Chernobyl: Fact, Fiction, and Historical Accuracy

Audiences are preoccupied by how much of HBO's Chernobyl really happened. Here's how the drama approached accuracy...

Chernobyl Fact, Fiction, and Historical Accuracy

In the wake of HBO’s phenomenally successful mini-series Chernobyl, a slew of articles have appeared along the lines of ‘Facts vs Fiction’, ‘Moments the show got wrong’, ‘How much of Chernobyl is true?’ ‘What the mini-series gets right’ ‘Separating fact from fiction’, and so on. How can a series that talks so much about truth and lies take so many liberties with ‘truth’? Why are there so many apparent inaccuracies and what is inaccurate about it?

Well, ‘truth’ is a complicated thing – and it doesn’t always fit in to a five part television series. That’s partly why writer Craig Mazin sat down with Peter Sagal to record The Chernobyl Podcast, a series in which he goes through each episode in detail, explaining what his sources were and why he changed some things. The articles, however, continue to appear. In what ways does Chernobyl “get it wrong”, and why?

Obvious and deliberate fictionalization

Chernobyl Jared Harris

Most of the elements of the series that don’t exactly match reality are not mistakes, or the results of incomplete research, but deliberate choices. Writers invent scenes, characters or incidents in order to show the audience something more clearly, to condense the story into five one hour episodes of television, and to create compelling characters the audience will want to follow throughout this story. That’s what makes something a drama series rather than a documentary. The cassette tapes left by Valery Legasov, for example, are real, but the specific dialogue read by Jared Harris is invented.

further reading: HBO’s Chernobyl is More Terrifying Than You Think

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There are two main obvious and deliberate fictionalizations in the series, both of which Mazin talks about in the podcast – the creation of the character of Ulana Khomyuk, played by Emily Watson, and the presence of Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) at the show trial of Nikolai Fomin, Viktor Bryukhanov and Anatoly Dyatlov in 1987.

Chernobyl Stellan Skarsgard and Jared Harris

Dozens of scientists were involved in the clean-up operation after the accident, but audiences need a character they can identify and connect with, so Mazin created the character of Khomyuk to stand for all the scientists who worked on the problem. He made her female because, although women in the Soviet Union were excluded from most of the jobs held by the series’ characters (firemen, soldiers, politicians, nuclear plant operators), there were numerous female doctors, and a number of female scientists, and this is reflected in the casting of the doctors and the creation of Watson’s character. Inventing one person to stand for many not only provides some creative freedom (to have her arrested, for example) but helps the audience to focus on the story, and not on trying to remember yet another walk-on character in a white coat.

In the case of the trial, the fictionalization was necessary to wrap up the stories of Legasov and Shcherbina, and to provide a satisfying dramatic climax for the series. As shown in the first episode, Legasov took his own life two years after the accident, and Shcherbina died in 1990, so their characters are largely fictional creations inspired by records and memories of the real people. Placing them – and a large group of scientists – at the trial provides a framework for a dramatic reconstruction of the events leading up to the accident. When Legasov speaks up at the trial and is punished, this is a dramatic way of showing something that really happened but was far less televisual – his dissemination of his reports on why the accident happened among the scientific community, both before and (through the cassette tapes) after his suicide.

Choosing one version from among conflicting stories

Chernobyl Frogmen

The accident at Chernobyl happened in the USSR, a state not known for being open with information, and one fact most people can agree on is that the Soviet government initially tried to cover up the severity of the damage. Several of the people most closely involved – Alexander Akimov and Leonid Toptunov in particular – died in hospital a few weeks later. Others passed away in later years, and may or may not have lied or gone into a state of denial to protect themselves anyway, like Dyatlov. One of the series’ main sources, Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history Chernobyl Prayer: Voices From Chernobyl, was collected ten years after the accident, and most other histories of the incident are more recent than that. Human memory is not a perfect thing, and if you ask four different people what happened yesterday you are likely to get four different answers, so after ten years, a certain level of unreliability creeps in.

further reading: The Best Documentaries on HBO

It’s not surprising, then, that there are conflicting stories about a lot of what happened at Chernobyl. Mazin describes in the podcast how, when presented with a particularly dramatic version of events against a more mundane one, he always chose the more mundane story, since the things that we know happened are so shocking anyway. But as a dramatist, he had to choose one version over another – meaning anyone who thinks the other version is the truth, sees this choice as ‘wrong’.

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For the most part, the series avoided rumor, gossip and folklore, but there are occasional exceptions. The final note about the lack of survivors from the ‘Bridge of Death’ has never been proved (or disproved). But the series happily informs its audience of the survival of the three ‘divers’, whose job had looked like a suicide mission at the time, and attempts to show the most likely version from among conflicting stories.

Subjects of scientific debate

Chernobyl Emily Watson

Take a moment to mentally picture Jennifer Aniston cheerily telling you, “Here comes the science bit!”

