Chernobyl, Lies and Messianism in Russia

“How much are these lies going to cost?” asks the nuclear physicist Legasov, as played by Jared Harris in the American series Chernobyl. This HBO series, broadcast a few months ago and based partly on Svetlana Alexievich’s book Voices from Chernobyl, reveals how the Soviet state tried to cover up the lethal explosion of the nuclear power station, by telling lie after lie. How much do lies cost? Today this question is just as valid as in the days of Gorbachev, Stalin and Lenin,

Oddly enough, the state apparatus under Putin was irritated by the series. What it found most infuriating was that in the West, the directors of the series, and millions of viewers, had analysed and severely criticised events which had taken place in Russia. The Russian TV channel NTV, owned by Gazprom, announced that it would be producing its own series about the Chernobyl catastrophe: ‘the true story’, according to them. It ends by explaining – and this is not a joke – that the fatal disaster at the nuclear power plant was caused by a CIA agent.

The lies of the Russian state are similar to those invented by the Soviet one. In the year 2000, not long after Putin took power in the Kremlin, the nuclear submarine Kursk was shipwrecked in the Barents Sea and, just as they had done with Chernobyl, the Russian authorities silenced the accident, to the extent that they didn’t even inform the families of the crew who had died in the disaster. Two years later, during the terrorist assault on Moscow’s Dubrovka theatre, the FSB security service filled the theatre with an unidentified gas, with the aim of paralysing all the people present, including the terrorists; once the operation had been completed, the FSB refused to reveal the formula and the characteristics of the gas, with the result that the 130 people who were rescued from the theatre ended up dying in hospitals, leaving their doctors frustrated and confounded. Something similar happened in 2014 when Islamist militants – most of them Chechens and Ingush – occupied a school in Beslan, in the autonomous region of North Ossetia, which forms part of the Russian federation. Instead of saving the children by liberating them and removing them from the building, the Russian security forces sent in tanks and heavy armament and attacked the school; as a result 334 people died (excluding the terrorists), including 186 pupils. The Russian authorities have said nothing about all these fatal miscalculations, heavily censoring all the media and providing Russian citizens with false information. The political reforms which came in the wake of the disaster were the direct cause of Putin’s consolidation of power in the Kremlin; instead of losing his power, the Russian president used the lies to augment it. Also in Syria, in 2018, Russian military officials, by denying to the Americans time and again that the so-called Wagner Group – a private paramilitary organisation of Russian mercenaries – was involved, they exposed these men to an American bombardment; it seems that some two hundred men died because of this deliberate disinformation which resulted in the Syrian media accusing the Americans of a ‘brutal massacre’, while the Russian media accused the Americans of attacking them for economic reasons, because oil had been discovered in the region involved.

The Russian government continues to sacrifice the lives of its own citizens without any scruples whatsoever, when it’s a matter of protecting its own interests. This was shown clearly in the Chernobyl series: the people who supported the Soviet state and on whose support this state was based, were precisely the people who were crucified mercilessly by Soviet power.

In recent years, Vladimir Putin has been making ostentatious displays of his military strength. Some commentators have interpreted this as a threat to NATO and the United States. Which is the case; however, Putin is playing primarily to a Russian audience. Seeing that his popularity was waning (in January of 2019, only 33% of Russians said they had faith in their president, the lowest figure on record so far) the Russian president launched into rhetoric about an imminent nuclear apocalypse.

Recently, Putin claimed that Russia had just manufactured a new ‘invincible’, hypersonic nuclear missile, the Avengerd, which he described as ‘the best gift he could give to his country’. The Russian president also talked about a ‘nuclear apocalypse’, explaining that Russia would use its nuclear weapons to punish or avenge. Recently, the president has made frequent use of apocalyptic rhetoric, including in some of his speeches to the Federal Assembly, in which he has claimed that certain countries wish to annihilate Russia and that he would not hesitate to respond.

Putin isn’t the only person who is providing the Russian people with visions of the apocalypse; he has the support of many of his followers, including the Patriarch Krill who insists on repeating that Judgement Day is nigh. Aleksandr Duguin, the Kremlin’s chief ideologue, known for his Fascist ideas, has called Putin katechon, meaning an Orthodox leader who, so he says, ‘will prevent the reign of the Anti-Christ’. In this particular case, the Anti-Christ is represented by a combination of Western globalisation and post-industrial society.

There are even writers who support the messiano-apocalyptic message of the Russian president in their work. The extremely well-known novelist and TV presenter Vladimir Solovyov, in his novel Vladimir’s Apocalypse, calls Putin ‘a Tsar and a prophet’. The poet Elena Fanailova, too, recently wrote that ‘the contemporary world, just as was the case in the Middle Ages, longs for an apocalypse because a world without apocalypses would be unbelievably dull’. According to the American scholar Dina Khapaeva, this idea is linked to the beliefs of certain sects within the Russian Orthodox church, one of which claims that Putin is the reincarnation of the apostle Paul: ‘God has appointed Putin as president of Russia so as to prepare it for the coming of Jesus Christ’, in the opinion of Mother Fotina, the founder of the sect.

The much-read nationalist writer Aleksandr Prokhanov has also proclaimed that Putin is the Messiah. On top of which, he maintains that in our era, with a nuclear war upon us, something which ‘worries the minds of world leaders’, it is essential to reread the Apocalypse, the exclusively prophetic section of the New Testament which talks about the apocalypse and the Messiah. According to Khapaeva, the aforementioned Patriarch Krill, who has an enormous influence in Russia and supports Putin, has said, referring to this subject, that ‘You would have to be blind not to see that the terrible historical events described by Saint John in his Apocalypse, are not taking place now.’

If the Russian regime is afraid of a TV mini-series, this only goes to show how weak it is. And to hide this weakness, it presents itself to its people as a tough guy with powerful nuclear weapons, as a government that does everything well – because state propaganda turns everything into something positive and beneficial – and as a regime which, like a guardian angel, keeps watch over the good of the people, threatened by serious dangers from beyond its borders. This strategy has borne fruit: recently, Putin’s popularity has been on the rise, although it is unlikely to reach the 81% of 2007 or the 86% it had after the annexation of Crimea.

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)