‘This Is Our Brothers’ Grave’: Chernobyl Survivors Watch HBO Series in Horror
In Ukraine, those who witnessed the 1986 nuclear disaster say the HBO miniseries got everything right—except the people. Still, it’s closer to the truth than the Kremlin version.
KIEV—The Chernobyl Museum here in Ukraine’s capital was unusually crowded for a working day.
Groups of Ukrainian and foreign visitors were passing from room to room, studying photographs and documents at the exhibition devoted to the nuclear catastrophe of 1986. Two local visitors asked their guide what had caused the explosion of the reactor at the nuclear power station: Who was to blame for the deaths of more than 4,000 people? The museum’s guide, a middle-age lady, responded to the Russian-speakers in Ukrainian: “Soviet authorities. The system is to blame.”
It’s been crucial for most Ukrainian historians of the Chernobyl disaster not to blame anybody but the communist state machine, whose mismanagement led to the biggest catastrophe in the history of the “peaceful atom.” The Kremlin reportedly is pushing its own film about the event, blaming the CIA, which is only to be expected.
Certainly as Ukrainians have watched streaming video of the HBO series Chernobyl, the dramatized version of the true story, it has raised questions about the causes and consequences of the disaster. The film’s vivid imagery and details, hard for survivors to look at, stir up memories and provoke emotional arguments.
For many Ukrainian families, the disastrous day of the nuclear accident— April, 26, 1986—was the first day of the most frightening period of their lives, a nightmare that, for some, never seems to end.
The Chernobyl Museum’s deputy director, Anna Korolevskaya, was one of the consultants for the HBO miniseries, which audiences voting on IMDb gave the highest rating of any TV series in history by the time its five parts finished airing this month.
Several HBO crew members, producers, and production designers have visited Korolevskaya’s office in the past two years, asking specific questions. When we talked last week, she showed the paperwork she had signed with HBO for the use of the museum’s photographs.
But when the TV miniseries came out and she began to watch, Korolevskaya says she was overwhelmed with emotions. “I could not sleep that night, after I finished viewing the series; I could foresee the avalanche of emotions, bitter and angry comments from victims and their families about the untrue facts in the series,” Korolevskaya said.
“See, most of the names in the film are real, that’s why the viewers here watch it as a documentary and not as a fictional movie.” Korolevskaya sounded upset. “For almost 30 years we’ve been telling our visitors that the failing state machine paralyzed by secrecy was to blame for the disaster, not the supervising engineer, [Anatoly] Dyatlov, or his crew.”
The HBO series brought back plenty of memories for Aleksei Breus, 60, who was one of the engineers at the Chernobyl power plant. When the explosion happened at 1:23 a.m., Breus was asleep in his tiny apartment in Pripyat, just three kilometers away from the reactor. His shift was to begin as usual at 7 a.m., so he got on the bus together with a few other workers and headed to the power plant. All the people on the bus were silent. Breus remembers how one of the passengers yelled, when the bus approached their building at the plant: “What! What happened to the block?” Only then he saw his Number 4 Block in ruins.
“I physically felt my hair rising on its roots, I thought: ‘What did they bring us here for? This is our brothers’ grave,’” he told The Daily Beast.
On that first day, after several explosions blew up the core of the nuclear power plant, the engineer’s job was to pump water to cool off the destroyed reactor. Breus had to step over highly radioactive pieces of graphite as he walked. At some point that afternoon, Breus felt powerful, as if he was able to do anything, at any cost—that was “radiation euphoria,” he said. On that day Breus stayed at the plant until 7 p.m., receiving a dose of radiation 25 times higher than normal.
So far Breus has watched only three episodes of the HBO series. “All details of people’s clothes, furniture, dishes, equipment look real, but none of the characters,” he told The Daily Beast. “The series portrays Anatoly Dyatlov, the supervising engineer of that tragic night shift, as an evil and even stupid person—that is not true. He was sometimes tough, but never demonic; it was not his fault the reactor was bad.”
