"The cost of lies": Chernobyl, politics and collective memory

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


When HBO’s critically-acclaimed miniseries Chernobyl began its broadcast in May 2019, it quickly became embroiled in a high-profile culture war. Liberal commentators in the US applauded what they perceived to be its anti-Trump agenda, noting the ways in which Chernobyl served as a “modern parable” – an indictment of the post-truth, anti-intellectual climate fostered by their commander in chief (see, for example, Irving, 2019). Conservatives also declared the series to be timely. They interpreted its critique of corrupt Soviet governance as a cautionary tale about the threat of socialism and an assertion of America’s comparative stability (e.g. Smith, 2019). Across the US and international media, heated conflicts on the series’ historical and political content raged, with lengthy think pieces commissioned and calls for its boycott in Russia receiving sustained attention.

This essay focuses on Chernobyl’s historical representation and its contribution to broader collective memory of the 1980s. Recent scholarship on contemporary television – streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, as well as cable channels like HBO – has observed a widespread emphasis on “nostalgic” programming (e.g. Pallister, 2019). Series such as Stranger Things, The Americans and GLOW offer diverse reflections on 1980s politics, society and popular culture. In doing so, they appealed to the lucrative baby boomer and Generation X markets and sparked a great deal of commemorative dialogue amongst commentators of these demographics. Providing a close analysis of the series, I discuss the ways in which Chernobyl similarly constructs what Gary Edgerton calls a “useable past” (2001, p. 4), or a history designed to intervene in contemporaneous political and cultural discourse. In its treatment of governmental malfeasance, geopolitical relationships, surveillance, environmentalism and a host of other issues, Chernobyl presents the 1980s Soviet Union as a resonant, complex metaphor for the world today, one open to diverse interpretations. Then, turning to an analysis of critical reception, I discuss the extent to which the series was adopted and appropriated by competing interests in support of their own ideological agendas. An analysis of the “interpretive frames” (Staiger, 1992) informing popular criticism offers further evidence of television’s role in the 21st century public sphere and the complex ways in which media texts circulate amongst audiences of different nations, cultures and political outlooks.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAmerican Television During a Television Presidency
EditorsKaren McNally
PublisherWayne State University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9780814349373
ISBN (Print)9780814349366, 9780814349359
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2022

Publication series

NameContemporary Approaches to Film and Media Series
PublisherWayne State University Press


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