A first-time collaboration between HBO and Sky UK, the five-part mini-series Chernobyl exploded (if you’ll excuse the phrase) onto our television screens this year, finishing its run as the highest-scored television series in history, according to more than a hundred thousand votes on IMDB. Every episode is ready to be binge-watched (if you’ve got the stomach for it) on Showmax.
The subject matter is chilling and terrifying. Quick history lesson: on 26 April 1986, a nuclear accident (the word “explosion” is still avoided, for the most part) took place at Chernobyl, near the city of Pripyat in the north of the Ukrainian SSR, during a routine safety test.
While the series doesn’t strictly follow a linear timeline, the incident is recorded in the first episode, when it was largely glossed over as a “simple” fire. Being based on a true (horror) story, Chernobyl includes real-life characters.
One of these is first responder Vasily Ignatenko (played by Adam Nagaitis), who was just 25 when he succumbed to slow death via radiation poisoning after fighting the fires of Chernobyl.
His personal story – and that of his pregnant wife – is woven throughout and is jaw-droppingly harrowing. The effects of nuclear radiation on the body are ghastly, and perhaps one of the most frightening aspects is that it is invisible, a silent killer.
A 30-kilometre exclusion zone was imposed around the damaged reactor, and today it is still illegal to live inside the zone. And yet, around 150 people do.
More fear comes from what followed – the cover-up by the authorities, the attempts to clean up the mess (literally and figuratively), and what happened to chief investigator Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) after he presented his findings at the 1987 trial of those responsible.
And it doesn’t end there; the number of indirect deaths is still in dispute. Those living close to Chernobyl – about 116 000 people – were immediately evacuated. A 30-kilometre exclusion zone was imposed around the damaged reactor, and today it is still illegal to live inside the zone. Despite this, about 130 to 150 people do.
Perhaps most unbelievable of all is that the perimeter of the exclusion zone around Chernobyl is now a hot (sorry not sorry) tourist destination.
The series itself is not at any time easy viewing. In fact, there will probably be moments when you simply have to look away. Despite this, the overall look and feel is understated, showing a restraint that, in fact, contributes to the stomach-churning dread.
There has been criticism about the show’s historical accuracy, to which the response is: this is historical drama, not documentary. Liberties have been taken, but ultimately they do not detract from the harrowing reality. The Bridge of Death is a case in point (you’ll understand this when you get to the final episode).
As for the Russians, culture minister Vladimir Medinsky called the series “masterfully made” and “filmed with great respect for ordinary people”; the Communist Party of Russia called for a libel lawsuit against Chernobyl’s writer, director and producers, describing the show as “disgusting”.
The Russian NTV television channel has been producing its own version of the Chernobyl story in which the CIA plays a key role in the disaster since before the HBO miniseries was released. Is the Cold War still a thing?