The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster is so unfathomably awful. And while it’s not a documentary in the strict sense, Chernobyl mini-series creator Craig Mazin was determined to get every detail either exactly right, or as close as possible. But since no one’s perfect, it’s time to sort through the rubble and play Fact vs. Fiction: Chernobyl Edition. We would say spoilers ahead, but Chernobyl actually happened more than 30 years ago, so we hope you’ve had time to brush up on history.
1. A Dab Of Added Drama
Chernobyl opens with a somber Valery Legasov at his home, recording a message onto a cassette tape. Legasov did in fact record tapes, although series creator/writer Craig Mazin does admit that they were perhaps a little less “flowery” than the dialogue he’s written. So far, so factual.
Mere moments later we find out the recordings were both confession tapes and a suicide note (of sorts). Legasov killed himself, as the caption screen explains, two years after Chernobyl, although not down to the exact day and minute. It’s still pretty poetic. And actually, it’s not the biggest change they made to Legasov.
2. Let’s Get Real About Valery Legasov
Most of English actor Jarred Harris’ portrayal of Valery Legasov is pretty accurate, from the more minor aspects like his boxy glasses to his important and central role in the post-explosion clean-up efforts, but, the real-life Valery Legasov had something the fictional Legasov doesn’t — a family.
In reality, Valery Legasov was married up until his death, and had a daughter named Inga. That’s a pretty big departure Chernobyl makes right out of the gate, but Mazin had a reason. He didn’t want to disrupt Legasov’s Chernobyl-related narrative with scenes of domestic life, he has other (also real) characters for that. And speaking of which…
3. The Exceptional Power of Pregnancy
Played by Irish actress Jessie Buckley, Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the pregnant wife of firefighter and first responder Vasily, breaks the rules, staying by her husband’s side at the hospital as he suffered from acute radiation syndrome. And it’s all true, up until that point.
Chernobyl ought to hold up on the assertion that the unborn baby absorbed the radiation Vasily was emitting, saving Lyudmilla’s life. Doctors and scientists studying the effects of Chernobyl found no overwhelming evidence that pregnancies were affected by radiation exposure. A US doctor who treated first responders maintains that patients posed no risk to visitors or hospital staff. Still, her story sure tugged at the heartstrings.
4. What About Their Accents?
This may seem obvious, but it should be said nonetheless, that none of the actors use Russian accents when they speak, yet the mini-series most certainly takes place in the Soviet Union. So why does everyone have an English accent, instead of even attempting to sound like real-deal Eastern Bloc denizens?
Creator Craig Mazin declared early on that he wanted to avoid all the Soviet Union associated stereotypes. Imagine if the voices of Boris and Natasha from Rocky & Bullwinkle were talking about the devastating repercussions of a nuclear disaster, and imagine how seriously (or not) you would take their dialogue. Suddenly, the lack of accent makes a lot more sense.
5. Coming Apart At The Seams
While we admit that this is seriously nitpicky, that’s what we’re here for — to get into the nitty gritty and itty bitty details. Even though Mazin and head of the costume department Jan Dieckmann did an incredible job replicating everyone’s clothing, down to the buttons, there’s just one loose thread.
The Soviet Union had very specific ideas on fashion (or lack thereof). So, while the outfits of some school children were accurate to the period, the uniforms they’re wearing were holiday uniforms, worn on a non-holiday. And since we’re already being such sticklers, teenagers were shown carrying the requisite backpacks for little kids.
6. A Totally Creative Construction
Almost every person that appears on screen at any point throughout the entirety of Chernobyl is based on a real person down to the tiniest detail, no names were changed or anything. We say almost, because one character, and a pretty important player from episode 2 and on, is a fully fictional figure.
Ulana Khomyuk, who is oftentimes positioned as the foil to Valery Legasov, is the only character who isn’t a one-to-one replication of someone historically real. Played by Emily Watson, Khomyuk, was created as a composite character, intended to represent a couple of different men and women who investigated the disaster internationally.