Breus continued to list the issues: “Two out of the three ‘scuba-divers’ who die in the movie, Bespalov and Ananenko, are still alive; also, the engineers working with Dyatlov that night were not cowards terrified by the threat of punishment like they are portrayed in the movie, but brave and responsible professionals… My concern is that many of the survivors, families of the personnel, will feel hurt watching this series.”
On the night of the catastrophe, the power plant’s personnel conducted a safety test that caused a sudden power surge, a steam buildup, and powerful explosions. The reactor blew apart. Later, a Soviet court sentenced the engineer, Dyatlov, to a prison term. He spent four years behind bars.
In a video recorded shortly before he died in 1995, Dyatlov said that it was not the plant’s personnel who were to blame for the explosion. “If they [the Soviet regime] built the reactor according to the rules, the disaster would not have happened.”
The abandoned ghost town of Pripyat is becoming a hot destination for “disaster tourists,” especially fans of the Chernobyl TV series. A German student of mechanical engineering, Johannes Buberger, booked his Chernobyl tour online for 90 euros, including the bus ride. Three buses with more than 100 tourists left Kiev’s station at 8 a.m. last Monday to return at 9 p.m. on the same day.
“It was striking to see the photographs of Pripyat town before the catastrophe, of the flower beds with roses, of the clean streets, and then walk around the ruined city with trees growing out of the roofs,” Buberger told The Daily Beast. “There were several checkpoints on the way to the nuclear power station, where the reactor is now covered with a lead and concrete sarcophagus; we were told that the level of radiation in the zone was lower than what we get after spending a few hours on an airplane.”
Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine count more than three million victims of Chernobyl’s radiation, including residents of the contaminated area and the so-called liquidators—clean-up crews who worked in the highly radioactive epicenter in the exclusion zone. For years, both Soviet and European residents were afraid to buy milk, mushrooms, and vegetables from the region of Chernobyl.
Secrecy, lies, and state propaganda do kill people. Chernobyl was a tragic lesson for the USSR, a coup de grace for the failing Soviet empire. And the series brilliantly reflects on that aspect. Due to disinformation and lies by state officials on the days following the explosions, adults had to go to work, children had to go to school, and many were forced to join the May Day parade, marching on top of nuclear dust. Many of the victims lost hair and teeth and died within a few years of the catastrophe, and many more keep dying from the lasting effects of the radiation 33 years later.
The World Health Organization has reported “a dramatic increase in thyroid cancer” and leukemia among young Ukrainians. International experts cannot predict how many more years it will take before Ukraine’s population will stop suffering from the catastrophe.
At last week’s Ukrainian ID forum, an annual international event in the town of Kaniv, participants discussed some of Europe’s worst statistics: Every month about 7,500 Ukrainians die of cancer, about 250 people a day. “Radiation,” “cancer,” “death” are the words that most Ukrainians think of when they hear about Chernobyl catastrophe.
A divorce lawyer, Katerina Vlasyuk, one the forum’s speakers, was not surprised that it was the United States and not any of the post-Soviet countries that produced the Chernobyl miniseries—it was still too close to home, too sickening for locals to face the details of the catastrophe, she said. Vlasyuk decided not to watch the Chernobyl series. “That would be too hard for me to see the tragedy once again,” she said. “We have a lot of sad news in our country, I often cry when I hear about the war in Donbas [eastern Ukraine].”
But in spite of all the criticism and sadness, television viewers both in Ukraine and Russia praised the fact that at least somebody has attracted attention to the 33-year-old disaster. Korolevskaya, manager at the Chernobyl museum in Kiev, said she was thankful to HBO for making the series.
“Today young people coming to power in Ukraine know nothing about that disaster in 1986,” she said. “It was a necessary film to make and HBO have obviously tried their best; as for us, we are going to create a special tour about Chernobyl’s historic truth, inspired by the HBO series.”