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‘I was there, and I don’t want to watch this anymore’ A journalist in Baltimore shows HBO's ‘Chernobyl’ to his stepfather and discovers that he was part of the USSR's military cleanup
Slava Malamud is a journalist and math teacher with Moldovan roots who now lives in the United States. His tweets about the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” are enormously popular, attracting thousands of likes and reposts, including from Craig Mazin, the show’s creator. Malamud says he recently decided to show the miniseries to his stepfather, and was surprised to learn that the man worked as a liquidator at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant — something he’s never talked about before. To this day, it's an experience he still wants to forget.
Slava Malamud was born near Tiraspol in the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. Forty-five years old today, he lives in Baltimore, Maryland, teaches math at a local school, and writes about ice hockey for the website The Hockey News.
I grew up in the part of Moldova that’s called Transnistria, which is now like an independent quasi-state. We emigrated to the U.S. at the start of the Transnistria War, in the early 1990s, as refugees, when I was 17 years old. I spent 13 years working as a resident correspondent in North America for the newspaper Sport-Express, and I still write sometimes about sports, albeit more in English now. And in addition to my main work, I teach school mathematics.
I’d heard a lot about the “Chernobyl” miniseries, and I finally got around to watching it when there was an extended holiday weekend here in the States. Then I decided to share my thoughts with readers on Twitter, not as a specialist, but as someone who lived through that era, who saw it all with his own eyes. I have very vivid memories from that time. I always take a critical view when watching Western movies and TV shows about Russian and Soviet life. They often distort certain events or confuse certain details. Take the popular show “The Americans,” which I liked very much. There were little things you could nitpick there, too. It was even a little fun to find them.
When I watched “Chernobyl” — and 1986 was a very memorable year for me, and I recall all these events very well — I was shocked by how little there was to find fault with. And this applies not just to the interiors, the clothes, and so on. It’s clear that the people behind this show worked very seriously to bring it all together, and it’s amazing how authentic the characters feel, in terms of Soviet mentality, as far as is possible for Western screenwriters. It's my understanding that the person who wrote this is an American without any ties to Russia, so it’s surprising how believable the show’s characters are and how convincing their behavior is.
And it goes without saying that there’s an incredible amount of detail here. It’s not even clear why they went to all these lengths — after all, their target audience won’t even notice this. Like I see the license plate for a car in one scene has the real numbers for the Kyiv region. Who’s going to notice that in America or England? The respect and meticulousness the show’s creators brought to their work is breathtaking.
When I was a sports journalist, the nature of the job meant watching films like “Legend No. 17” [about Soviet hockey player Valery Kharlamov] and “Going Vertical” [about the Soviet national basketball team’s controversial 1972 Olympic gold medal], and I couldn’t understand how it was possible that there are these very well documented events, many of the participants are still alive, and the result is still this wildly distorted reality — and these Russian movies are actually about Russia — their own country — not some foreign land. Why don’t Russian screenwriters respect their own history as much as some American from Brooklyn? My colleagues talked to the writers [of those Russian sports movies], and they said: hey, we’re not making a documentary film here. But there’s a difference between artistic license and the unabashed distortion of facts and details. I think Craig Mazin understands the boundary here, whereas Russian screenwriters deliberately overstep it, for their own reasons. It probably has something to do with politics or whatever messages they want to communicate. But Mazin, who had no motivation to invent his own version of events, decided by virtue of his own convictions to create a high-quality product. [Mazin told The Chernobyl Podcast that the show’s extreme attention to detail is meant as a tribute to the nuclear disaster’s survivors.]
At the time, one film that made a big impression on me was “The Detached Mission” — a Soviet action movie about karate, basically. It had these American characters who were played mainly by Balts because of their “Western” appearance. And I can still remember there was this American general who played golf wearing an Iowa State football hat. In other words, even back then, Soviet directors could create these authentic things and provide details that the average Soviet viewer might not recognize, but which work on a subconscious level, and you knew you were looking at a real American, not some caricature. Now they’ve got other priorities: they’re not telling the real story, but something else they’ve cooked up. Even in these films about sports, about Kharlamov or about basketball, it’s clear that the director is showing us what these events mean for him, and not for the people who were there. That’s why the characters feel like cardboard and the foreigners come off as caricatures. Art takes a back seat to propaganda.
What Mazin is doing is true art. He’s put himself in the heads of people from another country in another era. It’s clear that [Svetlana] Alexievich’s book made a big impression on him. [In the miniseries, the story of the fireman’s wife, Lyudmila Ignatenko, is taken from the prologue of “Voices From Chernobyl.”] In the show’s fourth episode, it’s clear that the [Soviet] film “Come and See” had a big impact on him, too. There are many frame-by-frame references there. I didn’t get into this in my Twitter thread, because citing “Come and See” probably means nothing to most Americans, but these references were obvious to me, as someone who grew up in the 1980s. This is a labor of love for Mazin, not somebody filling an order from the Culture Ministry, or however it works in Russia.
My stepfather, retired Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Veytsman, lives in New York State and is always watching Pervyi Kanal, so I just wanted him to see something decent for a change. So I told him, here’s a show with Russian dubbing. Look at the Soviet machinery here. I wanted to know how well they nailed the military uniforms, and he was an expert on this, after all. And suddenly my stepfather tells me: I was there, and I don’t want to watch this anymore. I was blown away, because he’s not the secretive type. He’s talked about his service and how he served in the Far Eastern Military District, but he’d never said a word about this before.
It turns out that they called him up in May 1986, two or three weeks after the explosion, and put him on alert. He says he didn’t believe it at first, thinking there’d been some mistake. They told him: rally all the chemical-warfare troops and move out to the Kyiv region. And so he brought a detachment of liquidators there, to Pripyat, from Moldova. And since he was from the senior officer personnel (his rank was captain but his command was an artillery battalion, which was normally given to a major), they made him deputy district supervisor.
This was May, when the evacuation of villages around Pripyat was underway. They made him responsible for the evacuation, and he monitored the provision of buses and caught marauders. There was a lot of marauding there: everyone would be gone from one village, but not yet from the neighboring settlement, and people just came over to the empty side and took whatever they liked. He says they logged all the soldiers’ radiation exposure as 25 rem [0.25 Sievert], without even looking at the dosimeters. As he later learned, this was just the maximum dose [permitted on assignment], and nobody knows what their real exposure was. If you exceeded the maximum dose, you couldn’t be sent back, and they needed people.
My stepfather spent a total of two or three weeks there, and then they sent him back to Moldova, because there were joint exercises planned then between the USSR and the Bulgarian People's Army. They decided not to cancel them, to avoid fueling additional gossip. They sent him to lead an artillery division. He was lucky, of course: the rest of the chemical warfare troops stuck around longer to liquidate [the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident], while he, as senior supervisor, was sent back for exercises at the Tiraspol training grounds.
My grandfather was a marine. He served in Crimea and never spoke about the [Second World] War, except once, in the late 1980s, when he had too much to drink. My stepfather served during peacetime, but he was still left with some pretty bad memories. He refuses to talk about Chernobyl to anyone but me for a very Soviet reason: “I signed a document,” he says. It’s pointless to try to tell him that it was all a long time ago, and that the Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore. “It’s like an oath,” he says.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock
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