13 Stunning Facts about HBO's Chernobyl

HBO’s hit docudrama Chernobyl is now officially an Emmy Award Winner.  Last weekend it took home 7 wins including Outstanding Limited Series and its creator, Craig Mazin, received the award for Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series.

Since its premiere on HBO back in May, Chernobyl has been highly praised by critics and laymen alike.  And for those who watched the series and want more Chernobyl, you are in luck!  The Chernobyl Podcast goes one episode at a time and delves into all the behind-the-scenes action.  Throughout the podcast, the show’s creator discusses writing, production, and how closely the miniseries follows the real events.

But, in order to spare you from having to listen to five hours of podcasts, here are some of the most stunning facts about HBO’s Chernobyl.

1. The Accents

Initially, the creators wanted to do a vaguely Eastern European accent on the show.  They knew they never wanted to go full Russian given how quickly it can slide into a comical caricature.  But after a few rounds of auditions, the creators found that actors liked to act accents instead of the act the character.  So, the decision was made to allow the actors to speak in their native accents, as longs as they weren’t American.  This is why Stellan Skarsgård speaks as his Swedish self, while a variety of different British dialects also grace the screen.

2. The Firefighters

Yes, these men actually did go spray an open nuclear reactor with water.  In fact, because they were told they were simply going to be containing a roof fire, many only wore t-shirts that night.  Additionally, a number of the firefighters reported tasting metal in their mouths, a real symptom of extremely high radiation.  The thirty-one firemen killed by Acute Radiation Syndrome were the only casualties the Soviet Union claimed were caused by Chernobyl.  The real number of lives cut short is in the thousands.

3. The Bridge

The overpass where many people gathered to watch the core burn at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was later nicknamed “The Bridge of Death” and it was reported that there were no survivors from that night.

4. The Poem

Episode two opens with a voiceover spoken in Russian.  In The Chernobyl Podcast the translation of the poem, written by Konstantin Simonov, is revealed:

 

"You know, I believe that the Russia we fight for

Is not the dull town where I lived at a loss

But those country tracks that our ancestors followed,

The graves where they lie, with the old Russian cross.

 

I feel that for me, it was countryside Russia

That first made me feel I must truly belong

To the tedious miles between village and village,

The tears of the widow, the women's sad song.

 

By old Russian practice, mere fire, and destruction

Are all we abandon behind us in war.

We see alongside us the deaths of our comrades,

By old Russian practice, the breast to the fore.

 

Alyosha, till now we've been spared by the bullets.

But when (for the third time) my life seemed to end,

I yet still felt proud of the dearest of countries,

The great bitter land I was born to defend."

 

5. Ulana Khomyuk

Played by Emily Watson, this fictional character was created to represent the slew of Soviet scientists who helped during the Chernobyl crisis.  This character being female, however, is actually historically accurate.  While the USSR was extremely regressive is most areas, there was actually a higher number of female medical doctors in the Soviet Union per capita than there was in the United States in 1986.  There was also a significant amount of women in science, math, and engineering fields.  So, Ulana Khomyuk being represented by a female is reflective of reality.

6. Stellan Skarsgård Recalls Chernobyl

Sweden was one of the first countries to conclude that something had happened at a Soviet nuclear power plant as parts of Northern Sweden were impacted by the fallout cloud.  Stellan Skarsgård, a Swede, recalls this time:

“For years we could not eat mushrooms that were picked in the forest.  We could not eat reindeer because the reindeer ate mosses that were affected.  You can still sort of detect radiation in some parts of Sweden; sometimes in animals, sometimes in plants.”  -Stellan Skarsgård, The Chernobyl Podcast

7. The Miners and The Cooling Pad

Yup, they worked naked. This was actually not unusual for miners at the time given the intense heat they had to endure.  Additionally, over four hundred miners worked to construct a cooling pad that would prevent a massive ecological contamination of groundwater if the core went through its concrete pad. However, the core never melted through and the cooling unit was never needed. It is estimated that one out of every four miners died of radiation-related disease doing a job that would eventually prove to be unnecessary.

10. The Helicopter Crash

It happened. Four brave men, the pilot and three crew members, were killed in the crash. Footage can be found here.

11. The Roof Names

General Tarakanov, who was in charge of the roof clean up, named the three levels after his nieces: Nina, Katya, and Masha.  Although in the series, the workers said they had created the names themselves.

12. The Bio-Robots

The scene where the Soviet liquidators have to go out onto the roof and shovel graphite over the edge is filmed in real-time and is the longest take of the series.

13. The Tapes

Valery Legasov did, in fact, commit suicide two years to the day after the Chernobyl disaster. Yet, the legacy of his tapes continues to have a huge impact. Posthumously, Legasov’s tapes were circulated amongst the scientific community of the Societ Union and eventually led to rectifying the fatal flaw that allowed Reactor Four to explode. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sobering facts about the Chernobyl disaster and the miniseries.  If you want to learn more, check out…

The Chernobyl Podcast hosted by Peter Sagal and featuring Craig Mazin on any streaming service; or Svetlana Alexievich’s book “Voices from Chernobyl”, which inspired many of the stories in the series.

 

works cited: Sagal, Peter and Craig Mazin. The Chernobyl Podcast, HBO/Spotify, 6 May 2019.