Hit series Chernobyl has people sharing their memories of the disaster

Hit series Chernobyl has people sharing their memories of the disaster
Copyright Liam Daniel / HBO
Copyright Liam Daniel / HBO
By Viola Stefanello
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"Chernobyl" is now officially the best-rated TV series of all time - and its realism led people from all over the former Soviet Union to discuss their memories of the 1986 nuclear disaster


"I haven't seen a single episode of HBO's Chernobyl, but here, close to the Kantemirovskaya, there's a granite monument with a black plaque dedicated to the liquidators. It just stands by itself near the road," reads a tweet in Russian. "Today, for the first time since I've lived here, someone left flowers on it."

Tasha, a young photographer whose family once lived in Pripyat, the ghost city founded in 1970 to serve the Chernobyl nuclear plant, answers back. 

"Well, at least the series showed people the real scale of the disaster. My grandfather was a liquidator, too", she writes.

A month ago, very few people even knew what a liquidator was.

Aside from history enthusiasts, documentary aficionados, the odd dark tourist and the more informed citizens of the former Soviet Republics, very few were familiar with — or even interested in — the details of what happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on April 26, 1987. 

Then came the five-part TV drama.

Already acclaimed as the highest-rated series in TV history, Chernobyl has waved past the likes of shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad as all of its five episodes rose to the top of IMDb's top 10 for the database’s “Top Rated TV Shows” list. 

As the new episodes aired, week after week, new fans swarmed to social media to praise its eerie atmosphere, the grandiose cinematography, the realism and the scenography.

For people who grew up in the former Soviet Union though, watching the series was more about dealing with the past: that of their country's, their family's, even their own.

'It took me 30 years to realise the scale of the feat of thousands of my compatriots'

Many were touched by the unsung vicissitudes of the liquidators — hundreds of thousands of civil and military personnel who were called upon to deal with consequences of the 1986 nuclear disaster.

Tasked with anything from deactivating the reactor to evacuating the population from the highly radioactive exclusion zone, a large number of liquidators suffered health issues in the months and years following their exposure to ionizing radiation. According to Vyacheslav Grishin of the Chernobyl Union, the main organisation of liquidators, 10% of the original 600,000 liquidators died in the aftermath of their work, and 165,000 were left disabled. Other estimates attribute way fewer deaths to the radiation from the disaster.

Although many liquidators were praised as heroes by the Soviet regime at the time and statues were built around the USSR to celebrate them, several social media users reported HBO's Chernobyl was what really made them realise what so many people had to endure for them to be safe today.

"The feat of the liquidators is really incredible, I am so ashamed that I had not paid enough attention to this catastrophe before," wrote Russian user Vladimir Tchernov. "I'm shocked by the fact that it took me 30 years, a team of brilliant Western actors and filmmakers, as well as a whole American channel to realise the scale of the feat of thousands of my compatriots", agreed another.

The fourth episode of the mini-series, "The Happiness of All Mankind", dedicated much of its running time to depicting what liquidators had to go through in painstaking detail — including shooting puppies that had been contaminated and dumping them in common graves to be covered with cement and men clearing the debris from the most dangerous roof in the world, a couple of minutes at a time.

For some, watching the series opened old wounds. Ukrainian software developer Den Hellder, 28, says the show made him cry. "Yes, people die from different things. But when their deaths are followed by a lie, and this lie continues to flow from the TV channels of a country known to all — it is very painful", he tweeted.

Speaking to Euronews, he opened up about his grandfather, a driver who took part in the damage control stage of liquidation.

"He never told me about Chernobyl because I was very little," he said. Unfortunately, when I was six, grandfather became very ill, he had a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 57 and died at 62. We always thought it was because of radiation in his body."

Despite his work as a liquidator, Hellder says, his grandad never received a certificate of participation in these events. His mother and him blame it on regime corruption. "For us, that TV series is not only about fighting the disaster, but fighting against a government full of lies on every level — and how that lie affects people".


Depicting a painful page of Soviet history

Some thanked the show's creator, Craig Mazin, for all they learnt throughout the five episodes.

Mark Savchuck, a 29-years-old Ukrainian, remembers the disaster only being mentioned very vaguely when he was in school. 

"It was extremely downplayed — we had a nuclear meltdown, it was contained. Lots of resources were put into this catastrophe, but we eventually made it", he said. "For most people, it was like a nasty fire that blew poison over a big territory. We couldn't even imagine that so many people died."

"Thank you for this series. Thank you for educating the world about what happened here in 1986. It is an important event that must never be forgotten. I will share it with my children when they are older to remind them how much their country has suffered and overcome", a Ukrainian aid worker wrote to Mazin.

For others, it felt more like therapy. Russian journalist Slava Malamud, who live-tweeted all of the discrepancies and accuracies she could find as someone who lived in the Soviet Union at the time, was shaken by the effect the series had on her.


Neuroscientist Luis Perez de Sevilla watched the series with his wife, who grew up in Belarus, next to the Ukrainian border. "It was hard for my wife to watch it with me," he wrote. "She said that many scenes you showed were very familiar to her."

Oleg Balakin, a service designer born in Odessa, Ukraine, a little more than a year after reactor four exploded at the nuclear power plant, remembers families in his town — over 500km away from Chernobyl — being told to keep windows closed at all times, his childhood friend's dad working as a helicopter pilot in the exclusion zone, children being sent away from the region by worried parents.

"They found very right the tone of voice for telling the story, they put ethical accents very precisely," he says about the mini-series. "They are not depicting the evil empire, nor the pathetic heroic story."

Meantime, many from the former Soviet Union are passing by IMDB to leave 10-star scores to the show."

If someone was not impressed by Chernobyl, though, it's the Russian government. The state TV announced it will be airing its own version of the drama — revolving, this time, around the claim that a CIA spy was present and could be to blame for one of the worst nuclear accidents in human history.

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