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Chernobyl Historian Serhii Plokhy on the Accuracy of the HBO Series
9 June, 2019

Serhii Plokhy spent years studying the Chernobyl Power Plant explosion before he wrote and published his successful 2018 book “Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy.” He looked at dozens of accounts, documents, and books. Now, he is chatting to Hromadske about whether the HBO portrayal of some key employees of the power plant, like deputy chief engineer Anatolii Diatlov and plant director Viktor Briukhanov, was accurate.

READ MORE: A Story of Chernobyl Plant Liquidator That Wasn’t Included in the HBO Series

Nataliya Gumenyuk (NG): First of all, your biggest impression of the series? [They are] very well-received here, however, we know that there are some things that are different. So what does our international audience need to know about that?

Serhii Plokhy (SP): Well, Chernobyl – it’s an HBO and Sky production miniseries, it’s probably as close as anyone ever got to the reality of Chernobyl. So, I would really want to congratulate the makers of the miniseries for doing such a wonderful job. The atmosphere of the context, in which the nuclear catastrophe took place, is recreated very well. On the other hand, this is a movie about a far-away land, about a far-away time, and certain things are maybe not fully understood or presented in a way that makes people who studied Chernobyl, who worked at Chernobyl, a little bit uncomfortable. And part of that is because in the miniseries there are some rules of the genre per se. So, there are heroes and there are villains, and it’s very clear who is who. And that is what makes this miniseries so successful. When you look at the reality of what happened there, there is more gray there than black-and-white, and shadows of gray, which for me makes the entire story, and the people involved there and the personages more interesting. Again, the big things that I think viewers and listeners should keep in mind is that the Soviet Union was indeed as oppressive as it is shown in the miniseries, but it wasn’t the kind of oppression that is portrayed there – there was no KGB officers going all over the place and arresting people, or there were no threats of actually ordering, under the gun, someone to go and check the level of radiation anywhere. People were doing that, did that, because they considered that their duty to do that. So it’s important not to take everything that you see in that movie literally.

The damaged reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl power plant on April 27, 1986 (a day after the disaster). Photo Valeriy Yevtushenko / UNIAN

NG: Can you just go to that, as I’ve mentioned, it’s not about just fact-checking the series, but about bringing an opportunity. We have an opportunity to tell more about these people to the audience. So for instance, in your book, there is a detailed explanation of such characters like, Diatlov or Briukhanov. And Diatlov, in the movie, is a clear bully, but in your book he is smart, tough and a very just man. As well, like Briukhanov, is a director of the Chernobyl power plant, but there is a personal tragedy in his story as well… You have the whole story of how his wife had been treated… So, can you tell us more about these people and why are they not so black-and-white?

 

SP: Well, my understanding is that the way how people like Briukhanov and Diatlov are presented in the miniseries is very much influenced by the early work on the history of Chernobyl by the author, whose name is Medvedev, and the title is, “Truth About Chernobyl,” it was written in Russian, a few years after the accident and then translated early on into English. And that book represented the official line that the Party, at the time, took on Chernobyl. The official line was that they were the mistakes of the personnel, the mistakes of the management, that were solely responsible for what had happened. It was only after the end of the Soviet Union that another part of the puzzle, another important part of the true history emerged. And that was problems with the reactor. And It seems to me that the the miniseries very much works within the early paradigm of the late 1980’s, where the people who were partially, certainly, responsible for what had happened, are represented as villains. And that claim, it’s easier to make this paradigm with Diatlov, who, again wasn’t as black figure as he’s portrayed. But, it’s more difficult to make the same case against Briukhanov, the director of the plant, who basically was considered, by the the majority of people who worked under him, as a very human and very reasonable person man, who had the overall responsibility for what was happening at the plant. But, again, is portrayed, I think, justly. To me, some of these characters, in particular Diatlov and Briukhanov, they look like characters to be coming from, “The Death of Stalin,” which is a satire. That’s probably not completely fair, especially given the fact that the people like Briukhanov are still with us, they live here in the city of Kyiv. But, moving beyond these individual characters, I think that the big truth, the story about what happened there, the emotional truth, is told very well and again, I’m really impressed by what I’ve seen so far.

Chief Engineer of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Mykola Fomin (L) and Deputy Chief Engineer of the second stage of construction Anatoliy Diatlov near the control unit of the 4th Block, December 20, 1983
Photo by Vasyl
Pyasetskyi / UNIAN

NG: In the miniseries, it sometimes feels that it was avoidable, that the catastrophe was avoidable. It’s so much a human mistake, driven by, for instance, the idea about having a better career, so is it really this way? Because there are these two versions: the system or the people. How would you explain the reason and was it really avoidable?

