Chernobyl the series: facts and fiction

Chernobyl Photo Sister Pictures

The series Chernobyl has recently received unprecedented attention, surpassing even that of the last season of Game of Thrones. Its creators constantly harp on its accuracy. But can you really believe everything you see in a feature series? Let’s look at the Chernobyl facts and fiction. Let’s take a closer look at the explosion that occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear plant and the subsequent and compare it all with the events portrayed in the series. 

A detailed account of that time based on what people remember is given in Svetlana Alekseevich’s book Chernobyl Prayer.  The events described in the book have been reenacted in some parts of the series, for example, the story of the fireman Vasiliy Ignatenko and his wife Liudmila (in the chapter A Lonely Human Voice). 

Liudmila was pregnant and right up until his death looked after her husband who had radiation disease. In the series you see Ignatenko’s wife bribing her way to secretly see her husband. The actual Liudmila, however, remembers that getting to see her husband was rather easy; all she needed to do was ask the first policeman she saw on the street where it was that the Chernobyl patients were being treated. At the time medical staff was scared of radiation. They refused to take care of the victims of the fallout who were then looked after by soldiers specially sent out and who had no other choice but to do so as there were no disobeying orders.     

It’s probable that the creators of the series also borrowed Chernobyl Prayer’s storyline about the neighbours who gathered on a bridge to admire the strange glow in the sky when the explosion occurred at the nuclear power plant. Actual witnesses of the explosion remember: “I can see it now – bright purple dawn, the reactor was sort of glowing from within. It wasn’t a fire but some strange glow. It was very beautiful”<…>” “In the evenings, people would gather on their balconies and those who didn’t have balconies went to friends or people they knew”.    

Chernobyl facts and fiction: someone called Legasov  

 “The book also mentions birds falling from the sky. One of the witnesses says: “I was in a taxi and the driver just couldn’t understand why the birds, as if they’d suddenly gone blind, were diving down, hitting the windows and dying. It was as if they’d gone mad. Confused. As if they were committing suicide.  

Chernobyl’s shoot in Vilnius ©Sky UK LtdHBO
Chernobyl’s shoot in Vilnius ©Sky UK LtdHBO Episode 02 Unit Stills

Valeriy Legasov was not one actual person, who alone was forced to save the whole planet. As Ivan Sorokin writes: “He was not the hero who voluntarily took the blows so he could save the nation. He happened to end being part of the Soviet set of scientists where he was considered rather important to the extent that he could’ve been a key government consultant.  He wasn’t, however, important enough to avoid those not-always-pleasant conversations.  

After the disaster “Right before his suicide, Legasov actually left a recording in which he speaks of his role in the clean up after the disaster and the fact that in his opinion what it was that caused it. In the recording however, there isn’t the famous quotation that features at the start of episode 1: “What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognise the truth at all”.      

Legasov’s daughter in an interview with “Moskovski Komsomolets” stated that in addition to the actual recording left by her father there are many fake ones on the Internet.

Legasov’s actual biography is very different from the one shown in the series. He had a family of which no mention is made in the series. He finds out about the accident not from a phone call at midnight but rather during a Council and Economic Asset meeting. He was also not a specialist in reactors – his area of specialisation was physical chemistry however that never stopped him from becoming a key Chernobyl specialist and even read a prediction about the accident at an International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.  

The situation at the Chernobyl nuclear plant clearly shocked Legasov: “There’s such ignorance here, such negligence, such fear, just as in 1941 only worse. The same courage, the same despair and total ignorance of what’s happening”.

Chernobyl facts and fiction: Ulyana Homiuk

The Belarus scientist who in the series helps to clean up after the disaster didn’t in actual fact exist. She’s meant to represent a whole group of scientists who started the clean up after the disaster. In one scene from the series, she visits Leonid Toptunov, a chief engineer of the reactor, in hospital and who is dying. She asks him about the explosion. It was in actual fact workers from the prosecutor’s office who spoke to him and Akimov.   

Chernobyl facts and fiction; Diatlov’s version

Senior deputy engineer of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Anatoli Diatlov, is considered one of the main perpetrators of the disaster.  Despite being exposed to a huge amount of radiation and suffering from radiation disease, he was sentenced to ten years in a penal colony. He received a large number of letters of support one of which was from Andrei Sakharov. Diatlov was released four years of serving his term and died from a heart attack in 1995 at the age of 65.

Chernobyl’s shoot in Vilnius ©Sky UK LtdHBO Episode 01 Unit Stills

Diatlov never acknowledged his guilt and right to his death stated that the fallout occurred due to the “reactor’s totally unsatisfactory performance which at that time was unknown”.

1975 the RBMK reactor unit at the Leningrad nuclear power plant partially melted. In 1977 a similar accident took place at the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant however even then the Soviet authorities kept on claiming that the USSR nuclear program was completely safe.

In 1983 when the first test of the RBMK reactor took place at the Ignalina nuclear power plant where a serious defect was found: when control rods were introduced into the reactor, its power started to increase uncontrollably. It was in actual fact because of this reason that there was an explosion several years later at the Chernobyl plant. At that time Lithuania managed to avoid disaster. A few years after the disaster Diatlov said: “the RMBK reactor was simply doomed to explode”.     

