HBO‘s ‘Ch­er­nobyl’ series cre­ates fever to visit real Chornobyl,

Kyiv Post - - Front Page - BY BERMET TALANT [email protected]

“Ch­er­nobyl,” a five-part HBO miniseries, has taken the globe by storm, be­com­ing the high­est-rated tele­vi­sion show ever, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­net Movie Data­base, or IMDb.

View­ers have watched with fas­ci­na­tion and hor­ror as the world’s largest nu­clear dis­as­ter un­folds on­screen. Many have ad­mired the ex­treme at­ten­tion the series pays to ev­ery­day details of Soviet life in the 1980s.

But the re­ac­tions have been dis­tinctly different in Ukraine and Rus­sia, two coun­tries that — along­side Be­larus — share the tragic his­tory of the 1986 ex­plo­sion at the Chornobyl nu­clear plant and its af­ter­math.

In Rus­sia, a state that still takes pride in the Soviet legacy, the series has faced crit­i­cism from the of­fi­cial me­dia. Mean­while, many in Ukraine ap­pre­ci­ated the series for hu­man­iz­ing a tragic chap­ter in the coun­try’s his­tory.

“The film al­lowed us to re­live the ac­ci­dent and re­think it,” film critic An­driy Alferov told the Kyiv Post. “Chornobyl is that spir­i­tual bond that con­nects people all over Ukraine. Every­one was af­fected by it. Every­one had some­one who ei­ther was evac­u­ated or was in­volved in the cleanup.”


Not all re­ac­tions were neg­a­tive in Rus­sia. Many ap­pre­ci­ated “Ch­er­nobyl” as a high-quality work of cin­e­matic art.

But the miniseries does ap­pear to threaten the coun­try’s of­fi­cial nar­ra­tives of Soviet glory. State­funded me­dia have railed against “Ch­er­nobyl,” both crit­i­ciz­ing it for mi­nor er­rors in its de­pic­tion of Soviet life and claim­ing it mis­char­ac­ter­izes the tragedy and the Soviet state’s re­sponse.

Bloomberg colum­nist Leonid Ber­shid­sky, a vet­eran of Rus­sian jour­nal­ism, wrote that it would have been bet­ter if the Chornobyl dis­as­ter’s story had been told by an af­fected nation — Rus­sia, Ukraine, or Be­larus — to demon­strate that these coun­tries have learned the value of truth.

In fact, Rus­sia is doing just that — al­beit with­out the les­son Ber­shid­sky wanted.

Rus­sian tele­vi­sion chan­nel NTV, owned by the state-con­trolled Gazprom gas mo­nop­oly, is pro­duc­ing its own Chornobyl series, set to pre­miere later this year. Its con­spir­a­to­rial plot re­volves around a KGB of­fi­cer who ar­rives in Pripyat, the town that housed Chornobyl plant em­ploy­ees, on the eve of the ex­plo­sion at Re­ac­tor Four to find a CIA agent “sus­pected of sub­ver­sive ac­tiv­i­ties.”

In Ukraine, the re­ac­tion to the HBO series was largely pos­i­tive. Al­though the of­fi­cial Ukrainian pre­miere is sched­uled for June 18 on 1+1, one of the coun­try’s most watched tele­vi­sion chan­nels, many Ukraini­ans have al­ready viewed the series on­line.

The show’s Amer­i­can re­lease was fol­lowed by a boom in Chornobyl­fo­cused jour­nal­ism in Ukraine. Some lo­cal me­dia ex­am­ined the coun­try’s role in pro­duc­ing the series, which was par­tially filmed in Ukraine. They looked at where cer­tain scenes were shot and which lo­cal ex­perts consulted with the film­mak­ers.

Other me­dia in­ter­viewed his­to­ri­ans, sur­vivors, and liq­uida­tors (people in­volved in the cleanup of the dam­age from the nu­clear dis­as­ter) on how ac­cu­rately the char­ac­ters and events were de­picted in the series. Thanks to “Ch­er­nobyl,” the me­dia’s at­ten­tion span ex­tended be­yond the reg­u­lar an­nual cov­er­age of the dis­as­ter’s an­niver­sary on April 26.

