‘It falls short on meaning’ The director of Russian TV's upcoming ‘Chernobyl’ miniseries weighs in on the HBO smash hit
In late May, director Alexey Muradov wrapped filming on a new Russian miniseries called “Chernobyl.” The new 12-episode project is expected to premiere this fall on the television network NTV. The show’s plot revolves around the Ukrainian SSR’s KGB discovering that a CIA agent named “Albert Lentz” has infiltrated Pripyat, the “nuclear city” built in 1970 to serve the nearby Chernobyl Power Plant. To prevent a possible terrorist attack, Soviet counterintelligence agent Andrey Nikolaev follows the American spy to the station, where the show unfolds. Meduza spoke to Muradov about this fictional plot and the differences between his show and the critically acclaimed series by the same name that recently aired on HBO.
Is your miniseries more about this story of a Soviet intelligence officer who’s trying to stop a CIA agent, or is it about the nuclear catastrophe itself?
It’s about the actual catastrophe, of course. It would be strange to use only this plot line [with the KGB and CIA agents], though it is there. It’s not the center of the show, but it’s dramatically grounded. Because, as you know, the nuclear industry and everything connected to civilian and non-civilian atomic power, is of great interest to foreign intelligence. Accordingly, counterintelligence works against this, and that’s not only in Russia, but around the world. This has always been a very active struggle, and I think it will remain this way, because [in the field of nuclear energy] there’s a lot of know-how and all the other things. Therefore, there was of course great interest among intelligence agencies, including in the United States. We used this situation and spun a whole story around it. But I should say that this isn’t a whodunit; it’s closer to a drama, and a powerful one at that. But there are elements of a detective story, of course.
Can you reveal now if the Chernobyl Power Plant explosion in your show is the work of the CIA agent you invented?
You see, [in 1986] they considered this explanation very seriously. Today, this is called a terrorist attack, or a provocation, or I don’t know what to call it. This theory existed. And as far as I know, there was a note left on Gorbachev’s desk that laid out several possible explanations for why this thing happened. But since we were on such friendly terms with the Americans at the time, this story was cast aside. But as it turned out in the end, thank God, America had nothing to do with this, and the same goes for any other country.
Would you describe this miniseries as a work of fiction or would you say it’s closer to documentary film?
No, I’d like very much for it to be a fictional drama. We used historical documents and tried to get as close as possible to them, visually and in terms of facts, but this is not documentary filmmaking.
And you filmed the entire show in Belarus?
We didn’t film every scene in Belarus. We shot some scenes in Moscow: the interiors that we needed, like everything tied to the Kremlin and the Central Committee. It’s very convenient to film in Belarus. The natural surroundings there are very similar [to Chernobyl], and the cities where we filmed are about the same as Pripyat and Chernobyl.
How did you find all the props for the show?
We had very good artists and props director assistants. They scoured all of Belarus for RAF ambulances, old “Volgas,” “Zhigulis,” “Moskvichs,” and so on. Everything was restored, right down to the devices used to measure radiation.
Do you have a personal story connected to Chernobyl? What was your attitude about the history, when you started this project?
I remember perfectly that I was in the city of Batumi, when the accident occurred. We were with the children, swimming often, and spending a lot of time in the sea. And one fine day they told us you wouldn’t be going to the sea today, you’ll stay at home. They explained to us that there’d been some kind of explosion and there was radiation. Apparently, they were erring on the side of caution: this was on the third or fourth day, after the explosion. But after another three days, everything turned out to be okay, and we went back to having fun at the shore.
I’ve [always] been surrounded by quite a large number of people who have come through Chernobyl. A lot of my peers had parents in Chernobyl, and I had extensive ties with the parents of my classmates — classmates [who had been there] — so I also had the opportunity to learn all about it in person.
How do you think your work will be received?
It’s difficult to say. We tried to get as close [to reality] as possible. But that’s not what’s important — what matters is something else. The country rose to its feet then, of course, like in every disaster that’s happened in our country. And the extent to which different people (privately and not only) answered the call is worth talking about — especially today.
We’re telling a variety of stories, ranging from the people who were in Chernobyl itself at the time of the explosion, as well as their families and their homes, to the Kremlin and the CIA, looking at the full spectrum, nevertheless in different proportions. And I should say that this drama is a personal drama, and we’re looking at how they survived the catastrophe and how they fought with it, inside and around.
HBO’s “Chernobyl” miniseries recently concluded, receiving critical acclaim. Have you seen the show, and if so what did you think?
I’ve only seen the first episode. I haven’t managed to watch the rest, but I’ll definitely see it. In the first episode, I noticed a few excellent things. Of course, there’s the visuals and the absolutely wonderful sound design. But we can’t show objectively what happens abroad, and they can’t really show what happens here. Unfortunately, throughout the show, despite all the richness of what I saw, the cliches that were used roughly during the Cold War in relation to our people and our situation have remained. Nothing has really changed here. That’s why I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me this [miniseries] was shot 20 years ago, given how the actors portray their roles.
Everything related to mutual relations perplexes me. It’s like “Red Heat,” where Schwarzenegger plays the KGB agent [sic — Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character, “Ivan Danko,” is an ordinary police captain]. The whole thing was a bit of a caricature. Things are a bit subtler now on this show, but it still seems to me that it’s not quite the right note. I find the dialogue in this show to be very strange, where characters are addressing each other in everyday life by their full [first] names. Our everyday lives aren’t like that! That’s just one of the smaller examples.
What other cliches did you notice on the show?
It has to do with the relationship [depicted] between the authorities and the people. Everything on the show is pretty superficial. This sort of thing is very hard, after all. How do you translate into English the phrase “Kosoi kosoi kosil kosoi kosoi”? [“A cross-eyed rabbit scythed with a crooked scythe” — a grammatically correct tongue twister similar to Dmitri Borgmann’s “buffalo” construct.] If you don’t know the language well enough and don’t understand it with all the modulations of intonation and meanings, the dialogue ends up pretty flat, and I wasn’t a big fan of that. And these people didn’t even try to deal with this. Sasha, Shura, Alexander — three names, and it’s not clear [to foreigners] if it’s a man or a woman. It’s probably hard for foreigners to understand and comprehend all this, and it’s very hard to convey it to them. This is a drawback.
Legasov is the cornerstone of this whole story. An absolutely wonderful person and a tremendous professional, whom they tried to stick with the blame. This was a very consequential person, and making him the center of the series was the right decision, of course. But not from this angle. It’s too broad.
You’ve worked a lot in television and you know the audience. If HBO’s “Chernobyl” were broadcast on Russian airwaves, what do you think the response would be? And how would it differ from the reactions you expect for your own miniseries?
Television audiences are divided sharply into age and social groups. There are people who care a lot about the visuals and plot development, and there are people who care most about the meaning. And both are important for other people. As for the HBO series — it’s wonderful, without a doubt. But it falls short on meaning, though it undeniably has great visuals. As for our series, we’ve emphasized the other side a bit, though our visuals should be quite nice, too. We rely more on the thoughtful and understanding context of what’s happening on screen.
Are good visuals the result of necessary investments or something else?
I realize the next question will be about their budget and our budget. Our budgets are completely non-comparable, which is why the pictures are different. But the network, the producers, and the film crew, tried to get the absolutely best visuals possible with the budget we had. So, in terms of special events, we’ll lag behind a little, but we’ll have everything else.
Many have said that a show like HBO’s “Chernobyl” couldn’t be made in Russia simply because there’s not enough money to fund its production costs. Is that the only reason?
I’d name three reasons. The first is insufficient budgets. The second is film technology, computer graphics, and the wonders that appear on screen in the West. They're ahead of us there, unfortunately. But I should point out that we’re moving in leaps and bounds in this direction, and I hope, if we don’t go up against them directly, we’ll at least get closer in the near future to this parade of attractions. And third, our viewers today, thank God, still think about the soul. And in the future, when we have good budgets and technological capabilities, the soul won’t go anywhere, and everything will balance just right in Russian cinema.
What are the demands of the Russian viewer’s soul?
The viewer today needs to be given hope that we’ll all be together, whatever happens. And whatever happens, we’ll overcome all problems, both external and internal. It sounds pretentious, but I think today there’s not enough of precisely this understanding that we’re all together. Because some things, in my view, at the everyday and social levels have become extremely blurred, but I believe we have the potential to overcome this.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock