‘Chernobyl’ TV miniseries: the reviews from ground zero

Why We Wrote This

Those who have lived through part of history can offer valuable insights years later. They can also reveal the range of perspectives on a subject, as shown by reactions to this TV dramatization of the 1986 nuclear disaster.

Courtesy of HBO
Emily Watson stars in 'Chernobyl,' a five-part miniseries airing on HBO.

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Vladimir Slivyak well remembers the anxiety and fear where he lived in the Soviet Union in the days following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. “Our government definitely knew what was going on, and they just went on TV and lied about it,” he says.

Mr. Slivyak is now an anti-nuclear activist and co-chair of Ecodefense, an environmental group. And he’s definitely taken notice of “Chernobyl,” the new U.S.-British dramatic miniseries airing on HBO. “This is pretty good, and we are getting a lot of positive feedback about it,” he says.

The program is available in Russia and Ukraine only to the relatively small audience that subscribes to pay-for-view streaming services, as well as an unknown number who access pirated versions. But the miniseries has been disproportionately noticed and reviewed by mainstream media in both countries.

Some experts have been more critical than Mr. Slivyak. Although the program is “wonderfully shot, professionally edited, and the special effects are great,” says Oleg Voinov, a documentary producer who made a highly acclaimed Russian film about the Chernobyl disaster, “it doesn’t come close to reflecting reality.”

The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster was a global wake-up call, a human tragedy that is still unfolding. It was also a deathblow to the credibility of the Soviet Union, which had proudly developed the reactor’s deeply flawed technology and whose bureaucracy tried to deceive the world for several days about the accident’s scope and consequences.

This is a story with universal import. But in the post-Soviet states of Russia and Ukraine – the latter being where the disaster occurred – it’s also personal. Many people in the region vividly remember those strange and terrifying days, and a dwindling cohort of Chernobyl veterans still wrestles with the lingering effects of radiation.

So one might expect Russians and Ukrainians to watch the new U.S.-British dramatic miniseries “Chernobyl” with the sort of derisive skepticism that an American audience might have for a Russian-made film about, say, Hurricane Katrina. Indeed, with the five-part series well underway, “Chernobyl” has its critics in the region where the catastrophe happened, and some people in particular have taken issue with the program’s authenticity. But in a bit of a surprise, other responses appear to be favorable.

“This is pretty good, and we are getting a lot of positive feedback about it,” says Vladimir Slivyak, a veteran Russian anti-nuclear activist and co-chair of Ecodefense, an environmental group. “Our government definitely knew what was going on, and they just went on TV and lied about it. I think that important aspect of those events is pretty well depicted in this miniseries.”

Although the HBO program is available in Russia and Ukraine only to the relatively small audience that subscribes to pay-for-view streaming services, as well as an unknown number who access pirated versions, it has been disproportionately noticed and reviewed by mainstream media in both countries.

Everybody seems to agree that the miniseries goes overboard with its characters, depicting Soviet officials and plant management as too evil and conniving. And the protagonists – especially the scientists who fought to reveal the truth about the accident – are portrayed as just a little too all-knowing and heroic.

Oleg Voinov is a documentary producer who made a highly acclaimed Russian film about the Chernobyl disaster. The new production is “wonderfully shot, professionally edited, and the special effects are great. But it doesn’t come close to reflecting reality,” he says. “I know it’s hard to combine dramatic script with documentary narrative, but still, it’s not what it should be. A lot of the facts presented are just not true.”

On location

Key scenes for the miniseries were shot in the control room at Ignalia, Chernobyl’s Soviet-built sister power station in Lithuania. Filming was also done around Ukraine and even at the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power station itself.

Russian authorities have offered no comment on the program, but Mr. Slivyak, for one, says it will not be liked by an establishment that remains heavily invested in nuclear energy and that still operates several Chernobyl-type reactors.

What happened 33 years ago had monumental consequences for the Soviet Union, according to Vitaly Tolstikov, a historian of nuclear power at Chelyabinsk State Institute of Culture in the Russian Urals. “As a result of the disaster, people started to doubt the ability of the state to manage things. They lost faith, and this may be considered one of the causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse,” he says.

Some consequences of the accident are still being counted today, Mr. Tolstikov notes: “The long-term health costs are still not calculated. Whole districts of Ukraine and Belarus ceased to be economically active.” Belarus, another post-Soviet state, is where most of Chernobyl’s radiation came down.

It is because of the ongoing effects that some people want nothing to do with the new dramatization. Take Valentina Bagryantseva, an activist in the Rostov branch of the Chernobyl Union, which represents surviving members of the nearly half a million emergency workers, known as “liquidators,” who came from all over the Soviet Union to contain the Chernobyl accident. Her husband, an officer at the Chernobyl plant in the months following the disaster, has been hospitalized with what are believed to be long-term results of radiation exposure.

“We know about this film, but nobody wants to talk about it,” she says. “People who were there don’t want to relive it. Every day I work with the survivors, and often see them off on the last journey. It’s too painful to discuss.”

A public opinion survey done by the state-funded VTsIOM agency in 2016 found that attitudes toward the nuclear power industry have changed dramatically since the years following the Chernobyl accident. In 1990, polls showed that 56% of Russians were opposed to further development of nuclear power, while just 14% supported it. A quarter century later, 58% approved of atomic energy, while 28% had a negative opinion.

“There was a generation of Soviet people who witnessed Chernobyl, survived its consequences, and felt its lessons,” says Mikhail Chernysh, deputy director of scientific studies at the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow. “But that generation is fading and the present generation, even if they know about it, don’t feel it as traumatic memory.”

He adds, “A lot of kids today probably know about it only because there is a popular video game called Chernobyl, where you go to a virtual Chernobyl and battle virtual monsters. Who knows what the next generation will know or think about it?”

Mr. Slivyak, the Russian anti-nuclear activist, concurs. “People think that Chernobyl happened in a different country, long ago,” he says.

Still under its shadow

Mr. Slivyak’s family comes from southern Belarus, which is still under Chernobyl’s shadow. He says he well remembers the public mood of anxiety and fear during those tense days when there was no official information about the accident, even as mass evacuations were underway in the communities near the stricken reactor.

“The first announcement was made on TV several days later, and it gave no real details. I recall it just spoke about a minor accident, nothing to worry about,” he says.

The activist is among those who, contrary to others, have complimented “Chernobyl” for what they see as the use of sharp, horrifying detail to depict the accident. The miniseries is “close to real events as far as that is possible,” Mr. Slivyak says. “It differs favorably from a lot of Western productions purporting to be set in the Soviet Union or Russia, that make so many blunders with the Russian language, background details, or the texture of events that you just can’t bear to watch.”

As a voice against the nuclear industry, he sees “Chernobyl” as part of a significant conversation in the present day.

“This series is a timely reminder about the dangers of atomic power, especially now that it’s been promoted as a solution to climate change,” he says. “No one has ever built a completely safe nuclear reactor, and so the potential for all that to happen again is still very much with us.”

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