Ukrainian view­ers also ap­pre­ci­ated HBO’s “Ch­er­nobyl” for prais­ing the hero­ism and self-sac­ri­fice of ordinary people.

“There are no good or bad char­ac­ters. Every­one loses. Every­one is ter­ri­fied and lies. Every­one is hu­man: army gen­er­als, state of­fi­cials, min­ers, liq­uida­tors… and they all com­mit acts of hero­ism,” film critic Alferov said.

For many, it was a sober­ing re­minder of the tragedy — his­tory is be­ing grad­u­ally for­got­ten even in Ukraine, the coun­try that took the brunt of the hu­man losses and en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age from the ac­ci­dent.

The series opened the flood­gates of per­sonal memories and reflection­s from sur­vivors and liq­uida­tors of the Chornobyl dis­as­ter and their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren.

“I think the ‘ Ch­er­nobyl’ series is very ther­a­peu­tic for our so­ci­ety. Our gen­er­a­tion doesn’t re­flect on Chornobyl,” said Emma Antonyuk, a TV jour­nal­ist in Kyiv whose fa­ther was a liq­uida­tor.

“Many of my friends said that they didn’t even know some facts and people shown in the series. This show is a cold shower. We needed to be re­minded about this tragedy and what the liq­uida­tors did.”

Antonyuk laments the mea­ger re­ward her fa­ther re­ceives for risk­ing his health to clean up the zone.

Her fa­ther Olek­sandr, orig­i­nally from Ch­er­nivtsi Oblast in western Ukraine, was 18 when he was sent to the ex­clu­sion zone in 1986. For his two-year service in the highly ra­di­ated area, he now re­ceives monthly com­pen­sa­tion of Hr 200 ($7.5) and an extra Hr 100 ($3.7) for health re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

On April 26, the 33rd an­niver­sary of the dis­as­ter, he was in­vited to a lo­cal coun­cil along with other liq­uida­tors. As a gift, he re­ceived a book about the city of Ch­er­nivtsi.

“And he was gen­uinely pleased to be re­mem­bered,” said Antonyuk.

HBO’s “Ch­er­nobyl” has gar­nered broad ac­claim for its re­al­ism and au­then­tic­ity in recre­at­ing the Soviet at­mos­phere thanks to pro­ducer and writer Mazin’s com­mit­ment to ac­cu­racy.

Mazin, who has been obsessed with the story of the Chornobyl dis­as­ter for years, called it “the fi­nal Soviet crime against Ukraine.”

His com­pelling telling of Chornobyl’s story is cen­tered around the idea that the ac­ci­dent was the re­sult of a series of lies. And even af­ter it oc­curred, Soviet bu­reau­crats opted to con­ceal im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion to pre­serve the state’s in­ter­na­tional im­age at the cost of many lives.

“I thought that it was so cruel of fate to have vis­ited Chornobyl on this place, on Ukraine, which had had enough,” Mazin told the HBO pod­cast. He placed the Chornobyl dis­as­ter along­side other calami­ties in­flicted on the coun­try like the Holodomor, the 1930s Soviet-era man­made famine.

Mazin says “sto­ry­telling can be weaponized.” And this seems es­pe­cially rel­e­vant in the cur­rent era of state pro­pa­ganda, ram­pant dis­in­for­ma­tion, and rising pop­ulism.

“When people choose to lie, and when people choose to be­lieve the lie, and when every­one en­gages in a mas­sive con­spir­acy to pro­mote the lie over the truth, we can get away with a lie for a very long time,” Mazin told HBO pod­cast. “But the truth […] will get you in the end.”

Chornobyl ef­fect

Al­though most of the production of HBO’s “Ch­er­nobyl” took place in Lithua­nia, some parts were filmed in Ukraine.

