In honor of Chernobyl

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion, an unimaginable disaster that would have been much worse were it not for the bravery of the Soviet people. Even though Chernobyl was the final nail in the Soviet Union’s coffin, it was the Soviet people who saved the world from a complete nuclear disaster. Hundreds of thousands of men and women gave their lives to prevent nuclear waste from melting through the reactor core, seeping into the soil and poisoning half of the USSR and Europe for hundreds of years.

It was an immense effort that remained forgotten for years, or so it seems. We might debate the merits and flaws of HBO’s Chernobyl, but one factor that we cannot deny is that it reminded the world, including the people of the former Soviet Union, about this horrific event and the heroic efforts of Chernobyl’s saviors.

The show, Chernobyl, is understandably difficult to watch, but it is definitely worth the effort. I’ve seen it three times over the past two years. The second time I watched it with my Greek friend who was afraid to watch it alone. When we finished our marathon – luckily, the show is short enough to be watched in less than a day – she was in shock and kept asking, in utter bewilderment, how come the heroes of Chernobyl aren’t celebrated the way that the victors of World War II are honored every year.

Indeed, why have we forgotten about Chernobyl? Why don’t we honor the saviors of the world? Where are their monuments, memorials, museums? Was their sacrifice less valuable than the sacrifice of the Soviet people in World War II? Not at all. In fact, if we consider the aftermath of Chernobyl, the worst case scenario… if our heroes stood by and did nothing, or if their efforts were unsuccessful, all of Ukraine, Belarus, half of the Russian Federation and half of Europe would have been rendered uninhabitable for hundreds of years. The longterm effects of Chernobyl would have been much, much worse than all the damage done during World War II.I am not a historian or a politician, so I cannot make assumptions on why Chernobyl has turned into a taboo topic. I can only hope that now we will be more mindful and respectful of this tragic event and will find a way to honor the heroes.


The HBO mini-series paints a vivid picture of the reactor explosion and the aftermath. The show is based on documents, testimony of the participants, and memoirs of Valery Legasov, head scientist in charge of dealing with the aftermath. Still, this is not a documentary and shouldn’t be viewed as such. No matter how realistic the show seems, the creators did take certain liberties for narrative impact. For instance, one of the most gruesome sights – the effects of radiation poisoning visible on those plant workers and firefighters who came into direct contact with the reactor debris – is an exaggerated effect, no doubt used to strengthen the impact on the audience. And boy, does the impact linger. The sight of young men who were full of life just a couple of days ago disintegrating into a pile of radioactive jelly is not for the faint of heart.

At the same time, the creators went to great lengths to recreate not just the reactor and the explosion, but the realities of Soviet daily life. The actors look so authentically Soviet, it’s like they’ve been cloned from the Russian film stars of the 1960s and 1970s. All the other attributes are very realistic as well – clothes, furniture, interios, cars, buildings, you name it.

One aspect that is decidedly not Soviet is the accents. Luckily for us (and for them) the creators decided to forgo the imitation of Soviet accents, opting for the cast’s native British accents. This doesn’t take the focus away from acting and you forget about the accents within the first ten minutes. Whereas if the creators opted for imitating (and no doubt butchering) Soviet accents, the majority of the audience would not have been able to take the show seriously.

Special effects are used to the maximum effect. True, I have no idea what an actual nuclear reactor explosion looks like (nor do I wish to ever see that with my own eyes) but I imagine that the show’s recreation is as close to reality as it could get. You can feel the impact of the explosion through the screen. The giant beam of radioactive gas that shoots through the air and proceeds to spread its deadly poison for days on end looks at once magnificent and utterly terrifying. Plant workers forced to inspect the core that could not have possibly been exposed to the world and having their faces and bodies burned off by radiation is worse than any torture porn horror movie. Helicopters falling from the sky, crumbling under the impact of radiation is a surreal, unbelievable sight. The show is full of these images that stay with you long after the final credits roll.

I’m saving the best for last. THE ACTING! Like I already mentioned, the entire cast looks like they’ve walked out of an actual Soviet movie – but that’s not why the actors make an impression. Each actor, no matter how lengthy their part is, is completely committed to their character and the whole show. Everyone knows why they’re there, what they’re trying to convey, how important their work is. Dyatlov, the Big Bad who’s mostly blamed for pushing the reactor to the breaking point, is utterly contemptible, even when he himself experiences the effects of his disastrous decisions. His complete denial of the disaster, up to the point where he starts vomiting toxic bile, is fascinating in its evil neglect. His superiors aren’t much better, but their roles aren’t that significant. The young plant workers forced into the situation, and what’s worse, forced to feel like they’ve caused the explosion, are tragic heroes of the story. In fact, every rescue worker, miner and scientist working to reduce the Chernobyl aftermath is a tragic hero. According to official statistics, only a few dozen people died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster, but it’s painfully obvious that the number of casualties can be calculated in hundreds of thousands. Let’s not forget that the victims are not only those who died shortly after the explosion, but also those who acquired a doze of radiation and unknowingly went on to spread the poison to nearby towns.

The show has its subtle tragic love story of one of the firefighters sent to put out “a fire on the reactor roof” and his pregnant wife, who follows him to a burn unit in Moscow and foregoing doctors’ warnings spends his final painful days by his side, being exposed to radiation and losing her unborn child in the end. This love reminds me of the best examples of devotion that Russian women are famous for (Decembrists’ wives come to mind).

And the acting duo at the center of the relief mission – Jared Harris as Valery Legasov and Stellan Skarsgard as Boris Scherbina… I’m partial to both these terrific actors, but I doubt anyone can deny how brilliant their performances are. Especially Skarsgard who creates a complex portrait of Scherbina, a party head who at first resents Legasov for meddling in his business and comes to realize the magnitude of the disaster and how vital their work truly is. His final conversation with Legasov – where Scherbina shows vulnerability, calling himself an “insignificant man” and Legasov refutes his claim, saying that in fact Scherbina was the most essential part of the rescue effort – brings me to tears every time.

Thus ends my feeble attempt at honoring this significant event, these incredible heroes, and the memory of those whose lives were saved by the efforts of Legasov, Scherbina, and thousands others.

5 thoughts on “In honor of Chernobyl

  1. This is a very sensitive and emotionally-charged post, Katya. It is indeed unbelievable how easily some tragedies are forgotten than others. Goes on to say so much on the biased nature of recorded history. I have been putting off this show for some other time because I am exactly the ‘faint of heart’ that warnings are given about. Will definitely watch it soon though 🙂

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