SP: Well, there is such a notion as normal accidents. That theory says that in the complex system, sooner or later, a lot of things would come together to create an accident. It is not enough for one or two things to happen, but there could be three or four that come together and create a situation that was not predicted or envisioned by the creators of that system, and Chernobyl is one of those accidents. Which means that one factor of someone trying to complete the test and get a promotion was not enough to create that. Or problems with the reactor, on its own, was not enough to have an explosion. But, when all these things come together, then thats when Chernobyl happens. And this is actually, in my opinion, the big truth about Chernobyl, that it wasn’t just one factor, but the system itself also produces certain attitudes, and creates motivations, and creates patterns of behavior of people. And all of these things came together in Chernobyl.

NG: If there are villains, there are heroes. So, a clear hero in the series is, Legasov. What should we also know about this character? Yes, he committed suicide, but, was it really this consequence of events? Because, he looks like he was the one who was running the operation of the liquidation of the catastrophe, but, what we know from facts, it was quite a different thing.

SP: Well, he is as close to hero in that story as it gets. And when I say story, I’m not just talking about the miniseries, I’m talking about the reality, at least how I understand it. He was there from really early on. He was brave enough to risk his life, his health, going to very dangerous places at the station, to get a better understanding of what had happened and what could be done to fix the problem. He was also the first who started to tell the truth about Chernobyl in front of the international audience. And it is reflected very much in the miniseries, but he was also someone who was caught in-between. He told part of the truth, he didn’t tell it in its entirety. At the end, he was rejected by almost everybody, including by people within his own institute, within his own industry. He felt that his contribution wasn’t recognized and he was, it looks like, prone to depressions. And again, his deteriorating health, as a result to high dosages of radiation that he got, eventually, all of these things led to his suicide.

NG: But he wasn’t at this court hearing, which we see?

SP: No, he wasn’t.

Historian, author of the book "Chernobyl. History of a Tragedy " Serhii Plokhy during the interview, Kyiv, June 8, 2019
Photo: Hromadske

NG: So, what was also in this court hearing? Because when we talk, we know that this truth about problems with the reactor had become public later, so it was known? Can you also reflect?

SP: The fact that it wasn’t just the operators, who really violated a lot of safety rules, and so on, that it wasn’t just them, that it was the problems with the reactor, that was known already by the summer of 1986. It was known to Gorbachev, it was known to members of Politburo, who looked into those issues in July of 1986. We know that now from the protocols of the meetings. But for the political reasons, for the reason of continuing exports of the Soviet-built nuclear reactors abroad, to other countries, in particular to Eastern Europe, that was never made public during Soviet times. So, in ‘86 it was already clear, in ‘87 they put the managers, mostly managers, of the plant on trial. The trial was in the so called open 30-kilometer exclusion zone, where public couldn’t have easy access. So, at that time, they already knew what was going on, that those people were not the only ones responsible for what had happened and not as responsible as it was claimed by the state at the time. Now we also know more about how the government actually handled the trial. A few days ago, a huge book based on KGB archives was presented here in Kyiv and among the documents published there, there are also reports of the informers, who were sent to those people in their prison cells. They were collecting information what was their mood, what was supposed to be their line of defense and those informers were actually trying to convince those people, while they were in prison, to take a particular line, that would be in the interest of the state. So it was, the whole trial, was orchestrated from the start till the end to a degree that people were actually influenced even by the agents within the prison cells.

Warning about entering the special regime zone near the village of Opachychy, Kyiv region, fall of 1991
Photo by Valeriy Solovyov / UNIAN

NG: Since Diatlov is such a central figure in the series, tell a bit more about him. Because in your book, he is  as I mentioned  tough, but he likes poetry, has a great sense of humor. In the end he doesn’t admit his guilt, still how do you see his character and maybe the others in real life?

 

SP: He was a man of high intellect, with broad cultural interests and at the same time he was really tough-minded and the key word that I would use to characterize Diatlov would be arrogance. He believed in the supreme power of his brain, of his knowledge and of his expertise to a degree that his bosses characterized him as a person who would listen to what you have to say to him, but would do it his own way. And probably another person, who would be less confident in his own right, would be more flexible. But flexible is not the word that characterized Diatlov. So, again, like in any person, you can find positive characteristics of that person, but at the end of the day he was the wrong person at the wrong place at the wrong time.

NG: One of the biggest tragedies of the catastrophe is the fact that the evacuation had not taken place in time, there was a denial. But, what I know from your book, there were tensions, a not totally independent government in Kyiv, there were some people on the ground, who wanted to make it more public. Can you also reflect on that, because, in the series, you have this scene where there is a Politburo-style gathering, where people are so cheerfully supporting the idea that there should not be panic. Was it really the case and what was really happening with this?

