I rarely watch television. By the age of 55 you’ve seen all the plots that drama writers will come up with. But I made an exception for Chernobyl, the riveting five-part HBO and Sky miniseries written by Craig Mazin. Anyone who never went to the Soviet Union should be required to watch it. The key point Chernobyl makes is that the chronic inefficiency, corruption and untruthfulness of Soviet life guaranteed that one day a catastrophe such as the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor would happen — and the first impulse of the country’s communist rulers would be to try to cover it up.
The other takeaway of the drama is the rock-hard fortitude and even heroism of so many ordinary Soviet citizens. This was the paradox at the heart of the system: despite its utter wastefulness, it could always summon self-sacrifice.
I was in Kiev a couple of weeks ago for the annual Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference that used to take place in the Black Sea resort until Vladimir Putin annexed it along with the rest of Crimea.
I have a soft spot for Ukraine. Surely no country witnessed more suffering in the 20th century. A battlefield in two world wars, it also bore the brunt of Joseph Stalin’s manmade famine — the mass murder of the peasantry in the name of “collectivisation” that Ukrainians remember as the Holodomor. Chernobyl contaminated with radiation land that was already suffused with blood.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has struggled to cleanse itself of history’s many taints. In successive revolutions in 2004 and 2014 Ukrainians took to the streets to protest against the two main threats to their nation’s independence: Russia to the east and corruption within. Today, Russia occupies not only Crimea but also Donbass. And oligarchs still dominate both economics and politics.
Ukrainians look like Europeans but — as a survey for this year’s YES revealed — they are closer to Brazilians in their attitudes. They are sick of the status quo. And they are willing to gamble on a complete political outsider in the hope of radical change.
Enter Volodymyr Zelensky. Other populist politicians have begun as entertainers. Zelensky is unique in having been elected president after playing the role of president in a political sitcom, Servant of the People.
Diminutive but dynamic, Zelensky radiates ingenuous bonhomie. At the end of the first day of the YES conference, he took to the stage with the cast of his old comedy show. The only shadow over the merriment was cast by his former business partner and probable financial backer, the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky.
Now into the Ukrainian tragicomedy wanders another transplant from entertainment to politics, Donald Trump. It was not news to me that Trump had been taking an interest in Ukrainian politics. In May it was reported that Rudy Giuliani — the president’s personal lawyer — had been seeking to meet Ukrainian officials.
The story then was that Giuliani was pushing the new Ukrainian government to investigate allegations involving Joe Biden, the former US vice-president, and his son Hunter’s well-paid job with a Ukrainian energy firm. At YES, Zelensky’s people muttered about a rather tricky phone call in July with Trump.
We now know just how tricky that call was because a memorandum of it was released on Wednesday, after a formal complaint by an as yet unidentified CIA whistleblower.
“I will say,” Trump tells Zelensky, “that we do a lot for Ukraine. We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time . . . I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.”
Now comes the first ask: “I would like you to do us a favour,” says Trump, “. . . because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike... I guess you have one of your wealthy people . . . The server, they say Ukraine has it... I would like to have the attorney-general call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.”
Trump is alluding to a conspiracy theory that officials in the previous Ukrainian government sought to help Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. (CrowdStrike was the firm the Democrats hired to investigate the hacking of their emails.) Zelensky responds that one of his assistants has spoken to Giuliani “just recently” and that he will see him if he comes to Ukraine.
Then comes the second ask: “I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair . . . The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the attorney-general would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it . . . It sounds horrible to me.”
The question is how far this exchange — combined with the revelation that $391m (£318m) of US military aid to Ukraine was withheld just before the call, and the whistleblower’s crucial allegation that records of other such presidential calls have been improperly classified — provides a new basis for the impeachment that the Democratic rank-and-file, the liberal media and conservative never-Trumpers have so long craved, and which the hotly anticipated report by Robert Mueller, the former FBI director, failed to deliver.
If they are right, then this will be Trump’s Chernobyl: the catastrophe that was bound to befall a chronically inefficient, corrupt and untruthful government. In this view, he and Giuliani already show signs of melting down and not even a brigade of heroic Fox News anchors can douse the fire. The House will vote for impeachment. Then it only needs 20 Republican senators to defect...
Wait, did you say 20? At a time when Republican voters are solidly opposed to impeachment and inclined to believe the president’s cries of “fake news” and “witch-hunt”? There’s another, equally plausible scenario in which impeachment guarantees that Trump dominates the US news for the next three to six months, marginalising all his Democratic rivals except for Biden, who’ll be fielding questions about his son’s business dealings until he concedes to Elizabeth Warren, whom Trump can beat.
“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth,” says the morose scientist Valery Legasov in Chernobyl. “Sooner or later that debt is paid.” Websites such as PolitiFact and FactCheck keep a tally of presidential lies. Perhaps their efforts will one day be rewarded and a large debt paid. But the key to Trump’s power is not the untrue things he says. It is the outrageous things he openly does — and gets away with. Thus far.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford