Chernobyl. Over three decades later, it’s still a name that resonates with people, imbued with a feeling of dread and supreme consequences. And now, it’s also a critically acclaimed television series.
In addition to creating the fantastic drama now available on HBO (go watch it, right now), Craig Mazin teamed with Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! host Peter Sagal to make a companion podcast. Sagal describes Chernobyl as a “show that makes you want to talk about it afterward,” so that is precisely what they do. Each episode of the podcast tracks with an episode of the series, and they discuss the inspiration for the show, what elements are entirely factual and which are expressions of artistic license, realities that were excluded from the series, and more. It’s jam-packed with factoids and anecdotes. You can find the podcast on the HBO GO and HBO NOW apps as well as on YouTube.
The thread that weaves throughout the entire series is the relationship between truth and lies: the consequences we must face for the lies that we tell. It should not be surprising that the creator of such a narrative would place such emphasis on telling a story as accurately and precisely as possible.
Note: this article contains spoilers for all episodes of Chernobyl.
Things That You May Not Have Expected Were Accurate
1. The Divers
The divers (Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov, and Boris Baranov) had their faces obscured by the gear they wore, which made it difficult for the actors to express their fear and determination. This was even worse when their flashlights go out, and they had to feel their way through the compound in the dark by touching the pipes. This really happened when they re-entered the facility. This would have been impossible to be shown on television, so they used hand crank lamps (in reality, those would have been as useless as the battery flashlights).
2. Collective Grave
The story of those who suffered from the most extreme radiation poisoning is perhaps the most horrifying aspects of the series; the way that it ends is no less chilling. As shown in the series, they were sealed into zinc-lined coffins before being encased in concrete.
3. Coal Miners
In the third episode, a large group of coal miners is drafted to dig a tunnel underneath the reactor as it melts down. Coal miners were not docile Soviet workers. One of the reasons that they held some power was the same reason that nuclear power was held in such high esteem — the USSR’s requirement for power was tremendous. This was why the other three reactors at Chernobyl were kept running for quite a while after Reactor 4 melted down.
The scene where they started mining in the nude was not just HBO’s “required” gratuitous nudity, but there are varying accounts of the actual amount of nudity that happened. In the generations before Occupational Health and Safety regulations existed, men would mine in the nude in extreme temperatures. Depressingly, the tunnel miners at Chernobyl weren’t that much more exposed to radiation in the nude than they were in the gear they were given before.
4. Roof Cleanup
The robots that they used to clean up the graphite on the roof were as accurate to the real robots that they used as possible. The Soviet lunar robots were CGI, but they built a replica of the German police robot, called Joker. Because of the radiation contamination, those robots are still in trash areas at Chernobyl to this day.
As horrifying and dehumanizing as the term is, those involved in the cleanup actually referred to the workers who went onto the roof of the plant to clean up the graphite as “bio-robots.” The speech given by Tarakanov (portrayed by Ralph Ineson) was taken verbatim from records of his real speech that he gave again and again to each group of workers. They filmed the roof sequence in real time so that the audience could get a sense of how long (or short) the 90 seconds they had to spend on the roof can really be.
5. The Liquidation
The so-called “liquidation” was an on-going effort to clean up the contamination from the accident. The phrase comes from the Russian term, which could also be translated as “elimination.” They made all efforts to show the details of the long campaign that was required, from the “egg-baskets” (yes, they actually called them that), to the conscription of hundreds of thousands of civilians, to the horrifying tasks that they had to complete.
Mazin based the camp off ones they visited on their trip to Chernobyl. Some of the camps were set up by the liquidators; others were co-opted facilities that already existed. Mazin said that one of the camps was actually a themed holiday resort, and there were all kinds of creepy statues of fairies and mermaids there.
6. KGB Prison
Much of the series was filmed in Lithuania in Vilnius, Visaginas, and Kaunas. The scene with Ulana Komhyuk (Emily Watson) and Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) in the KGB prison was shot in an actual KGB prison, which is now the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights. The prison has an execution room, and some of the cells in the prison had a floor which sloped away from the doorway. They would fill it with water up to knee-level so that prisoners couldn’t sleep. It is found right in the middle of a Vilnius, Lithuania.
Of course, this is a dramatization of real events — a docudrama rather than a documentary. As a result, several parts of the series are either partially or wholly fabricated.
7. Legasov’s Suicide
Legasov’s suicide was not exactly two years and one minute after the incident — after all, how could someone know that? In fact, this was not the first time that Legasov had attempted suicide. The intention of the timing given in the first episode (2 years and one minute) was to show that there was a deliberate connection between his suicide and the Chernobyl incident. Not only was his death one day after the second anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, but it was also one day before he was supposed to present the results of his investigation into the accident.
8. The Trial
The final trial to determine blame for the incident took place in the town of Chernobyl, at a community center. At the time, trials were supposed to take place in the same district as the crime. In reality, neither Legasov nor Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) were at the final trial in Chernobyl. The presentations made at the show trial were not accurate to how the trial indeed went down. In such show trials in the USSR, it would typically involve defendants pleading their guilt, even to excess (presumably trying to save their own lives). However, the descriptions of everything that happened in the incident are correct, down to the minute. The reason that these presentations were included in the dramatization of the trial was to help the audience understand exactly what had happened. It was incredibly important to Mazin that people understand the truth because this was the thematic core of the series. This was represented in a binary fashion with the red and blue cards (note that the cards were see-through so that they could be seen from both camera angles used in the trial).
9. Improvised Moments
Mazin revealed that the cast improvised several moments in the show. One of those is in the scene between Legasov and Shcherbina, where he reflects upon the beauty of an inchworm crawling along his leg. It is worth noting that this scene takes place in the town of Chernobyl.
Although the series took great attention to detail in telling this story, a 5-episode mini-series doesn’t have time to cover absolutely everything that happened. Some of these items were deliberate exclusions, others they did not have time for.
10. Legasov’s Personal Life
For the sake of the narrative, Valery Legasov’s personal life was trimmed down. Though it was not shown in the series, he had a family. Legasov is shown to be very critical of “[Soviet] Party men” in the series, but in fact, he spent most of his life as one of them. His father was a party “enforcer,” which is just as ominous as it sounds. However, by the end of his life, he became disillusioned by the Chernobyl incident and the political reaction to it. He had written documents detailing the causes, but there was significant push-back from the Soviet scientific community. Those who knew that the reactors were flawed were afraid of getting in trouble for making the Soviet nuclear program look bad. He was the face of Soviet science in Vienna but was unable to instigate the necessary change at home.
Also, the audio tapes he was shown recording before his death did have a basis in fact. The contents of the real audiotapes were not shown verbatim on the series; instead, it was written to be more dramatic and fitting with the thematic narrative of the series. Those in conjunction with his suicide were what made a difference. RBMK reactors did eventually undergo changes to try and avoid something like that from happening again; some of those changes were procedural while others dealt with design flaws in the reactor.
11. The Fine Line Between Accurate and Gratuitous
The symptoms of radiation sickness are horrifying, and showrunners had to decide precisely how much of that to show on screen without being gratuitous. In the original cut, it lingered quite a bit longer on Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis), but HBO executive Kary Antholis said that it was feeling a little “abusive” and they agreed. They toned it back to not seemed too sensationalist. That being said, it was still essential to understand how these heroes suffered. Legasov’s speech about radiation sickness, from the initial symptoms to the latency period and the later decline, was one way in which they explained the more graphic details of that suffering. The other was Ulana Khomyuk’s reaction to seeing Akimov. The real-life description of Akimov when he died was that he was “blackened.” In the show, they never even put that actor in makeup to film it. Instead, we see Khomyuk’s reaction to it. There is a fine line between real, impactful, and purposeful and just being gratuitous, and they trod that line very carefully.
Another example of this is the already infamous “puppy scene” that took place during the liquidation. It turns out that it was worse in real life.
12. Deleted Scenes
There were a few scenes that Sagal and Mazin discussed in the podcast that hopefully will make it onto some bonus features someday. One of them involved the official who was so rude to Khomyuk, BCP Deputy Secretary Garanin (played by Victor McGuire), who marched in a civil parade in Minsk only days after the accident.
There was an entire backstory to Dyatlov that ended up being cut from the final edition of the show. In reality, he had a son who died of leukemia around age 10. At the time, Dyatlov was working at a naval station constructing nuclear submarines and experienced an accident. He received a supposedly fatal dose of radiation but somehow escaped unharmed. It is unknown if that radiation could have caused his son’s leukemia. There were several scenes about this backstory including one in the hospital where he hallucinates having a conversation with his son and another in which he is asked about his son, and he intimates that his reaction to the Chernobyl accident was because of what happened to his son, that he was trying to “master” radiation. However, showrunners realized that this backstory was too far afield from the story that they were telling and that the latter part was armchair psychology. They decided to eliminate the entire storyline.
To contain the radiation being emitted from the destroyed Reactor 4, a large concrete structure had to be built. Although it was mentioned in passing one time on the show, they did not show the sarcophagus or its construction even though it would have been in-construction during the liquidation.
The structure was never intended as a permanent solution to this problem. In fact, it is impossible to create a structure that would serve for the entire decay period of the radioactive corium, uranium, and plutonium. In 2018, construction was completed on a second structure (called the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement) which is placed over the first. It has a projected life of 100 years, at which time it will need to be replaced again.
The show wrapped up with some lengthy notes about the history of the Chernobyl incident. Mazin felt that it was necessary, in a series so entwined with the themes of truth and lies, to be clear about which aspects of the series were accurate and which were fabricated. One of the most significant additions was the character of Ulana Komhyuk, who was not a real person but rather a composite of the many scientists that worked with Legasov at Chernobyl.
I would say that, in these kinds of circumstances where great crimes are committed, it is remarkable to me how infrequently you can find someone who is properly to blame. That there is a general conspiracy of thought going on among humans just so that we can make it through our day….the mistakes that some people make begin to conglomerate with the mistakes that other people make and the mistakes that they don’t even know have been made and inevitably there is a debt that gets built up. Legasov says that “with every lie we tell, we incur a debt to the truth,” and to me (and this is kind of a bummer, no surprise after watching the show) I’m not sure humans are equipped to move through existence without lying to each other. There’s a certain amount of lying that seems to be necessary or we just won’t make it through. It’s the big lies we need to be worried about because in the end (and this is where we started), the truth doesn’t care. It doesn’t care that we need to lie to each other to make it through the day. It just is. And in the case of Chernobyl, they lied and lied and lied and lied, but always…When we hear something that we know is a lie, we must confront it. And that I think is why Chernobyl is a story worth telling now, probably more than at any other time in my life.
Given the supreme eye for detail that the props exhibit, it can be no surprise that Mazin and Luke Hall went to visit Chernobyl while creating the series. The exclusion zone around Chernobyl exists to this day, though visitors are allowed to enter the site. They were given a tour by people who had been children in Pripyat during the Chernobyl disaster. It is not a light-hearted excursion. You hand over your passport to soldiers before you enter. You are checked for radiation both before entering and after leaving the site. One of Mazin’s takeaways from the visit was just how large the exclusion zone is. It’s an enormous footprint.
They walked the same ground as the characters that they helped bring to life in this series. They exposed themselves to the same radiation (albeit much more reasonable dosages) that those involved with the incident were exposed to. Despite their deep understanding of the gravity of that history, there is one final point about Chernobyl that is important to make: Mazin did not intend this series to serve as a “polemic against nuclear power,” instead he wanted to emphasize respecting it for what it is capable of.
If you are interested in learning more about the Chernobyl incident, Mazin suggested several of the sources that he used in creating the series, including the following:
- Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, by Svetlana Alexievich
- The Voice of Ljudmila
- Chernobyl 01:23:40 by Andrew Leatherbarrow, who has posted a phenomenal photo history of the incident, as well as set photos from the show.
Also, there are many other excellent resources available online for those who want to know more. Here are some sources of additional information about the show:
- Mazin performed an AMA on Reddit to answer questions about the series.
- Radio Free Europe did a great article showing the new sarcophagus, which was completed in November 2018.