 

SP: The Ukrainian authorities had very little control over what was happening at the nuclear power plant in their own territory. The operational control over it was in Moscow. The Ukrainian government learned about the accident first from the call from the head of the Soviet government in Moscow. Their responsibility at the end was to deal with people, to deal with the population. They were concerned about people because, at the end, they were the ones that faced those people. So, the head of Ukrainian government, Lyashko, was the first to suggest that we should do evacuation. The Soviet government’s main concern was, first, what to do with the reactor. Second, not to create panic and to present the image of the Soviet Union as the country that is completely in control, that has superior technology, technological expertise. As a place where nuclear reactors don’t explode. For that reason, they ordered the Ukrainian authorities to have a May 1 demonstration here in Kyiv, with children marching. I mentioned already, that in the collection of KGB documents, one of them is very really interesting in a sense. It discusses disinfection of the uniforms in which the school children were marching during May 1st parade. So, the clothes they were wearing had to be disinfected, they had to be treated specifically to deal with radiation. All of these orders are coming from Moscow, directly from Mr. Gorbachev, who is not emerging as a big hero in this particular story. He’s a hero in many other stories at the end of the Soviet Union, but not in this one. All of that eventually brings about these tensions in the government, between the local government here in Kyiv and authorities in Moscow. But at the end, it was Moscow who was calling the shots on all of these issues.

From left to right: Con O'Neill as Chief Executive Officer Viktor Bryukhanov, Paul Ritter as Chief Engineer Anatoliy Diatlov and Adrian Rawlins - Chief Engineer Mykola Fomin
Photo: Shot from the TV series "Chernobyl" /
imdb

READ MORE: No Strangers Here: What It's Like to Live and Work at Chernobyl Power Plant

NG: One of the engineers also praises the series, because for a lot of people it’s very important. The story is globally known in a very, kind of “trendy” format, everybody watches the series today. Finally, people know the names behind the general idea of Chernobyl. However, he said, that one disturbing moment for him was that sometimes operators, engineers, look a bit like quite coverts, that they were ordered to do things, though they were working there without really orders, that they felt that it was their duty, and that people were more willing to do that. So, what would you say to that? Because that's also the feeling I got from your book. The thing that the people were so determined to do something in a very risky environment, not just because these were the orders or because they would be crazy communist just believing in something?

 

SP: This is absolutely true and those scenes of the miniseries look simply ridiculous, when someone’s orders are under the gun to do something. It’s not just the words of this operator, but also when you look at documents coming from that period of time, the operators who got high levels of radiation and were put into the hospitals, are actually, living in hospitals, against the orders of their doctors, and joining crews again – that was nobody’s order. The order was, actually for that person, was to stay – to stay there. The first person who dies from radiation poisoning, because at the time of the explosion there were two people who died, but then the first one who dies already in May from radiation, this is the operator who actually was put into the hospital and then left the hospital and joined his crew – and again the cases like that, there were a lot of them. People felt guilt, especially people during whose watch, during whose shift that happened, that happened on their watch. They couldn’t understand what was going on. So, the operators directly responsible for that, they were there and were prepared to stay ‘till the very end and die, if necessary. So, when it comes to the workers at the station and their reaction in the first hours and days, it’s a combination of two things. First, it’s denial – they just don’t want to believe that can happen. Because, they can’t imagine what to do next. When it comes to the management, there is also a desire to somehow shield themselves from the authorities up there, because they know that what happened is a global catastrophe. So, when Briukhanov has two sets of figures in front of him, regarding the level of radiation at the nuclear power plant, he goes with the lowest one. He’s not lying exactly, but he goes with the lowest one, when he’s reporting up to Moscow, to Kyiv. And there is heroism of people, there on the ground, who just think we have to fix, that’s a big a thing, that’s what we are trained for, this is our responsibility. And they are going there against the orders, not because there were orders. But, like, in any situation, there are different types of people. And when some people rushed to the reactor to deal with it, there were probably twice as many people rushing away from the reactor. So, that is also true of any situation.

READ MORE: Chernobyl Through Decades: Life and Work

NG: Can you tell more about these firefighters, because there is one character and his wife, Ignatenko, but there were others, also very human stories, in your book, on their lives, and what happened to these people, who died, what else should we also remember about them?

SP: The source of these stories, both for the miniseries and for my book, is one of the short stories and interviews in Alexeyevich’s book, in English it appeared as “Voices of Chernobyl” – there is an interview with Lyudmyla Ignatenko.

Decontamination of motor vehicles at the point of exit from the infected area after the Chernobyl accident, May 1986
Photo by Vasyl
Pyasetskyi / UNIAN

NG: What happened to her now, do you know?

