Video contains strong language and may not be safe for your work place.
Chernobyl, the 5 part mini series about the 1986 nuclear disaster, is fantastic! While it does not reflect reality completely, they took some liberties with the facts to help tell the story, it has been widely praised. It is very entertaining, it does a good job explaining what happened and why, and it is a revealing look inside the USSR and how their system of government contributed to the cause and severity of the accident.
The best scene in my opinion was the one captured in the video clip above. This was our first introduction to the miners who were called upon to dig a tunnel under the reactor core to allow for a cooling system to be installed. The concern was that the overheating nuclear fuel would melt its way into the ground water, causing massive pollution and spreading the radioactivity for hundreds of miles. This would have made the clean-up impossible and it would have rendered a considerable amount of land uninhabitable for generations.
In this situation, the miners have the power and they know it. There is almost nothing that the system can do to compel them to dig the tunnel. Whereas force and fear are used to control most of the other characters, this group of people is immune to threats and this scene illustrates this fact perfectly. They only agree to do the risky work because of the consequences that would result from the core melting into the aquifer.
What captured my attention most of all is the joke that the foreman tells at the beginning of the clip – it’s worth watching the clip for the joke if nothing else.
“What’s as big as a house, burns 20 liters of fuel every hour, puts out a shit-load of smoke and noise, and cuts an apple into three pieces? A Soviet machine made to cut apples into four pieces!”Glukhov in Chernobyl Mini Series
When I heard it the first time, I laughed, hit rewind and watched it again. I laughed again, and I laugh every time I hear it. The thing is though, it isn’t really a joke. While it may not be a statement of fact, there is no evidence that such a machine ever existed, it is only funny because it captures something that could very easily have been true and is therefore kind of pathetic.
This is not a political post, I really don’t care to talk about my views on politics because they are irrelevant. Individual people have a specific set of needs that are shared across the species and once met, they have their own unique set of wants that they will pursue. Egalitarian democracies that are a mix of capitalism and socialism do tend to lead to better outcomes, but they are not without their shortcomings. No matter what approach is implemented, governing large numbers of people is not easy and there is a near 100% chance that 100% of the population will not like something about how things are structured. The best we can hope for is that people are able to feel secure and work to earn enough money to meet their needs and pursue some of their wants. But some people will accumulate more while others will accumulate nothing and live a much harder life.
The joke is great because it is being told by a man who knows what the system is all about and is fearless in calling it out. The machine, which was designed to serve a useless and unnecessary function, doesn’t even do that correctly. It is dirty and wasteful and does a pointless task badly.
Of course, this is not to suggest that everything the USSR made was useless or pointless. Some of the technologies that they produced were first class and well ahead of their western counter parts. Nor is it suggesting that the people were incapable or unintelligent. They are just people and were more or less identical to people from anywhere on the planet. The fact is that more than two hundred thousand people were involved in the clean-up of Chernobyl indicating that, as people go, they had a strong moral compass and were willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of all people.
The joke is just pointing out that the system was not very good at determining what was needed or delivering it. Even if you know nothing about the history of the USSR, when you watch the mini series these facts will become very clear. When the safety of a population depends upon apples being cut into four pieces, relying on a Soviet machine may not be the best course of action, and particularly when the system punishes anyone who says that the machine is cutting an apple into three pieces.
The best interpretation of the joke that I read was that the apple cutting machine is a metaphor for the USSR, in that it is big, inefficient and doesn’t really do what it is supposed to do. Taken this way, the joke is a criticism of socialism / communism and ultimately of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels notion that their theory of government didn’t do what it was designed to do, and what it did do was done poorly. This interpretation does not seem like a stretch as I sit in front of a computer typing this, but in the context of the show it didn’t jump out at me. Glukhov, the miner who makes the joke, does seem like someone who is capable of thinking that way, but he’s making the joke in front of his team of miners so it isn’t actually clear that his audience would make the connection or understand it as to be a criticism of socialist and communist governing philosophy.
Which may be the point of the joke. On the simple level, the Soviet system tended to produce some pointless and inefficient machines that didn’t do what they were supposed to do and on the deeper level, maybe the system did this because that was the outcome of the system working perfectly.
After watching the series and taking some time to think about it, a few things become clear. The first is that the world is very complicated and it is very difficult to do things well, let alone perfectly. The second is that when something needs to function perfectly, like a nuclear reactor, there is no room for fear in speaking-up, the silencing of dissenting opinions or the creation of alternative facts. The final thing is about power and who ends-up being on the clean-up crew. Generally speaking, and this applies to the entire planet, those who have enough power to screw things up tend not to have the willingness or ability to fix them when they go bad.