Uncle Vlad and his unsinkable Russkies

Last week I finished Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl, a thrilling, if at times technically dense, account of the world’s greatest nuclear disaster, just in time to tune in the first installment of an HBO documentary on the same subject. Such are the benefits of all that spare time offered by retirement.

Chernobyl, officially the V. I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station, about 70 miles northeast of Kiev, in the then Soviet republic of Ukraine, consisted of four reactors, one of which went amok and exploded, ironically during a safety test, on April 26, 1986. A huge stainless lid atop the malfunctioning reactor was blown off its moorings by the force of the explosion.

Tribute in Light, as seen from Brooklyn

After the blast, a laser-like pillst of blue light punctured the night sky, an eerie sight reminiscent of the Tribute in Light memorial installed in New York in memory of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attack.

Except Chernobyl’s was not just a display of harmless spotlights, but a deadly stream of radioactive rays and dust that lit up the air in its path, in effect the dying breath of the disabled reactor.

It took two weeks for the Soviets to begin to control the disaster, which ultimately released 400 times more radiation than the A-bomb at Hiroshima, and led to the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, including the entire population the atom-city of Pripyat, which had been constructed to house the personnel working at Chernobyl and their families, and is now a ghost town and tourist attraction.

Hell on earth: Chernobyl after the explosion, as recreated by HBO.

The Chernobyl nuclear complex was supposed to cement Soviet technological superiority, first established in space by the Sputnik satellite. Instead Chernobyl was the coup de grâce that exposed the fatal dysfunctions and hollowness of the Communist economic model.

True to form, the Soviet government initially embarked on a campaign of misinformation and obfuscation even in the face of such an enormous tragedy. There still isn’t a firm count of how many people died at Chernobyl right after the explosion or afterward as the result of radiation poisoning.

On December 23, 1989 Leonard Bernstein led a triumphal rendition of the Ode to Joy, from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, at the site of the Berlin Wall, where euphoric crowds gathered to cheer the demise of the Soviet Union, which was formally dissolved two days later and about three years after Chernobyl.

In 1992, conservative political scientist Francis Fukuyama published a book immodestly called The End of History, which proclaimed that the West and its capitalist democratic model had prevailed in the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

Bring out the bubbly.

Since then, however, Fukuyama’s thesis, enthusiastically embraced by neo-conservatives, seems at least a bit premature.

Indeed the final lowering of the hammer-and-sickle at the Kremlin on Christmas Day 1989 didn’t signal the disappearance of the America’s Russian foe but its transformation into something perhaps more sinister and dangerous to the West.

Thanks to the delusional alchemy of President Trump, though, our historic arch-rival has become a partner of sorts, and its leader, Comrade Putin, the beady-eyed former KGB agent, a “very smart guy” we shouldn’t fear.

A perplexing bromance has evolved, with amiable 90-minute phone chats between the two, to talk about what? Borscht recipes? Golf Tips? Telephonic high-fives of relief that Mueller’s dreaded Russian “witch hunt” is finally over?

I don’t know. Neither can I figure out why so many of  the traditionally vociferous Republican anti-communists have developed a case of lockjaw, along with large portions of the conservative media fringe. Even some in the American Christian right have joined the Putin Fan Club.

Comrade Vlad and Russia are still very much the archrivals of the U.S. if you consider, just for starters, the Russian annexation of a chunk of the Ukraine, Russian support of America’s foes in Syria and Venezuela, Russian meddling in the American electoral process, and the assassination of political opponents.

Perhaps someone at the Institute for Advanced Trumpological Thinking, headquartered in an aerie in nearby Pátzcuaro, can sort this out. But with just one caveat, please, Prof. Zapata: Don’t blame Hillary Clinton and her emails.

Meanwhile, I’m off to take a nap.

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