SP: Well, I don’t know now right now. But, a few years ago she was living here in Kyiv, her health was not great. I understand that the child that she about to have at that time didn’t survive. But, she had another child and there also were some problems. So, from that point of view, what the doctors were saying to her that, “You should stay away from your husband, that this is dangerous not only for your health, but for the health of your child,” that was an absolutely correct assessment. She didn’t listen to that and she sacrificed herself and her child to a degree. The big question is whether that was the right thing to do. I don’t want to be in the position of passing moral judgement on that. She did what she felt to be right. But, the story of the firefighters is also interesting in a sense that they were the first people who are portrayed as heroes, immediately after when the Soviet Union felt pressure to say a little bit more about Chernobyl. So, their story was a heroic story. The firefighters stopping fire and saving the plant. They were heroes. They indeed did what the official narrative was saying they did. They stopped the fire. The problem was, and this is not their problem, this is the problem of the system, is that they have never been informed that there might be a possibility of “nuclear fire.” They were never trained to deal with nuclear radiation, with nuclear fire. When they realized that it was not just a regular fire, it was already too late. They were too weak even sometimes to leave the roof of the 3rd reactor, where they were stopping that fire. So, it’s a real, real trauma and tragedy. But again, we’re talking about heroes and villains, and I was saying that it’s difficult to put people in one category or another, sometimes they belong to both. Well, the firefighters are very clearly just one category of heroes. But the question of whether they knew really, fully what they were doing, it’s a big question.

READ MORE: New Life near the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

NG: And now the heroine in these series is a character of, Uliana Khomyuk, the fictional character. You know a general character of the Soviet scientists. But, it wasn’t exactly the case, so, really, what were the Soviet scientists, whom does she represent, was it really this tension to tell more? And also tell us the story that there is a reason why she has such a name, there were some ideas why the authors of the series had picked up this character?

SP: Yes, my understanding is that Craig Mazin, who is a scriptwriter, who did amazing job overall, producing that script, that as a student, his fellow students were two Ukrainian young women at the time.

NG: From diaspora?

SP: From the Ukrainian diaspora in the US, at the university that he attended, I’m not sure which university that was, my guess is that maybe it was in D.C. And the first name of one of them was Uliana. And the last name of another was Khomyuk. So, at the end Uliana Khomyuk is a character that bears the first name of one of his acquaintances and the last name, Khomyuk, of another. She is, as you say, a fictional character and a fictional character on more than one level. One of those levels is that there were no women among top Soviet scientists or among the top Soviet managers, including of the nuclear power plants or among the operators. So, it was all completely male, macho type of environment, with a lot of minuses that came with that. But the story about the scientists and what she represents and this idea to find more, and fighting and disagreeing, and proposing different theories of what happened and how to deal with that – this is a very real story. If that character wouldn’t exist, the miniseries wouldn’t be as close to the truth, as eventually it came to be. The big truth I mean, not to the issues of very specific and practical face.

NG: In particular because the entourage is done so well and a lot of post-Soviet people would say, oh it looks exactly like that, with minor mistakes, that room was looking similarly to what I remember. This creates a feeling that the series are as close to reality as possible. Besides what we’ve just discussed, but of course, we know already, that there are some kind of things that didn’t happen, for instance  helicopter didn’t fall in the first days of the catastrophe, it was way later. That, for instance, the miners were never naked. For instance, there were also some issues with the equipment. Still, what would be your main call be to the foreign audience, that would like to know more, and generally to the foreign audience. Because if you watched the movie, first of all maybe you would stay with this reality in your mind. What would you tell them, besides that, I would say, that they have to definitely read your book, which is in English, not yet in Ukrainian, and which is extremely fascinating?

 

SP: Well, first of all, I would say that they watched a really very good miniseries, so it’s praised so much for a very good reason. Secondly, that each genre has its strengths and its weaknesses and you really can’t do everything in one genre. I would ask them, call on them, to read these miniseries as maybe an introduction to a big theme and a big topic. Really, try to educate yourself through reading books. But also, there is such an opportunity as today as going as a tourist to the 30-kilometer exclusion zone. I know from the reactions and questions that I get when I present this book that some people have doubts, including moral doubts about whether this is a good thing or bad thing, morally, to open this place of the tragedy, for tourism. I think, overall, it’s a good thing. That allows you to see, what we, as human beings and our arrogance, can actually do to this planet. You could see the way how the planet overall would look like without us, god forbid, if any other catastrophe would happen. So, it’s really a very sobering experience. And, again, I think, that the miniseries, not and, but they start a very interesting discussion.