The Cost of Lies: Reflections on 'Chernobyl'
As a self-aware history anemic, I often find myself having a surface-level understanding of past events or geographical locations. The name Chernobyl was familiar, but when my husband asked if I knew what it was, I was thankful the description of the HBO mini-series was already pulled up on our television screen. My lack of historical prowess may have been advantageous in this one instance.
I was immediately drawn in to the story, which opens with the main character, Valery Legasov (Jarred Harris), recording himself giving a narrative account of past events, with only his cat there in his small apartment to listen. I felt the intended sense of foreboding as I watched what he did with the cassette tapes he made, and the numerous bowls of cat food he set out. The close-shot of the space separating his shoes from the floor foreshadowed the chasm of truth waiting to be excavated.
The Fear of Insignificance
The writers, directors, and actors of this five-part miniseries masterfully quilt together the stories of the people who were close to this unprecedented, global catastrophe. Using time as a primary story-telling element, we see life in this corner of the Soviet Union in 1986 before, during, and after the nuclear disaster, and not always in that linear order. A married couple expecting their first baby, a young, night-shift worker at the nuclear power plant wanting to prove himself, the communist party-men trading loyalty for power, were all surrounded by a system that was fueled by the perception of perfection.
The Communist Party embodied on a grand scale what each of us is tempted to at the individual, heart level- to satiate our own fear of insignificance. Governments attempt to do so by acquiring and maintaining political power through any means necessary. Individually, we view people as commodities, instead of equal image-bearers, and we curate realities to garner their approval. Both come at a cost and often have a common mineral in their bedrock: lies.
Counting the Cost
The final episode in the series brings Valery Legasov to the moment of truth inside a Soviet courtroom. He must decide if he will risk execution to tell the truth about the role the government’s negligence and denial played in the disaster, or choose to give a partially-true testimony in exchange for the accolades the KGB dangled before him like carrots. Perhaps even more persuasive than the awards, the poisonous lies of impotence and apathy threatened to choke out the truth. How often are we silenced by the same? “It won’t make a difference anyway. I can’t bring about change!”
Valery’s decision flies in the face of those lies and reflects the bravery of so many others standing up today and speaking the truth. Truth-tellers may not immediately see positive impacts, and many often face rejection, loss, the averted eyes of friends, like Valery’s colleagues in that courtroom. This series poignantly highlights that there is always a cost. There’s a cost to operating out of fear and attempting to control others. There’s a cost to downplaying the weight of the truth and deeming lies justifiable means to self-appointed ends. There’s a cost to keeping the boat un-rocked and choosing comfort. And there’s even a cost to choosing integrity and speaking the truth. Valery states, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”
The amazing news is that our greatest debt has already been paid on our behalf. In the only courtroom that will never crumble to ash, the Innocent has taken the place of the guilty, the balance has been cancelled, and the account has been credited with immeasurable riches.
Because of that transaction, we can have a whole new cost-benefit analysis. Power and control we were once willing to lie for, we can now rightly see as belonging to Chris alone. Acceptance and approval we fear being denied from others, we can now see as already granted to us from God himself. We find our life by losing it all for Jesus’ sake. We find the cost of speaking unpopular truth is well worth it.
Christ's call to lay down our life is not a power play by a manipulating dictator. Rather, it is an invitation into full flourishing from our Creator, the only perfectly benevolent King. It is also a call to arms, an opportunity to partake in Kingdom work, which God ordained before time began and which allows us to see the beautiful restoration of all things back to shalom. But dying is never easy.
Life Through Death
Valery’s decision in that courtroom came after his willful exposure to radiation had already ushered in his death sentence. Life, however, cannot help but carry the weight it’s been given. We were each created to reflect the glory of God. We get to know him and enjoy him, finding life as we submit to his design for all things. We truly lose when we trade that purpose for anything else.
Immediately following his testimony, Valery was escorted by armed guards into a room to await his punishment. Where he was expecting a date to face a firing squad, he was instead given an even harsher consequence. The KGB leader told him he would spend the rest of his days in complete isolation, cut off from the people and work that he loved. Valery was told matter-of-factly that others would receive credit for his accomplishments, and he would be forgotten completely.
We don’t know what led to Valery’s decision to take his own life. Maybe it was the physical suffering from the radiation poisoning, maybe it was the isolation. We do know that we were each created by a triune God to need community. And we know that the God-man who called himself the way, the truth, and the life defeated death forever. We get to embrace anonymity, speaking truth boldly, and living to glorify the only one who will never be completely forgotten.
“Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.” Proverbs 12:19