HBO's Chernobyl was one of the year's biggest surprises so far in television. A 5-part miniseries depicting the most devastating nuclear disaster in history and its aftermath doesn't exactly sound like a recipe for success, especially considering it was scheduled to follow HBO's biggest and most successful show ever, the epic fantasy Game of Thrones.
As it turns out, Chernobyl proved that dynamic storytelling and top-notch acting still resonate with audiences in 2019. Granted, HBO's Chernobyl isn't a documentary seeking to produce a 100% accurate depiction of the disaster; therefore, to help you separate fact from fiction, here are 5 things from Chernobyl that are historically accurate, and 5 things that were completely fabricated.
10 Fact: Legasov and Shcherbina were real people
Chernobyl is made up of characters based on real-life figures who were affected by the nuclear disaster as well as characters completely made up for the show. Two of the characters borrowed from real life are nuclear scientist Valery Legasov and the Council of Ministers' deputy chairman Boris Shcherbina, played by Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgard, respectively.
These two key figures played central roles in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster and how it was handled, communicated to the outside world, and perceived by the general public.
9 Fiction: Ulana Khomyuk is not a real person
Most key players portrayed in HBO's Chernobyl were indeed based on real-life counterparts, however, the nuclear physicist "Ulana Khomyuk" is a character with little basis in historical fact.
Instead of casting numerous actors and actresses, Chernobyl's showrunners cast Emily Watson as Ulana Khomyuk in a decision to "represent the many scientists who worked fearlessly and put themselves in a lot of danger to help solve the situation."
8 Fact: Evacuation wasn't underway until a day after the meltdown
One of the most tragic and frustrating aspects of the story told in HBO's Chernobyl is the lackadaisical attitude many officials displayed immediately following the disaster that would eventually claim the lives of thousands. Unfortunately, this aspect of the story is entirely true.
Through a mixture of fear of repercussions and genuine ignorance to the catastrophic effects in which such an explosion results, the evacuation of people around Chernobyl and the surrounding areas didn't begin until a full day after the disaster occurred.
7 Fiction: Most people involved were speaking Russian
One of the first things viewers will pick up on after starting Chernobyl is the fact that not only are the characters speaking English, instead of Russian as one might suspect considering the locale, they're speaking in an English accent. Obviously, this isn't accurately representative of history, as the various scientists and politicians working to mitigate the effects of the Chernobyl disaster were assuredly speaking Russian throughout the whole saga.
This was perhaps a wise choice made by the showrunners to more effectively portray the complexities of the disaster and its personal, societal, and political aftermath to a largely Western audience.
6 Fact: The physical effects of the radiation were grotesque
One might expect a show from HBO to exaggerate the physical details of radiation on the human body. Sadly, what you see in Chernobyl has been verified and described as mostly accurate by witness account. Chernobyl engineer Oleksiy Breus described the conditions of Oleksandr Akimov, the reactor's shift leader, and Leonid Toptunov, an operator, immediately following the disaster.
They were not looking good, to put it mildly. They were very pale. Toptunov had literally turned white.
He described other colleagues affected by the radiation as having "a bright red color" to their skin, adding that "they later died in hospital in Moscow."
5 Fiction: The 'Bridge of Death" was exaggerated, if not entirely fabricated
HBO's Chernobyl portrays a chilling scene in which residents living near the reactor gather around a railway bridge to observe the aftermath of the explosion from a "safe" distance. As depicted in the mini-series, the citizens of Pripyat who stood at the bridge and witnessed the fire were exposed to toxic levels of radiation and later died.
However, reports from witnesses challenge this extraordinarily unsettling scene's basis in fact. Oleksiy Breus says, "I've never heard there was a group of people who went to watch the fire at night."
4 Fact: Vasily Ignatenko and his wife, Lyudmilla, were real people
The firefighter Vasily Ignatenko and his wife, Lyudmilla, were two of the more sympathetic characters of the HBO mini-series, Chernobyl. As it turns out, the couple's story seems to have been depicted rather accurately, as Lyudmilla recounted her story in the book Voices from Chernobyl, which served as inspiration for much of the television series.
Vasily tragically succumbed to radiation poisoning less than a month after he was exposed to fatal levels of radiation while serving as a first-responder to the tragedy.
3 Fiction: The helicopter crash occurred months after the disaster
As depicted in the series Chernobyl's second episode, a helicopter meant to douse the reactor's flames with sand and boron flies to close to the debris and spirals out of control before crashing into the ground below. While this is unfortunately true to history, the actual crash occurred months after the flames from the disaster were already put out.
In reality, the helicopter was sent to the disaster site as part of a massive civil engineering project designed to eliminate the risk of a subsequent nuclear reaction and second explosion.
2 Fact: The Soviets employed citizens to assist in clean-up efforts
The recruitment of regular citizens to help clean up the debris left by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was one of the more unsettling aspects of the story, culminating in one of the most disturbing sequences in the series in which men are ordered to eliminate any potentially radioactive pets left behind by the residents of Pripyat.
As much as it pains me to say, this is something that actually happened during the aftermath of the most devastating nuclear disaster in history. The World Health Organization estimates that the number of citizens recruited to assist in Chernobyl's clean-up reached half a million.
1 Fiction: Radiation sickness isn't contagious
Despite the many historical and physical similarities to the actual events and aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, HBO's mini-series botched one major aspect of the way radiation sickness actually works. Chernobyl depicts radiation sickness as a contagion that can be spread from victim to victim via physical contact, but in reality, radiation sickness isn't contagious.
As long as any radioactive clothing is removed and the victim is thoroughly washed, physical interaction with a person contaminated with toxic levels of radiation is completely safe.