The most controversial aspect of the show when it comes to truth and fiction is the science – the show’s depictions of the level and effects of exposure to ionizing radiation around Chernobyl, and the long-term consequences of the accident. This is where it gets really complicated.

“Science” involves gathering evidence and then interpreting it. Some of the evidence is straightforwardly factual enough – if you take a dosimeter to the hospital room in which the firemen’s clothing was left in Pripyat, it will read high levels of radiation. That is a fact.

Slightly more complicated are statistics concerning mortality rates, increased cancer rates and so on. Estimated death tolls for the accident at Chernobyl range from 31 (the official death toll, taking into account only those killed in the explosion or who died of acute radiation poisoning in the next few weeks) to 500,000 (the larger Ukrainian estimates), with the World Health Organisation somewhere in between, at 4,000. This is because the final toll depends on things like how many cancers or birth defects are attributed to radiation exposure rather than other causes (smoking, genetics, sheer bad luck), where the cut off point is, how good the information on people living traditional peasant lifestyles in the countryside in the USSR in the 1980s is, and so on.

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Even when you have some evidence, that evidence has to be interpreted – and that’s where more disagreement comes in, because interpreting evidence is tricky. Two scientists can look at the exact same evidence and interpret it differently. So who do you believe?

Chernobyl Stellan and Jared

Your best bet, generally speaking, is to look up what lots of scientists say and see what the majority of them think. That’s how we know that the Earth is heating up and that vaccines don’t cause autism – because when 97% of scientists agree on the interpretation of the evidence, you can safely assume that the other 3% are probably just plain wrong. But things get more complicated again when there’s more disagreement, and the accident at Chernobyl and its lasting impact are still the subject of debate among the scientific community.

The effects of ionizing radiation are one of the most disputed topics in the science of nuclear technologies. There are several reasons for this. For example, some argue that many of the cases of cancer and other health problems in survivors may have other explanations. The psychological effects can have far reaching consequences – someone experiencing stress, anxiety and depression as a result of the accident is more likely to increase tobacco smoking and alcohol consumption in response to these psychological issues – which in turn makes them more likely to develop cancer. So did the accident cause the cancer? Yes, no, maybe. Maybe – there’s often no way of knowing which issue ultimately caused the cancer.  No – lung cancer is more likely caused by smoking than radiation poisoning. Yes – the accident caused the psychological problems that resulted in a clinical dependence on tobacco and alcohol.

And then there’s the politics. The accident happened in the Soviet Union and primarily affected what are now three separate countries – Ukraine (where Chernobyl is), Belarus (where the biggest affected area is, due to the prevailing wind at the time) and Russia (the ruling nation at the time). These three now separate countries have different compensation and care systems for those affected, and those who continue to be affected, by the accident, and the scientific analysis they choose to believe is determined by their own attitudes towards compensation and, in Ukraine’s case, the ongoing work to contain the still highly radioactive site.

Human error and human experience

Chernobyl on HBO

One of the reasons controversial scientific claims appear in the series is that they were believed at the time. In human and in dramatic terms, whether or not the work done by the ‘divers’ or the miners was, as it turns out, necessary and the extent of the possible risk if they failed is less important that what the experts who were trying to understand the crisis, and who are the show’s protagonists, thought at the time. Regardless of whether or not it was a good or necessary idea, those ‘divers’ and miners really did those jobs, because they were told to by people who believed it that the risk was high.

The series has also been written and made in a completely different culture to that of the real people involved. For example, Mazin describes deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, played by Paul Ritter as a “bully”. Engineer Oleksiy Breus, who worked at the plant, told the BBC that this is a “lie”, but also mentions that “the operators were afraid of him” – suggesting that the 21st century USA might simply have a slightly different definition of what makes a ‘bully’ than the 1980s USSR.

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One of the great strengths of the show is its depiction of human experience based on first hand accounts. The explanation the series provides for the death of Lyudmilla Ignatenko’s newborn daughter (that the foetus absorbed the radiation the mother was exposed to) may be scientifically debated. But the facts of her life are not up for debate – her husband, fire fighter Chief Sergeant Vasily Ignatenko, was first on the roof of Reactor 4 to fight the fire, and died of acute radiation sickness on 13th May 1986. Lyudmilla’s daughter died four hours after her birth a few months later and Lyudmilla herself wonders, correctly or not, if this was a result of radiation poisoning. She has since had a son, but both she and her son suffer health problems. These are her experiences – and the harrowing death of her husband and his subsequent burial in a zinc coffin is not debated or controversial, but factually accurate. It is these real human experiences that make Chernobyl so powerful.

If you want to learn more about the scientific research on ionising radiation and Chernobyl, there are several peer-reviewed scientific papers on the subject available open access through www.jstor.org