Chernobyl series: Beginning of closed Soviet system’s end (review)

Chernobyl, a new mini-series made by HBO and Sky, is not only a typical disaster movie, but also a story about a political power system based on cynical lying to citizens. Watching the series, one can see how this almost perfect mechanism was shaken by one of the greatest industrial disasters in human history.

20 hours. It took them really much time to establish the trivial fact that not a water tank, but a reactor had exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. And only then did a rescue operation start. The nearby town of Pripyat with a population of 50,000 was evacuated. At that point of time, Chernobyl first responders received protective clothing. But the local authorities and the NPP directorship still kept trying to belittle the incident, hoping that they could hold back the truth.

David Dencik as Mikhail Gorbachev, screenshot

Almost to the fall of the curtain, the Communist Party remained committed to the idea of the full control over the flow of information and all social processes. We can see in the disgustingly brutal Russian movie Cargo 200 what this nearly-honed and closed Soviet system was like. The film tells the story of kidnapping a Soviet apparatchik’s daughter by a policeman who turned out to be a ruthless maniac. The sad irony is that he heads a local police station and starts investigating into the case. And it is the closedness of the system that allows him to get off scot-free. Drawing parallels, one can say that until the information about the Chernobyl accident came into the open together with radioactive clouds over Europe, the Soviet leadership enjoyed a sense of impunity as well.

The lies that the leadership palmed off the citizens with returned like karma and shook the foundations of the regime. The state’s monopoly on distributing the truth proved to be illusory. Both top and minor offiials lied to people.

While the local authorities were underreacting, party bosses were trying to prevent the incident from hitting international headlines. It is no coincidence that the series shows the meeting of high-ranking Soviet officials speaking not so much about the rescue operation and alleged threats, but about possible leaks to Western media.

Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina, who was in charge of the operation, seems to be much more anxious after the HQ informed him of the West’s detecting a radioactive cloud than impressed by the fact that the reactor which is not a hundred miles away throws out as much radiation per hour as a bomb in Nagasaki.

“Our power arises from the way it is perceived,” Mikhail Gorbachev stressed when rebuking his subordinates mainly for… tarnishing the image of the country.

The show, however, gives credit to several ‘righteous’ persons who have guts for facing the party-bureaucratic machine, namely nuclear physicist Valery Legasov (perfectly played by Jared Harris), and Ulyana Khomyuk, a fictional character depicted as an employee of the Belarusian Nuclear Institute.

From the left: Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), Emily Watson (Ulyana Khomyuk). Screenshot

The filmmakers can be proud of masterfully conveying the climate of that time. There was not an easy task since mainly English-speaking actors are engaged in the series. They may be Britons and Americans, but they fully recaptured Eastern European Slavness.

One should also appreciate the team’s meticulousness and dedication to details of the Soviet reality. The creators found and showed hundreds of things that were in everyday use from Brest to Vladivostok. The shootings took place in Lithuania; Pripyat scenes were filmed in one of Vilnius’s blocks of flats, and those of Chernobyl – at the now-defunct twin NPP in Ignalina.

Ignalina nuclear power station

What is more, an important Belarusian thread found itself in the screenplay, i.e. the story of a character of the Chernobyl Prayer by Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich – Belarusian firefighter Vasily Ignatenko.

Her book begins with the description of the tragedy of Vasily and his wife Lyudmila who, like many other Chernobyl women, wanted her account to be documented.

“Someone will read it and understand… later, when we are gone,” the writer quotes Lyudmila Ignatenko.

And probably, the HBO series is a fulfillment of their will to some extent. Many interviewees died after the conversations. “Life was the price of their testimony,” Alexievich writes.

Adam Nagaitis as Vasily Ignatenko, screenshot

The Chernobyl disaster has deeply burnt into mass culture. The vision of a town abandoned by its residents within hours does leave a lasting impression.

“There are personal things and no people, a landscape with no human being, a road to nowhere,” that is the way the Nobel Prize winner describes it.

There is a view that the most severe test for hundreds of thousands of displaced people was not even radiation, but suddenly being pulled out of their everyday life. In addition to Pripyat, over 400 villages and towns were evacuated. Later, their former residents suffered from illnesses, depression and alcoholism on a more frequent basis.

There are many archival materials on the subject. Up to now, people get creeps when listening to the recording of a firefighting dispatcher from Pripyat (it was used in the film), whose monotonous voice calls more units to ‘extinguish the fire on the roof’ at the nuclear power plant. Apparently, the person did not realize at that moment that it was nothing but sentencing the firemen to death.


Interestingly, the director of the series, Swede Johan Renck was a well-known dance music creator and singer in the 90s performing under the monicker Stakka Bo. The fact that a merry fellow featuring in the music video below made one of the most gloomy atmosphere series in the history of television cannot leave viewers unmoved.

Jakub Biernat/МS,

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