The best television shows are the ones that endure the test of time, extending their thematic tendrils deep into the psyche until the time is right for them to resonate, to enlighten, to help explain the world around us. In these chaotic times with a global pandemic as backdrop to ongoing protests about racial inequality and police brutality it’s the HBO miniseries Chernobyl that keeps returning to mind. With few personal reference points to make sense of everything that is going, it’s this quote by the titular character that plays out over and over in my head.

To quote the late Soviet scientist Valery Legasov:

What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.

What can we do then? What else is left to abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves instead with stories? In these stories, it doesn’t matter who the heroes are.

All we want to know is: ‘Who is to blame?’

Legasov is both a real-life figure and the main character of this HBO series about the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986. When a mix of operator error and poor engineering led to the reactor exploding, hundreds of thousands lost their lives in the immediate aftermath and clean up. Millions more would suffer radiation-related sickness generations after the accident. While the show does detail the heroes and villains of this disaster, at its core the show is about the truth and the dangers that come when we lie to ourselves for long enough to accept them as truth.

Chernobyl is one of the largest industrial accidents in history and the show reveals just how close it was to becoming worse. Let’s be clear that the fault for this accident definitely lay with people. There is the detestable Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) who ran the control room when the reactor exploded. He is the stereotypical asshole manager who belittles those working for him and it’s his arrogance (and utter faith in soviet technology) which leads to the explosion. Then there are the two soviet officials who were more interested in promotions than safety who continued to deny the truth of the accident long after it was obvious what happened — Nikolai Fomin (Adrian Rawlins) and Viktor Bryukhanov (Con O’Neill). All three would go on trial and be the villains in this case for their gross mismanagement.

For every villain there are heroes, and among those individuals would be Legasov (Jared Harris), a scientist whose obsession with truth saved many lives and prevented a disaster from becoming worse, alongside, the “one good communist party official” Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), who helped Legasov navigate the overly complicated apparatus that was the Soviet bureaucracy to get him anything he needed. Many more helped out from the shadows, often at great risk to their careers and lives. The scientists of the Chernobyl commission who ferreted out the truth to the great disdain of the soviet government, the divers who braved radioactive water to prevent a thermonuclear explosion, and the miners who helped prevent a nuclear meltdown by digging a hole right under a burning reactor.

Heroes and villains, there were many characters in the story of this accident, but the story isn’t what Chernobyl is about. The show is about truth and how it is blatantly disregarded out of convenience or embarrassment. It’s about those who stand for it at great personal and professional cost because they know that no matter how many lies that are told, no matter what the stories may say, the truth will always be there and every lie we tell ourselves both personally and collectively is a debt to that truth.

“How Does a Soviet-made RBMK reactor explode?”

Dyatlov, Fomin and Bryukhanov all asked themselves that question when Chernobyl exploded. When faced with a gaping hole in the ground, instruments telling them it exploded, and engineers on site that witnessed the explosion, they all answered with the lie — it’s impossible.

It’s impossible that the soviet government could be responsible for the explosion.

It’s impossible that the soviet government could make a mistake.

It’s impossible that the facts could be correct.

So airtight, so thorough was the soviet government’s ability to weave a narrative and enforce it that even observation and empirical evidence could be conveniently denied and cast aside. This was done with violence, invasion of privacy, and vicious intent. Scherbina’s words leave an indelible mark when he warns of the consequences of telling the truth about Chernobyl.

“When it’s your life, and the lives of everyone you love. Then your moral conviction means nothing.”

It’s easy to think that the truth is a fragile thing. That it can be hijacked and spun or buried and crushed so it never sees the light of day, but it isn’t the truth that is fragile. It’s men, women, and governments that are fragile. Weak people shy away from the truth, weak governments bury their failings behind lies and stories.

The Soviet government eventually fell under the weight of its own lies. The oppressive narrative of its own power, enforced by the KGB and embodied by the events of Chernobyl, eventually collapsed. That was the past, but this cycle of truth, lies and the projection of power is evident today.

We live in an era where information is the equivalent of fast food at McDonald’s. It’s fast, satisfying and tastes good, but its nutritional value is questionable and continued consumption may, in fact, be detrimental to our health. Unverified information, conspiracy theories, and media networks with an agenda all strive to tell us stories. With so many sources of information and little to filter them we are left with a different problem.

Among this bottomless pit of information, what is the truth?

We ask this about trivial things like our television shows, video games, and entertainment. And we ask it about big things. Like when is the Covid-19 pandemic going to end? Does systemic racism exist? Do the police really have it out for people of color in this country?

There are many different answers to these questions out there, each with their own story to tell and often serving one agenda or another. Often we are predisposed by age, race, experience, and gender to believe one story or another. One source or another. There are smart people that know this and understand exactly who they are talking to and profit off the attention.

So lucrative are these narratives, the purported answers to these big questions, that what ends up suffering is the truth. We are led astray by half-truths and spin, indoctrinated by misinformation to transform people into villains and shut ourselves off to really hearing and empathizing with others.

Big brother is no longer the problem, reinforcing its truth with a gun to the head of our friends and family. It’s our friends and family policing worldviews with tweets and social media messages, condemnation through cancel culture and transforming conspiracy theories into memes capable of spreading through an echo chamber of the like-minded.

These are not partisan issues, but dangers we all risk falling into. We get so entranced with stories that we fail to see the people, the lives on the other side of the stories. To see black people as thugs, peaceful protestors as anarchists, and belittling or demeaning those painful experiences in their lives due to race or gender.

In a way, innovation has created a much more treacherous enemy to the truth than the hellish bureaucracy outlined in Chernobyl. We’ve created something for the sake of convenience that strips people of humanity and turns them into symbols to be loved or hated for the sake of a story.

In a world where truth and lies so closely resemble each other. Legasov’s words are more pertinent than ever. What is the cost of lies then?

The answer is empathy, understanding, and consensus. The truth is rarely found in a tweet or a Facebook message and well beyond the stories found in your feed aggregator. They, more often than not, harden the divisions between us.

Finding the truth then lays beyond the convenience of social media and information served to us on a silver platter. It exists where it always has been — people. If you truly wish for the truth then seek it out yourself from those interested in telling it. Be interested in figuring out why people are angry or sad or wholly invested in an issue even if you may not wholly agree with it.

The truth often is rarely convenient and sometimes painful, but the cost of lies is far far worse.

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