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A break in the Soviet dike? Soviet `system' blasted in play about Chernobyl

`JUST imagine: None of us will be here then, not even our great, great, great grandchildren. All our cities will have gone. Even the pyramids of Egypt will be just a handful of dust. Yet the sarcophagus around this reactor of yours will still be standing. The pyramids of the Pharaohs have been there for a mere 5,000 years, but to contain the radiation, your nuclear pyramid must remain for at least a hundred thousand years. That's some monument to leave our descendants, isn't it?'' The words are those of nuclear radiation victim Bessmertny, in a startling new play called ``Sarcophagus.'' He's speaking to the chief of a nuclear power station that has just had a reactor explosion of catastrophic proportions. Based on last year's Chernobyl accident and written by Vladimir Gubaryev, science editor of the Soviet newspaper, Pravda, ``Sarcophagus'' is now getting its English language premi`ere in a superb production by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican, its London home. (It's also being performed to packed houses in cities around the Soviet Union.)

Michael Glenny, translator of the play and long-established British specialist on Soviet affairs, sees ``Sarcophagus'' as a pivotal example of glasnost, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's new ``openness'' policy.

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Mr. Glenny was clearly astonished when he first learned of the play's content.

``It's the first big break in the dike,'' said Glenny in an interview. ``The Soviet leadership until now has ... been able to hold back the truth about events, policies, situations, and people from its citizens and has also been able to suppress unwelcome news from within the country getting outside. Well, that hole in the dike has been getting a lot bigger since `Sarcophagus.' But for convenience - and also quite validly - I think this [play] will come to be seen as the turning point in the change of the Soviet leadership on the question of suppression of information and censorship.''

Glenny first heard of ``Sarcophagus'' in the British press, shortly after it was published in the Soviet Union last September. He managed to get a copy of the script and immediately arranged to meet the author and view the play at a provincial Soviet theater.

As Glenny tells it, editor-cum-playwright Gubaryev was the first journalist on the scene after the Chernobyl accident. His assignment for Pravda was to explicitly explain to the Soviet people just what was taking place at Chernobyl.

When the editor of Znamya, a monthly literary journal and part of the Pravda publishing group, learned that Gubaryev was heading for the disaster site, he asked the science editor to also write a ``think piece'' for Znamya, something that would serve as a more reflective account of the event.

``But when Gubaryev got there,'' says Glenny, ``the shock, the mental trauma of what he saw - including people dying in front of his eyes - was such that he felt there was so much to put across and that simply an article in a literary magazine like Znamya would not, quite frankly, do the job.''

An accomplished playwright as well as a journalist, Gubaryev became convinced that theater was the only medium that was direct and immediate enough to convey the horror of his first-hand impressions.

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The play is set in a fictitious institute for research into the effects of radiation. Animals, plants, and, when available, people are studied there.

As the play opens, just one patient occupies the ``people floor'': Bessmertny. He's a grotesque, greenish-yellow figure with gnarled teeth and only a small tuft of hair on his head - the result of having been exposed during a laboratory experiment, while in a drunken stupor, to what is normally considered well beyond a lethal dose of radiation. Something of a prize guinea pig, he capers about the place, dispensing barbs of black comedy and exuding a kind of cheeky charm about his status as a phenomenon: He has survived 487 days (not to mention 16 bone marrow transplants) and to everyone's amazement is still around to talk about it in erudite detail.

Bessmertny (marvelously played by Nick Woodeson who will surely be a hot contender for the ``Best Actor'' award later this year) has made it his business to know all there is to know on the subject of radiation. The no-nonsense woman doctor in charge of him grudgingly enjoys his wisecracks and antics - some of which make this play one of the most witty, as well as tragically serious, shows in town.

The rest of the story focuses on the victims of a nuclear accident, the news of which is conveyed in chillingly matter-of-fact style. Ten people suffering from radioactive contamination soon appear at the institute, including a physicist, a fireman who helped fight the blaze, the plant chief, and a peasant woman whose only concerns are for her chickens and a poor cow in need of milking.

A key moment involves a government inspector sent to investigate the accident. The physicist tells him that the most pressing matter is to find out who switched off the emergency safety system.

``Who switched it off?'' Bessmertny mischievously interjects. ``The system switched it off - the system which sees to it that nobody takes responsibility.''

Glenny says that Gubaryev, being a scientist as well as a journalist and playwright, has the mind of a technocrat: He likes to see things to work. His underlying theme throughout the play, then, is that what's preventing Soviet technology, science, and the economy from working properly is that nobody within the bureaucracy assumes responsibility for anything. People think only about ``getting by.'' Gubaryev sees Chernobyl as a horrific byproduct of this outlook.

``The Soviet bureaucracy, in this case the technical bureaucracy,'' notes Glenny, ``has become a kind of trade union for all the people in it. And it's also a self-perpetuating oligarchy; the whole thing functions on the principle of `you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.' Therefore, when anything goes wrong, the person who is really responsible knows that there's no need to worry: `The firm, the system, will take care of me.'''

As ``Sarcophagus'' unfolds, this lack of larger vision becomes abundantly clear. When questioned about certain shoddily expedient work practices that contributed to the disaster, the chief defends himself by saying that the way he operated his plant is no different from what anyone else does in a similar position.

``Have you heard what happens when the managers of the big Moscow stores are given their jobs?'' the chief asks. ``You haven't? Well, I'll tell you. When a manager is selected and confirmed, they say to him: `We know you'll be on the fiddle, and we won't touch you. But don't take it amiss if we put you in jail one of these days; it's all part of the system. Every year we have to take one store manager to court and make an example of him to pacify public opinion. So keep on fiddling until it's your turn to be this year's scapegoat.' And, of course, he does just that. ...''

``What Gubaryev realizes,'' says Glenny, ``is that the Soviet Union ... cannot function effectively if it is run as a kind of feudal estate which exists for the benefit of those who are fortunate enough to get ... on the inside track of the bureaucracy. He sees that this is a medieval way of running a country. And, as a result, [the Soviets] are all the time falling behind the West in the economic, scientific, and technological race.''

``Sarcophagus'' is not, then, an indictment of nuclear power. Rather, it is an indictment of a frame of mind which, as Glenny puts it, lets ``hammer and monkey wrench engineering'' prevail in an era of extreme technological and scientific complexity.

``Sarcophagus'' isn't perfect. The docudrama-with-a-message approach at times impedes the dramatic flow. But this is a minor quibble. The play is, on many levels, an intriguing, often trenchant, public airing of hitherto unspoken Soviet attitudes and has an undeniable fascination that grips audiences.

Did Gorbachev himself sanction the play?

``He has read it,'' says Glenny. ``But ... under the new dispensation, he didn't have to say, `yes, go ahead,' before it could go ahead.''

Could Gorbachev have stopped it?

``I suppose he could have,'' says Glenny. ``But if he had tried to, he wouldn't be the man that he is; it would have been going ... counter to his own policies. In any case, I got the impression from Gubaryev, although he was discreet about this, that Gorbachev thought `Sarcophagus' was ... just exactly what he wanted.''