Real Chernobyl liquidators watch hyped TV series and point out inconsistencies

“Partisans” were soldiers of non-military service who cleared the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident. Photo from Syarhei Shalkevich’s archive

The HBO has already released its latest episode of the ‘Chernobyl’ series which is the most rated series in history according to IMDb users. Belsat watched previous episodes together with Belarusian liquidators of the accident aftermath and recorded their commentary.

In December 1985, Syarhei Shalkevich returned from the army but already in a few months he received a summons for training camps which would supposedly last for 25 days. After appearing at the conscription point, a 21-year-old boy was sent to the Chernobyl zone for six months to work as a driver in a chemical intelligence company.

He came to the meeting with a personal dosimeter which he managed to take home after the service. The device, similar to a small key chain, was designed so that the radiation dose could be discovered only by inserting it into a special reader. Virtually none of the liquidators knew what kind of radiation they were exposed to.

Syarhei Shalkevich shows an individual dosimeter worn by soldiers in the Chernobyl zone during the liquidation of the consequences of the Chernobyl accident. Photo – Denis Dziuba / Belsat

Physics professor Heorhiy Lepin who voluntarily worked at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant from 1986 to 1992 said that he often used to sit behind the major who was in command of the soldiers cleaning the roof of the station.

“After returning from the roof, they handed over dosimeters to him, the major inserted them into the device, which showed how much radiation they had accumulated. The device went off scale, but the major wrote ‘24.5’ in the journal because 25 was the limit,” said Lepin.

One of the helicopter pilots who dumped sand and lead on the reactor and suffered from acute radiation sickness was invited for treatment in the USA. There they determined his real dose of radiation by the tooth enamel. It turned out to be 500 roentgens. The documents he had on him said 20, says Lepin.

A widespread lie led to people not knowing what to believe.

“Information about the explosion at the station spread like a wave: first they knew at the station, then in Pripyat, then in Naroulya, and so on. But people still did not believe. Most people leaving Pripyat thought they were leaving for three days. Nobody imagined the real picture, said Syarhei Shalkevich. When after May 9th the information reached my town Stoubtsy, the recommendations to drink iodine sounded like rumors about some “Almagel” for the stomach, which you can drink but you don’t really have to. And 90 people out of 100 did not drink it.”

According to the man, the fear of Chernobyl came when the country learned about the evacuation of the entire Pripyat.

“When the buses were leaving, they raised dust,” Lepin drew attention to the scene of the city evacuation. “It was hot, people opened the windows, and it turned out that they breathed this dust. Why couldn’t they put the washing machines in the column? After 10 cars passed, they could pour water on them, then this dust would not rise. They failed to think about it.

“The people in the USSR got scared of Chernobyl for real when they learned that some were leaving the party in order not to go there and when they started sending there soldiers from the reserve,” he adds.

The soldiers called back to duty from the reserve were called ‘partisans’. According to Shalkevich, 80–90% of the total number of servicemen in Chernobyl were such soldiers.

Liquidators of the Chernobyl accident aftermath watch the Chernobyl series produced by HBO. Photo – Denis Dziuba / Belsat

During a scene in which the coal industry minister persuades miners to go to Chernobyl, and they agree, Lepin asked to pause the film saying that was not really the case:

“It was either volunteers or those who were forced to go to Chernobyl. People were put in conditions when they understood that they had nowhere to go. ”

“In the USSR there were different levers — dismissal or, for example, the penal battalion. Hands up and there you go. Those who knew what Chernobyl was chose the penal battalion, but most of them simply did not know. The soldiers there were powerless. Probably, it was not by chance that a lot of guys from Central Asia were sent there, who even did not hear about nuclear power plants. Thus, they were not afraid. They were told to go and complete a task — and they did just that,” Lepin continues.

Liquidator Syarhei Shalkevich. Photo- Denis Dziuba

Mikhail Kapylou who was a deputy platoon commander in the summer and fall of 1986 recalled that civil defense regiments in Chernobyl were from all over the Soviet Union.

“Before closing the reactor, each soldier was put through it. Both cooks and signalers, all dressed in lead, were put to work on the roof of the reactor. Only those whose blood test was already bad before that could avoid it,” Kapylou said.

Syarhei Shalkevich explained why those who have never been at the station itself could have bad blood tests:

“Our unit was located on the field between the resettled village of Babchyna and the village of Rudakou. People were not allowed to live there, but the soldiers could! We lived in tents of 36–38 people, bunk beds, two mini-stoves. The food was brought to us, but the firewood wasn’t. And we burned the local wood. Entire villages were buried to prevent radiation from spreading with the wind, and here in the tent the guys were heating it with a mini-reactor. These guys accumulated more radiation than the liquidators. I would put such a scene in this movie.”

After a request to find inconsistencies with reality, the participants of the film screening also listed the smoke that was too strong during the fire of the station (“understandably they wanted it to look more dramatic”) and the destruction of the platform between the 3rd and 4th blocks “there was no such destruction”). But then they themselves ask us not to pay attention to the “small things” claiming that the differences play no role.

“Yes, we watch it like front-line soldiers watch films about the war. Yes, there are nuances in the details, but they are visible only to those who were there. This is a powerful movie. It is important because it says that what happened was not a joke,” Shalkevich adds.

Professor Lepin who said the film is true to reality only by a third is most critical.