Chernobyl facts and fiction; the Explosion

In the series its senior deputy engineer Anatoli Sytnikov who was the first to see the disaster and to whom Fomin tells to get on the roof of the building to take a look around. The first witnesses were in actual fact before them, two men fishing in the waters of the nuclear plant and who soon after died of radiation disease but who nevertheless managed to tell investigators what they had seen.   

Chernobyl facts and fiction, the evacuation

In the series, evacuees are shown lugging suitcases and baskets filled with possessions. In reality, the inhabitants were told that they would be evacuated for three to five days and to take with them warm clothes and that they’d spent the night in the forest. Most were happy at the opportunity to celebrate the First of May holiday in nature without taking much with. On the contrary, there were people who took along guitars and had barbeques with most inhabitants seeing the whole thing as a picnic.

Chernobyl’s shoot in Vilnius ©Sky UK LtdHBO
Chernobyl’s shoot in Vilnius ©Sky UK LtdHBO Episode 02 Unit Stills

Later on, some of them returned to their homes, especially people from the villages where they stayed on despite the radiation and recommendations of the authorities.

Chernobyl facts and fiction; divers remember

Divers Aleksei Ananenko and Valeri Bezpalov became true heroes as was said because it was they who saved Europe from a massive threat by diving into the radioactive water and opening the reservoirs. 

Ananenko takes a back seat when he remembers what he did: he was simply on duty that day and so they sent him off to fulfill a task. He was at serious risk of high exposure to radiation poisoning from the radioactive water yet fortunately, exposure was minimal. “It all had to be done smoothly and quickly. We got to corridor 001. Baranov stayed at the entrance and Bezpalov and I drifted into the water – there wasn’t much, more or less up to the roads. There was a large pipe about 1 meter in diameter at the floor. We started to walk along with it and the water was just up to our ankles.     

Fears that the dampers and valves will be difficult to open proved false and everything went effortlessly. Ananenko also notes that later on he was involved in a number of other operations with similar radiation levels.

In response to the actions of the divers becoming a true “legend of Chernobyl,” Ananenko says that journalists in all likelihood were inclined to “exaggerate” everything because of the severity of the operation. They were very scared of possible thermal shock.  

2 500 Tula residents, most of whom were miners, were also involved in the clean-up operations. 1700 later became disabled. The highest percentage of injuries occurred during the cleanup. Each shift lasted three hours during which 90 mining cars were loaded. Anatoli Kamayev loaded a record 96 cars. It was unbelievable how people managed to mobilise their resources at the time of the crisis. It took about three minutes to load a car. After loading about half a ton a carriage took it about 150 meters away from where it was unloaded and then came back the same way. “The miners worked without stopping” as “Chernobyl Union” chairman Vladimir Naumov remembers, he himself had to work during the clean-up operations.       

Witnesses and historical truth

66-year-old Ukrainian Petro Palivoda to this day cannot forget what happened and makes no secret of the fact that certain parts of the series made him angry. He remembers that just after the explosion his dog died. He also remembers that the firemen sprayed homes with “some sort of white soap to at least wash off the radioactive manure”.  

Chernobyl’s shoot in Vilnius ©Sky UK LtdHBO
Chernobyl’s shoot in Vilnius ©Sky UK LtdHBO Episode 02 Unit Stills

He remembers rumours that it was advisable to eat more sea kale and drink vodka. These products never used to disappear off the shelf.

Petro’s wife was a gynecologist. Soon after the fallout, she decided to go and live in a nunnery. “Pregnant woman had to be taken out of Pripyat. Children were taken in busloads to be accommodated in nursery schools and schools. Masses of a woman had abortions explaining that there was no way they were going to give birth to these children into the world. Some were forced into the gynecologist’s chair” says Petro.  

After watching the first episodes of Chernobyl, Petro says that in his opinion there were some inconsistencies. He says that the series didn’t show men being taken off to clean up the nuclear plant. Most of them had no idea they’d never come back home and so nobody took along a change of underwear and were singing as they went off to the disaster area.   

That wasn’t the only thing that made him angry: “The doctor was shown as a complete idiot. He asks ‘Who in the hospital needs iodine tablets? The hospital was set up next to the nuclear plant and didn’t the doctor know what kind of first aid to administer in the event of a disaster? It’s the midwife that knows but not the doctor?”

World recognition

According to a review in Time magazine, Chernobyl is a warning of what can happen if we don’t listen to scientists (for example as in climate change). The Los Angeles Times says that Chernobyl is a story about the worst and the best of the USSR – about devoted people determined to sacrifice their lives and a government paralyzed by its reticence”.

The New York Times criticizes the series due to its excessive Hollywood sentimentality – Legasov’s speech full of unnecessary pathos, volunteer divers that speak with Spartan solemnity, and Scherbin the deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR responsible for energy who doesn’t know how a nuclear reactor functions. The Guardian, in turn, writes of a rather chaotic storyline.      

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