April 27 marked the 35th anniversary of the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear station, located in Ukraine. In 1986, a meltdown there led to an explosion that spread radioactive material across Europe, resulting in the worst nuclear accident in history. Thousands were evacuated from towns and villages in the vicinity of the meltdown, and a 30 km exclusion zone was set up around the facility.
Today, the ruins of the Soviet reactor rest under a huge metal “sarcophagus” designed to prevent further leakage of radioactive material.
Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency marked the eve of the anniversary in part with an article citing a Russian academic who claimed that HBO’s critically-acclaimed miniseries on the disaster was part of running war against Russia.
The article quoted Leonid Bolshov, scientific director of the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute for Nuclear Safety, as saying:
“Recently, the ‘Chernobyl’ series filmed by HBO has had a special impact on minds in different countries, including Russia. The series is made masterfully, by professionals. Many of the details in it accurately reflect reality. At the same time, the impression left by this series is disgusting. That is, this is one of the shots in a hybrid war.”
Bolshov criticized how the show depicted the “liquidators” — the civilians and military personnel who worked at their peril to contain radiation.
“The main thing that I really didn’t like is that the motivation of the people who worked to eliminate the consequences of the accident is distorted. I am a liquidator myself, I have the Order of Courage for this.
“We saved the homeland, saved world civilization. That was a very serious motivation. There was no such thing as [working] there under compulsion. All thinking was only about the task — how to eliminate everything as soon as possible.”
While praised for its historical accuracy, “Chernobyl,” like most entertainment films, is dramatized. But it is misleading to call it a “hybrid warfare” weapon.
HBO produced the miniseries in conjunction with Sky U.K. Unlike in Russia, where most major media are owned by the state, both companies behind the Chernobyl miniseries are privately-owned.
Craig Mazin, who wrote and produced it, has worked in the entertainment industry since the mid-1990s. For the miniseries, he conducted extensive research that included consulting Soviet documents and interviewing former Soviet citizens and witnesses.
The miniseries’ producers conceded taking some liberties with the history. For example, the character Ulana Khomyuk was actually a fictionalized composite of several scientists. Another common trick used in dramatized historical series and films involves changing the actual chronology. For example, a helicopter crash shown in the film was depicted as having taken place much earlier in course of events than it did.
Other viewers have echoed Bolshov’s criticism of how the miniseries portrayed the motivations of the Chernobyl liquidators. While it is not known whether all the liquidators were fully informed of the risks they faced, many critics have called out the series’ portrayal of characters being forced to work by threats of capital punishment.
“There are a lot of people throughout the series who appear to act out of fear of being shot,” wrote Masha Gessen in The Atlantic.
“This is inaccurate: summary executions, or even delayed executions on orders of a single apparatchik, were not a feature of Soviet life after the nineteen-thirties. By and large, Soviet people did what they were told without being threatened with guns or any punishment.”
Bolshov’s criticism was not the first time the miniseries has come under fire from Russia. In June 2019, after "Chernobyl" debuted, Polygraph.info fact-checked similar criticisms by a Communist Party of the Russian Federation member, who called the work a “distortion” of Soviet history.
At that time, Russian state media also criticized the miniseries. The BBC reported in June 2019 that the Russian television channel NTV had received a grant from the Russian Ministry of Culture to produce an alternative Chernobyl series, one that would blame American spies for the explosion at the nuclear plant.