Any­one fa­mil­iar with Kyiv will rec­og­nize that Stalin-era high-rise topped with a star on Khreshchat­yk Av­enue from the be­gin­ning of the fifth episode. Other scenes were filmed in the city’s Troyeshchy­na district, at the Hy­dro­bi­ol­ogy In­sti­tute, the Ver­nad­sky National Li­brary, in the town of Pripyat, and at the Kyiv Sea.

Ukrainian production com­pany Ra­dioac­tive Film found Soviet-era props, from cups and car­pets to cars, that gave the show its vis­ual au­then­tic­ity.

More­over, Amer­i­can pro­duc­ers and production de­sign­ers ex­ten­sively consulted with the staff of the Chornobyl mu­seum in Kyiv on the cos­tumes of the fire­fight­ers and liq­uida­tors, a 3D model of the plant, equip­ment that was used dur­ing the clean-up, and a time­line of events.

The litur­gi­cal song played at the end of the fi­nal episode is a tra­di­tional Eastern Or­tho­dox song for re­mem­ber­ing the dead: Vich­naya Pamyat, or Memory Eternal in English. It was per­formed by the Lviv mu­nic­i­pal choir, Homin.

Despite its grim premise, HBO’s “Ch­er­nobyl” has also sparked for­eign in­ter­est in Ukraine.

Tour op­er­a­tors to the Chornobyl ex­clu­sion zone ex­pect an in­crease in vis­i­tors, al­though the busi­ness has been grow­ing steadily over the last few years.

“Tourism to the ex­clu­sion zone grows by 30–40 per­cent an­nu­ally. Last year, we had nearly 70,000 vis­i­tors,” said Yaroslav Yemelia­nenko, head of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Chornobyl tour op­er­a­tors. “The fore­cast for this year was 100,000 but we think the HBO series will bring us up to 50,000 vis­i­tors more.”

“We are pre­par­ing for a surge in book­ings af­ter the series ends and people will start plan­ning their va­ca­tion. That’s why we’re open­ing new routes and hir­ing more guides.”

But the down­side of such growth in tourism is yet to be seen. The last traces of hu­man life in the zone — aban­doned vil­lages and the ghost town of Pripyat — are grad­u­ally fall­ing apart due to nat­u­ral de­cay and loot­ing. Lo­cal po­lice reg­u­larly report on catch­ing illegal tourists, scrap metal col­lec­tors, and ran­dom pick­ers of mush­rooms and berries in the still-con­tam­i­nated area.

“Un­for­tu­nately, illegal vis­i­tors harm the zone the most, not of­fi­cial tourists who are un­der the su­per­vi­sion of guides,” Yemelia­nenko said.

The area al­ready looks different from when Yemelia­nenko first vis­ited in 2007.

“I have the impression that the zone is los­ing its tex­ture,” he said. “Be­fore, when I en­tered any apart­ment there was wall­pa­per, a ta­ble with books on it. Now the books and wall­pa­per are gone, only con­crete walls are left. It is as if the base form re­mains but the con­tent de­cays or gets pil­fered,” he told the Kyiv Post.

“The zone is slowly fad­ing away.” 

Ed­i­tor’s Note: The Kyiv Post uses the Ukrainian spelling of Chornobyl, while the HBO mini-series uses the Rus­sian spelling, Ch­er­nobyl.

A scene from the 2019 "Ch­er­nobyl" miniseries from HBO and Sky At­lantic that be­came the high­est-rated tele­vi­sion show with the rat­ing of 9.6/10 on In­ter­net Movie Data­base. It dra­ma­tized the real story of a re­ac­tor ex­plo­sion at the Chornobyl nu­clear power plant in Ukraine in 1986. (HBO)

A scene from the 2019 HBO and Sky At­lantic miniseries Ch­er­nobyl. Most char­ac­ters were based on real people who dealt with the 1986 nu­clear dis­as­ter in Soviet Ukraine and its con­se­quences. (HBO)

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