Movies & TV

How Much Of Chernobyl Is Actually True? An Investigation

Take the whole 'Bridge of Death' thing with a pinch of salt.
IMAGE HBO
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Chernobyl is very brilliant indeed, and quite a huge part of its brilliance is that it portrays shocking things happening as they actually did - the metal hinges on the reactor building's doors crumbling under intense radiation, the firefighters slowly putrefying and disintegrating, and the puppies. Oh, Christ, the puppies.

Its writer, Craig Mazin, has made a big play of how relatively underplayed and non-Hollywood the series is, but, obviously, it's a TV series and it needs to make choices which smooth over narratively unwieldy facts to cram everything into five 45-minute episodes. So where did it diverge from the literal truth?

The internet being what it is, there's been a lot of discussion on that score. Over on Reddit, for instance, a thread by a user who said that they grew up in the Soviet Union at the time sought to call out details which didn't ring true. It quickly turned into an almighty barney about whether anyone would have used those exact faceted glasses to drink vodka out of at 4.30pm on a Tuesday afternoon in July when the wind was blowing south-east. It sort of missed the point.

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Chernobyl is a historical drama, albeit a very finely researched and crafted one. If you want first-hand stories from the disaster, pick up Svetlana Alexeivitch's peerless collection of oral testimonies from survivors and witnesses Chernobyl Prayer, also known as Voices From Chernobyl. If you want the full rundown on why Mazin decided to make certain creative decisions you can listen to the very good companion podcast HBO put together, which we picked out as one of our top podcasts from last month. These are all the other bits which swerved from Chernobyl's generally rigorous and terrifying adherence to the truth.

Ulana Khomyuk wasn't a real person

But you knew that already. She's a composite character who's meant to represent the broader scientific community across eastern and central Europe as well as Russia, which is quite a big burden for one person to carry.

Legasov's big A Few Good Men moment didn't quite go down like that

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Mazin says on the final episode of the Chernobyl podcast that the big court scene where Legasov goes in two-footed on the Soviet state was "inspired by factual circumstances", rather than being literally what happened, and represents a "compressed" version of the trial, which Legasov wasn't actually present at. It would've been very long and very boring if it'd been presented literally as it happened, over several weeks and involving loads of people we'd never seen before.

Photo by HBO.
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By the 1980s, threats of summary execution were a bit old hat

Everyone threatens everyone else with being shot if they don't shut up and do as they're told. Fly this helicopter over that reactor, or I'll have you shot. Tell me how a nuclear reactor works, or I'll have you shot. Get me a Twix or I'll have you shot. Stalin was a big fan of the old summary execution - hoo boy! He and his administration really loved 'em - but 30 years after his death they'd rather fallen out of fashion and it's a bit dubious as to whether the threat would have carried the same weight as it once had.

That helicopter bit was spectacular, but a little bit misleading

You'll recall that Legasov warns the pilot of the chopper taking him and Shcherbina toward the reactor that they'll all die of radiation poisoning, or that the helicopter will drop straight out of the sky because the intense radiation will destroy its electronics. If you weren't looking carefully, it looks a lot like that's exactly what happens to another helicopter which heads over the reactor, but in fact, it hits a crane and plummets to the ground. That did actually happen - but only weeks later.

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Photo by HBO.

The lethality of the Bridge of Death is disputed, to say the least

The series is happy to encourage the idea that nobody from the crowd which gathered to look at the bright shaft of blue ionizing light bursting into the sky survived the dose of radiation they received. Even if it hedges its bets by saying "it has been reported" that everyone died. However, the actual evidence is a bit sketchy, and Adam Higginbotham, author of Midnight in Chernobyl, told the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that he'd interviewed a chap who was stood on the bridge that night and was quite demonstrably alive.

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Valery Legasov's flat was probably quite horrible, but in a subtly different way

The New Yorker notes that while Legasov lived in relatively down-at-heel surroundings, he "would have lived in an entirely different kind of squalor than the fireman did". The Moscow Times' Leonid Bershidsky claims that grim setting "would have been far below his station" as a nuclear scientist, even after being discarded by the state.

Photo by HBO.
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This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk.

* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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