7. Taking The Story To Questionable Heights
Through the use of caption screens Chernobyl is able to jump from city to city and time to time. At most, the events of the real nuclear disaster are depicted a bit sped up so as to fit into five approximately hour-long episodes. That helicopter crash from episode 2 however, is more than a little off.
There was a helicopter that crashed as it flew over the disaster site, but it happened weeks after reactor 4 exploded. And although it was shot to imply that the crash was caused by the cloud of radioactive smoke — in actuality the helicopter’s turbine blades came up against a crane, causing the crash.
8. Where There’s Smoke…
You know the expression “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”? It makes sense, since one is the result of the other, but all that billowing black smoke you see in Chernobyl, well, there was a fire, but there was no big black cloud of smoke. Let Valery Legasov (the real one) describe the scene.
It turns out that ominous cloud of smoke wouldn’t have persisted as long as it did, and wasn’t even the result of the nuclear disaster, it would’ve been because of the burning building. The radioactive cloud from the reactor fire was, according to Legasov, “a column of white smoke several hundred metres high,” and nothing more.
9. Diving Deep Into The Facts
The three divers who were called upon to drain the tanks of water below the primary containment chamber to keep nuclear fuel from coming into contact with water weren’t exactly the heroes Chernobyl would have us believe. Even Mazin admits the dramatic way the divers offered to put their lives on the line for the motherland, was definitely over-dramatized.
The divers weren’t offered a reward. And, they did not heroically volunteer for love of country, the truth is, they were just on shift. After their successful return, they received no applause either. Oleksiy Ananenko, one of the divers, described it as, “It was just our work. Who would applaud that?”
10. Mining For More Misrepresentations
Much like the divers who drained the water, the miners depicted in the series were certainly real, but their story was also given a bit of the Hollywood touch to add a little drama. The miners worked diligently to dig a tunnel under the reactor for the installation of a heat exchanger. And temperatures were hot.
Chernobyl shows the miners stifling in the heat, so much so that they stripped off all their clothes. While they did take off a couple of layers, the didn’t go down to nothing. And to top it off, the heat exchanger wasn’t used since the core cooled before it was even installed.
11. Putting The Truth On Trial
The final episode possesses a quiet tension (tinged with a whole lot of despair) as the trial of Dyatlov, Bryukhanov and Fomin is underway. Valery Legasov (the fictional Legasov) takes to the stand as a witness, and delivers a speech so captivating, we couldn’t get enough. There’s just one problem — Legasov wasn’t actually at the trial.
The trial is the culmination of every horror we’ve come to witness throughout the short series (although at some particularly gruesome moments it really felt endless) but according to Craig Mazin, the real trial was actually “quite boring. Legasov’s triumphant speech wasn’t delivered to any Soviet officials, although, even if it had, they wouldn’t have cared anyway.
12. Thinly Veiled Threats and Half-Truths
Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Shcherbina is an acting tour de force. He’s portrayed to be a big shot of the Central Committee, who climbed the ladder by bullying everyone around him into keeping with the Party’s plans. But how far would Boris really have gone?
In episode 2 Shcherbina outright threatens to have Legasov shot if he doesn’t cooperate, and tell him how the nuclear reactor works. He also threatens to have Legasov thrown from a helicopter, but could all that have actually happened? Not likely. Executions went out of style after the 1930s, so no one would’ve been acting out of a fear of being shot.
13. Was “The Bridge Of Death” Really That Bad?
In the first episode there’s an audible boom, and many of the people from nearby Pripyat grouped on a bridge to watch the commotion at the power plant from. This bridge became known as “The Bridge of Death.” In episode 4, that bridge is back.
The end of the series flashes some chilling information across the screen “Of the people who watched from the railway bridge, it has been reported that none survived.” While they made sure they were covered by saying “reported” author Adam Higginbotham, who wrote “Midnight in Chernobyl,” claims he interviewed someone who stood on the “Bridge of Death” and he was “perfectly healthy” enough to participate in the book.
14. Chernobyl Unchecked?
The information added at the end of the last episode made so more claims about Chernobyl that aren’t entirely accurate. Including the declaration that no scientific studies were conducted of the hundreds of thousands of people who cleaned up after the disaster. And that might be one of the biggest fictions Chernobyl contains.
