The real Chernobyl HBO’s hit miniseries is ending, and here’s how its characters compare to their real-life counterparts
There’s just one episode remaining of “Chernobyl,” the HBO miniseries about the catastrophic nuclear accident that rocked the Soviet Union in April 1986. As the show comes to an end, many are left wondering how much of the dramatization is historically accurate, where the showrunners learned what they did about the events, and how people can find out more about the disaster. Meduza suggests some places to start.
The disaster according to the people of Pripyat
The miniseries often relies on the memories of Pripyat locals, as told by Svetlana Alexievich in her book, “Voices From Chernobyl.” For example, the book’s prologue (“A Solitary Human Voice”) supplies the storyline for firefighter Vasily Ignatenko and his wife, Lyudmila. This is also the likely source material that inspired the scene where Ignatenko’s neighbors gather on a bridge to watch the fire at the power plant during the night. “The image is still burned into my eyes: a bright crimson glow, the reactor somehow glowing from inside. It was an incredible color. It wasn’t an ordinary fire — it was like some kind of fluorescence. It was pretty. [...] In the evening, people crowded onto balconies to watch. If you didn’t have a balcony, you went over to a friend’s who did. We were on the ninth floor and we had a wonderful view. Three kilometers [1.9 miles] in a straight line. We carried out the kids and lifted them up and said, ‘Look! Remember this!’”
Alexievich’s book also mentions dead birds falling from the sky: “Riding in a taxi, the driver wondered why the birds were smashing into his windshield. It's like there’s something wrong with them… Like they’re falling asleep… It almost looks like suicide.”
For further memoirs: in 2014, literary critic Roman Leibov wrote in Kommersant about living in Kyiv in 1986. He recalls, among other things, advice to drink potassium iodide and rumors that red wine helped counteract radiation.
The real Valery Legasov
The real Valery Legasov did not single-handedly avert the apocalypse. According to chemist Ivan Sorokin, “He wasn’t some hero who jumped on a grenade, wishing to save the people. He just happened to be where he was in the food chain of Soviet science, where someone is important enough to appear before the government as a leading expert, but not important enough to avoid these rather unpleasant conversations altogether.”
Shortly before his suicide, Legasov did in fact record himself talking about his role in the Chernobyl liquidation effort and his thoughts about what caused the accident. You can find a transcript of these tapes here, but you won’t find the line from the first episode that opens HBO’s miniseries (“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that we’ll hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”) In an interview with the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, incidentally, Legasov’s daughter pointed out that there are several fake versions of her father’s audio tapes circulating on the Internet today.
The real Valery Legasov differed in several small ways from the character portrayed by Jared Harris. He had a family (which never appears in the show), he learned about the Chernobyl accident from a report submitted at a meeting of party officials and senior executives (not from a midnight phone call), and he studied physical chemistry (not nuclear reactors), which didn’t stop him from becoming the accident’s chief specialist and speaking before the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. The situation at the Chernobyl power plant shocked Legasov: “At the station, there was such unpreparedness, such confusion, and such fear. It was like 41, [when Nazi Germany invaded the USSR], but worse somehow. It was the same as in Brest, with the same courage, the same desperation, and the same unpreparedness….”
For more about Valery Legasov: in 2017, Moskovsky Komsomolets profiled Legasov, with comments from his daughter, Inga. (The story currently has more than 1 million views.) There’s also a biography published on the website for veterans of the USSR’s nuclear energy industry.
The real Anatoly Dyatlov
Chernobyl power plant shift supervisor Anatoly Dyatlov is considered one of the disaster’s chief culprits. Despite his exposure to a colossal 390 rem (3.9 Sievert) and subsequent radiation sickness, Dyatlov was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in the reactor’s explosion. Thanks to many letters in his defense, including one from Soviet human rights icon Andrey Sakharov, Dyatlov was freed after four years, for health reasons. In 1995, at the age of 65, he suffered a heart attack and died. Dyatlov never admitted guilt for the nuclear disaster and insisted until his death that the accident was due to “the completely unsatisfactory characteristics of the reactor, which were not yet clear at the time.” He presented his version of events in a book titled “Chernobyl: How It Was,” and in an hour-long interview, filmed at his home.
For more about the accident’s causes: Mediazona published a summary of the trial against Dyatlov, Nikolai Fomin, and Viktor Bryukhanov, and there’s a related investigative report by Radio Liberty.
The three divers Alexey Ananenko, Valery Bespalov, and Boris Baranov, who plunged into radioactive water to open the reactor’s water tank valves, are known as the heroes who saved Europe from nuclear destruction. Ananenko’s own writings about this operation, however, offer a far more modest description.
Contrary to the depiction on HBO’s miniseries, the divers weren’t volunteers, and Ananenko just happened to be on duty that day, which is why he was added to the team. The three men did risk absorbing radiation from the water (the basement where the pool valves were located could have been flooded), but there wasn’t actually much water on the floor when they got there: “The operation went quickly and without a hitch. We reached the ‘two zero first’ corridor, Baranov waited at the entrance, and Bespalov and I went into the water, which seemed to be about knee-deep. Along the floor, there was a pipe of a fairly large diameter. As soon as we reached it, we followed it, and the water turned out to be ankle-deep. [...] Our last fear — that the latches wouldn’t have flywheels, or that they’d be stuck in the locked position — also turned out to be unjustified. They were relatively easy to open, and we didn’t need a pipe wrench.” Ananenko says he even participated in several more operations that exposed him to similar levels of radiation.
Ananenko says the divers’ feat became a Chernobyl legend thanks to “very liberal reporting” by journalists and the “colossal significance” of the operation itself: preventing a steam explosion from ejecting even more radioactive material from the core.
Two thousand, five hundred residents of the Tula region took part in the liquidation of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Most of these people were miners from the “Mosbass” (Moscow Coal Basin) crew. Almost 70 percent (1,700) of these men later became disabled — the highest rate among any of the liquidators brought in from outside the region. “[Nikolai Ostrovsky’s] ‘How the Steel Was Tempered’ was nothing compared to what the miners had to do. Each shift filled about 90 mine cars, and shifts only lasted three or so hours. Crew captain Anatoly Kamaev from Aleksin set an absolute record: he loaded 96 mine cars. It’s unbelievable how people can mobilize their resources in critical situations. They spent three minutes on each mine car. Try to imagine the process: first, you load half a ton, then the mine car is moved 150 meters [almost 500 feet], it’s unloaded, and then it’s sent back the same distance. The miners worked nonstop,” recalls Tula region “Union Chernobyl” public organization chairman Vladimir Naumov, who worked in the liquidation effort as a mechanic.
In 1999, two hundred Tula miners staged a group hunger strike, demanding the ouster of Russian Labor Minister Sergey Kalashnikov, who’d slashed government benefits for miners. At the time, “Tula-Chernobyl” city association regional chairman Vladimir Pavlov said, “It makes no difference to us whether we starve to death now or later.” In 2000, in protest against reforms to Russia’s entitlement programs, miners laid their Chernobyl Liquidation medals at the foot of the monument to General Georgy Zhukov outside Red Square. Lawmakers subsequently passed legislation reducing the impact of some of these changes.
For more about the miners: an article about the Chernobyl power plant miners published by the newspaper Pravda in 1986 doesn’t say a word about the health risks they faced. This story in 2014 by Argumenty & Fakty addresses how Tula liquidators are fighting for benefits from the state.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock