HBO and Sky UK’s miniseries Chernobyl is not the first attempt to depict the namesake nuclear disaster, but it is the most convincing one, distilling thorough research into an elaborate story. A major reason this is coming from American and British production companies and not any from former Soviet countries is that the Chernobyl disaster is still perceived as too tragic an event to depict with the necessary detachment. This has long been a forbidden theme, thanks to the lack of transparency around the event, its political controversy, and the shock that took decades to pass.
The series was informed by a number of sources, among them Svetlana Alexievich’s 1997 book Voices from Chernobyl, based on more than 500 interviews with survivors, workers, and cleanup “liquidators.” The testimony of the wife of fireman Vasily Ignatenko, who died of radiation sickness after responding to the fire, is directly used as one of the show’s central storylines. On the night of April 26, 1986, the staff of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant ran a test of the safety system, but protocol violations and technical problems resulted in a steam explosion in the core. It’s unclear how many casualties can be attributed to the disaster, with estimates ranging as wide as 5,000 to 100,000 deaths.
Chernobyl works to evoke the fear and confusion surrounding the event, from residents near the nuclear plant to people hundreds or thousands of kilometers away. The incident was an important sign of the decline of the Soviet state. The recent book Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe, by Harvard historian Sergii Plokhii, posits that the disaster was waiting to happen due to the flaws in the Soviet system’s production norms. It was published while the TV series was already in production, but the two come to similar conclusions. In the show’s companion podcast, creator and writer Craig Mazin emphasizes the role of propaganda in the delay in relocating people from the town of Pripyat, as well as the strange decision to evacuate only a 30-km zone.
The poster for Chernobyl echoes the imagery of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, about a journey into a forbidden zone where people’s desires can come true if they can speak out exactly what they want. Here, the failure of the Chernobyl plant undoes the Soviet desire for superiority (as one character says, they are “obsessed with not being humiliated”). The main characters, scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and government official Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), demonstrate the push and pull between the systemic and the human in the Soviet society as they lead the effort to clean up the disaster and prevent things from getting even worse. The two act like “stalkers” from the film, shepherding thousands of workers into a zone of great danger in order to protect millions.
Despite its general historical accuracy, the series takes some liberties with its version of the events. It exaggerates the state violence of the time, with scenes of soldiers confronting miners with guns and frequent threats of execution for anyone going against the KGB. It presents a standard Western Cold War view of the Soviet Union as still valid, rather than show the realities of life during Perestroika. In truth, Glasnost allowed the real Legasov to present his position on the safety flaws in nuclear reactors to the Soviet scientific community — not through a trial, as the series depicts (he never participated in the Chernobyl trials), but through the regular media and in private conversation. Though there is evidence his career was affected after he released information about Chernobyl, he did not have to hide the tapes with his memoirs, as they circulated among Soviet scientists.
The most surprising omission is the May 1 demonstration in Kyiv, not far from the plant. Authorities brought their families to the parade, where thousands marched to demonstrate how safe things supposedly were — all while radioactive ash fell around them. This would have tied in well to the show’s depiction of an invisible danger, and people’s lack of knowledge around it. The theme runs through everything from Gorbachev not initially understanding the scale of the disaster to Ignatenko’s pregnant wife trespassing in his hospital room and becoming irradiated herself.
The consequences of Chernobyl linger today, with the effects of radiation still felt in Ukraine and Belarus. In 2017, Ukraine completed construction of a structure to contain the still-radioactive reactor for another 100 years. There are reports of rare wild animals in the exclusion zone, and some people have returned there as well, though it is formally forbidden to reside in the area. In the same way that the radioactive fallout will persist, we will continue to see reinterpretations of this event in popular culture.
Chernobyl is available on HBO and other services.