“All party and state leaders were worried only about saving their families. They canceled many flights from Ukraine, loading the planes with the families of these people. The didn’t care about the rest. And Boris Shcherbina was the same,” said our interlocutor about the character of Stellan Skarsgård.

– Deputy Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers as portrayed by Stellan Skarsgård.

According to Lepin, the authors portrayed the NPP management in the early days of the tragedy very truthfully.

“Even if they understood something, they tried to shield themselves, and in order to shield themselves, they had to show that someone else was to blame, not them,” adds Lepin.

Most of the former “partisans” who evaluated the film positively said that one of the main drawbacks is that very little life of such soldiers was shown.

It is a good movie, firefighters add, but little attention was paid to extinguishing the fire.

“The film is powerful but the evacuation of people was not shown enough,” said Anatoly Prakharenka who worked as a driver in the 30-kilometer zone in the spring and summer of 1986. “In Naroulya district it began at Easter on May 4. First of all, we evacuated people — usually to Minsk. The [capital] microdistrict Malinauka is where people from Brahin, Khoiniki and Naroulya were brought”.

According to the participant of the evacuation, the peasants left the animals feed for several days, thinking that they would soon return.

“For three months, from morning till night without days off, we took the cattle to the meat processing plant in Kalinkavichy. The vehicles were not properly equipped, and half the pigs died from the heat on the way. I do not know what was later done with the meat,” adds Prakharenka.

Cats and dogs, the liquidators recall, were destroyed by special units: so that the animals did not carry the radiation further. Somehow the captain of one of the parts brought a kitten with him, although it was forbidden for the liquidators to have animals.

“Clearly he wanted to pat an animal to relax in those conditions,” recalls Shalkevich. “During one of the inspections the kitten was noticed by the general. He ordered to destroy it. “Yes, sir!” was the answer. But they hid the kitten thinking that the general would not return. But he did, and, as ill luck would have it, the kitten caught his eye once again. The general got angry, he ordered to kill the animal and present the corpse. Everyone began to think how to save Radzik. In the end, they took a piece of meat, an old rabbit hat, and ground them all together with a chopper in a bucket. Then they brought this bloody mess with wool to the general. “I asked to just kill, and you, sadists, what have you done?” he shouted.

At the end of July 1986, the military began to bury the villages in the 30-kilometer zone, and some people who worked in the Charnobyl zone began to return home.

“When they were returning to Ural, they were avoided, people were afraid to approach them. But they were not dangerous for the others. They could present a problem to others to a very small extent — by breathing on them,” said Professor Lepin.

In the autumn of 1986, Syarhei Shalkevich confessed to people on the train that he was traveling from the Charnobyl zone.

“At once everyone disappeared from the compartment. People were afraid of radiation — and this tale existed for a very long time,” Shalkevich recalls.

“When we were leaving Chernobyl, we were seen off by a general. In the end he asked if there were any questions. One guy began to complain that his radiation dose was incorrectly measured. The general began to shout, “This is a provocateur — three days of arrest.” Fortunately, we had an understanding commanding officer and the guy was not arrested,” said Mikhail Kapylou.

Archival photos of the Chernobyl accident operation (above) and frame of the TV series. Photo – Denis Dziuba / Belsat

In the third year of the disaster, the station was visited by Mikhail Gorbachev, recalls Professor Lepin.

“I was not there, but the guys from the watch told me how it went,” Lepin says. “He was brought there via the detours, through some villages where the level of radiation was slightly lower. At the site where Gorbachev was supposed to meet with the workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, there were a dozen station workers. After Gorbachev got out of the car, several “Ikarus” buses arrived with people in Chernobyl workers’ overalls. They surrounded Gorbachev and began to ask him pre-rehearsed questions. There were very few of true Chernobyl guys there. They did it for TV pictures”.

Lepin is sure that Gorbachev is a criminal, not a hostage of the system.

“He had to immediately understand what had happened, make people honestly say what it was. He did not do this and deceived everyone.”

According to the physicist, the film will make people give up nuclear power plants.

“For the United States, which has not built a single reactor since 1978, the issue of atomic energy is not relevant. They decided that building them makes no sense — and this film only convinces them: see how bad these reactors can be.”

Liquidators of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant aftermath. From left to right — Mikhail Kapylou, Anatoly Anishchanka, Syarhei Bukrey. In the second row — Anatol Prakharenka, Ihar Shanchuk, Syarhei Shalkevich. Photo – Denis Dziuba / Belsat

After the screening, the liquidators said that the film should be shown in every school, but they immediately added that they do not believe this could happen.

“In Belarus, such a film will not be shown for one reason — due to the construction of its own nuclear power plant,” says one of the film screening participants.

Syarhei Shalkevich shows the headdress of military personnel serving in the
chemical protection troops during the liquidation of the Chernobyl accident
NPP. Photo – Denis Dziuba / Belsat

“Why was it closed?” asks Professor Lepin about the Ignalina NPP, where the filming took place. “Lithuania was told to do this as soon as they entered the European Union. After that, Russia began to think about how to regain its energy control over the region — after all, the Ignalinka provided the Baltic countries and Poland with energy. At the same time, according to the same project, they began to build two NPPs — one in the Kaliningrad region, another one — in Astravets. But the Baltic countries and Poland declared that they would not purchase electricity from these stations. Russia reacted immediately and stopped the construction. And we didn’t. This situation is crazy.”

Interview by Jakub Bernat and Denis Dziuba