Does anyone really think the first major nuclear disaster of that magnitude would go unexamined? Many studies were conducted, although none proved conclusive, it’s possible and even likely that they were at increased risk, but minor in comparison to the other health risks residents of the Soviet countries face. Those include cardiovascular disease, smoking and excess alcohol consumption. And speaking of alcohol…
15. Have Another Drink Comrade
There are a few Soviet stereotypes the Western world just loves to perpetuate, namely that everyone constantly calls each other comrade, and that everyone loves vodka, and drinks it like water. In the second episode a particularly conceited apparatchik picks up a carafe of vodka from his desk and pours himself a glass — well we’re here to say, put down the drink comrade.
It’s midday, and an upper Party member is having a drink in an office in the presence of a previously unknown scientist? Drinking a glass of vodka while at work, and with an angry stranger no less, was highly unlikely.
16. Soviet Supervillians Or Something Else?
Some viewers and even former citizens of Pripyat have taken issue with the depiction of a few characters — the bad guys. Chernobyl’s depiction succeeds in sparking the requisite outrage in its audience. We’re all left thinking, without those villains, some of this could have been avoided, but despite Hollywood’s division between good and bad, nothing is that black and white.
Plant director Viktor Bryukhanov, Chief Engineer Nikolai Fomin and Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (the three men on trial in episode 4) are apparently “not a fiction, but a blatant lie” according to a Chernobyl survivor. “Their characters are distorted and misrepresented, as if they were villains. They were nothing like that.”
17. How At Risk Was Minsk…And The Rest of Europe While We’re At It?
The second episode makes a pretty sweeping (and super scary) claim when Khomyuk charges that Chernobyl was at risk of a second explosion — a genuine concern many scientists at the time expressed. However, Khomyuk’s declaration that a second nuclear explosion would destroy Kiev and most of Minsk, and even eventually make large areas of Europe uninhabitable is an exaggeration.
Nuclear power stations although obviously not immune to disaster, don’t blow up the same way nuclear bombs do, and such an explosion wouldn’t have decimated such an extensive part of the Soviet population. Nor would the spread of radioactive particles made Europe entirely uninhabitable.
18. Let’s Hear It For Our Heroes
In the same way no one involved in Chernobyl would have really been as ignorantly all-bad as Dyatlov, for example, no one would have been all-good either, and that includes Khomyuk and Legasov. Some of their more heroic scenes wherein they stand up to Soviet officials and blast the system? That would have never happened.
Since the Soviet government had a super well-established system of propaganda and censorship, such an extensive knowledge of the situation, as Khomyuk supposedly had, was entirely impossible. Moreover, no one got to a position of power, not Legasov, nor the scientists Khomyuk was created to represent, without propping up the party message, to the letter, for a long long time.
19. That Cane-Carrying Communist Elder, Fact Or Fiction?
In the first episode, during a meeting of a council called in to address how the situation over at Chernobyl was to be handled, an elder, intimidating communist elder taps his cane on the conference room table and dictates — cut the phone lines, protect the people from themselves. Only, he wasn’t real.
It’s not that the whole scene wasn’t completely fictionalized, the cane-carrying communist’s message certainly was real. In actuality, every official called upon to tackle the disaster did decidedly maintain the Soviet attitude of secrecy and the spread of misinformation “for the greater good.” And the order to cut the phone lines? That came from the KGB.
20. Chernobyl Series Star Gives His Own Firsthand Account Of The Aftermath
While we’ve already cleared up that Europe wouldn’t have been uninhabitable, one actor, series star Stellan Skarsgård remembers the effects all the way from Sweden. The series may have taken a couple of creative liberties, but some of the most shocking aspects weren’t invented.
The immediate effect of Chernobyl was that “a lot of radioactive material was brought into the atmosphere,” and “spread over a very large area.” Skarsgård recalls that back in the 1980s, there were certain foods from the ground or grown near the border that they were instructed not to eat. While we wish it wasn’t so, a lot of Chernobyl was tragically true.
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