most clergy, kept a book called a Pastoral Agenda—a ledger of official sacerdotal function. You get baptized, married, anointed, or buried on my watch and the relevant names, dates, Scriptural text, and attending circumstances go in the book. An earthly spreadsheet with heavenly data.

One crisp autumn day in 2001, I entered a name and the attending circumstances in my leather-bound, gold-leaf embossed Agenda that ended up being the last entry I would ever make as a clergyman. Before I left the Church, taking off the cloth for good, more weddings, funerals, etc. would follow, though they’re mostly a blur. They’re definitely not in my Agenda. I have no conscious memory of it happening, but it’s clear that I stopped writing things down that day.

About two-and-a-half years after that final entry, I would finish my parish work in Ukraine and return to the United States. Six months later I would be released from a psychiatric hospital, now tagged as suicidal, with PTSD, and on full disability: an unholy trinity that puts a hellacious crimp in your job prospects in God’s green America. I did what any sane person would do: I went back to the country that had unmade me. The place that had confronted and continues to confront my demons with its own.

That last entry in the book records the day I spent with a mourning family in a small village in far western Ukraine—day three of a traditional Orthodox Christian funeral. I led the procession from the home to the church. Sang the liturgy. Led the procession from the church to the cemetery. Officiated at the internment. We had a bit of a scare at the church doors where pallbearers traditionally kneel three times, lowering the coffin to the ground before crossing the threshold. That day the pallbearer—only one was needed—nearly stumbled. In the end he managed not to fall, and the Igloo cooler-sized coffin he was carrying was delivered safely to the sanctuary.

The funeral was for a two-year-old boy dead of acute juvenile myeloid leukemia. The 39th funeral I had conducted in Ukraine for a cancer victim under the age of six.

The drive back from that Carpathian village was gorgeous, but I was in a rush because I’d been invited to a talk with a member of UNSCEAR—the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation—meeting with local pediatricians. I disliked her on sight. When she opened her mouth it only sealed the deal. She spoke with the dismissive assurance typical to the breed, telling the room: There is no credible evidence of widespread malign effect on public health from radiation released during the Chernobyl catastrophe. I worked with pediatricians who had, five years running, determined that 100 percent of the children they treated tested positive for hypothyroidism—thousands of children annually. Ukrainian children born a generation after Chernobyl. Their mothers had been girls when it blew up. Their results, these doctors were told, were anecdotal. It was intimated that their research would not be considered for UNSCEAR reporting “as is.”

The dreams can be rough. Dead-eyed parents standing by a grave as the shoebox that holds the desiccated corpse of their little one is lowered into the black soil. The child whose family was so poor that the only coffin they could afford was made of particle board covered in felt. The dead boy’s godfather served as pallbearer. It was raining hard as we walked from the church to the grave and the box began to split apart in his hands. He gripped it tighter before eventually dropping to his knees and weeping in a way that has me praying for senility. Perhaps one day I will unhear him. Or unsee the vision cauterized into my brain of a little girl, pinched and skeletal in her coffin, and the crisscrossing indentations made by the mortician’s stitches holding her tiny mouth shut.

☢ ☢ ☢ the half-life we’re living

In these latter days, Chernobyl adds little to my existence beyond the 1.5-percent pension tax I pay every quarter—certainly an upgrade from toddler funerals and the attendant demons that HBO refused to keep locked in their cage. And there are demons. There are more lurking in this story than the series could ever begin to tell: the State-enforced abortions and the pregnant women crossing borders to avoid them, the ungodly spike in juvenile cancers, the crushing infertility rates, the 31 years it took to finally put a stable cover over the reactor, and, God help us, even profiteering bankers, those nuggets of human toxin that surpass all understanding.

Perhaps the defining phenomenon I draw from Chernobyl is the understanding that there is no limit to the evil we will do to one another. Though perhaps I stand as proof that there is a limit to how much evil the average person can stand. Something the HBO series captured well by centering its story around Valery Legasov, the actual Soviet physicist and inorganic chemist who drove the creation of a team of 700,00—700,000!—first responders by sheer force of will. (You have to admire Soviet maximalism.) The same ragged crew of the unwashed whose daily micro-acts of defiance understood tyranny as a way of life and not just vocabulary for a hyperbolic political tweet. Legasov, though he possessed all knowledge of nuclear fission, and though he spoke the truth to Soviet power in the tongues of angels, could not find sufficient love in his heart and hanged himself in his flat.

Here, close to the core, we have it better than most. Chernobyl hunkers nearby, a daily reminder of the lessons we ignore to our peril. That governments lie. That their noble-sounding intentions will involve, without fail, practical human cost. There is no truth, no nobility, no heart in them. The lie is their native language and murder their craft. Embitterment their true policy. They call some men free while enslaving others. And they take this turn—some sooner, some later—because they are made up of us. We swallow the lie as we feed it. John Le Carré put it well: “Communism. Capitalism. It’s the innocents who get slaughtered.”

Don’t misunderstand, the broader lessons of Chernobyl—if that’s not too quaint—are as unimpeachable as they are immutable: Rogue technology is off its leash; we shit where we eat and the earth groans, indicating it’s had its fill; our institutions, our best ideas, are obsolete the day they are minted. And yet I can’t help but think that these concerns, though disturbing, are altogether predictable phenomena on the spectrum of evil produced by a benthic species with a penchant for deep hostility and murder in its genes.

Svetlana Alexievich, 2015 Nobel Laureate for Literature, told me a couple of years back during an interview for The Millions: “I cannot cover a war anymore. Cannot add to that storehouse of bad dreams. Instead I’m trying to talk to them…about love. But this is hard for us…every story about love inevitably turns into a story of pain. Ours is not a happy culture.” And despite the prevailing timbre of this story, I am not sure I completely agree with her. Chernobyl has given Ukrainians an advantage: the ability to recognize what James Joyce called “the radiance in all things.” They have seen the world as it is. The lie in all its bold potential. They have seen a generation of their children reduced to so much insignificant and unidentifiable particulate, seen those children dismissed as statistically insignificant, and yet they have endured. Who needs happiness when you have hope? Finally, when nothing is as it seems what else is there but hope?

☢ ☢ ☢

I’m sitting on a bench outside my church. Too crowded in there. Too many random nuclei bumping and jostling. Too much heat being generated. This little congregation has an unexpectedly outstanding choir and this Sunday they are singing the Rachmaninoff liturgy—a rare treat. A tram rattles down the block, the same model of tram that’s been traveling along this road for at least the last 33 years. A young woman exits the sanctuary. She is big pregnant and her belly makes it difficult for her to bow and cross herself three times before the church doors. Out and down through the narrow windows float the words of St. John Chrysostom from deep antiquity—let us now lay aside all earthly care—to my ear the spiritual cantus firmus that fueled Rachmaninoff as he labored to compose this otherworldly music precisely as the Russian Empire was beginning its meltdown. The pretty woman smiles at me as she passes.

Image Credit: Oleksandr Khomenko.

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