‘Chernobyl 1986’ is a Russian film set amid the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath. The story follows a long-estranged couple who find themselves thrown together amidst the ensuing chaos. The film also portrays in horrific detail the effects of nuclear radiation on the people of the small town of Pripyat and the heroic endeavors that the rescue workers undertake to avert an even deadlier catastrophe.
There is nothing neat, conclusive, or remotely happy in the ending of a film that portrays such a degree of human suffering. However, there is inspiration to be found in the sacrifices of the characters and a lot more to unpack in the film’s final scenes. Let’s take a closer look at the ending of ‘Chernobyl 1986’ and see where the characters are left after their ordeal. SPOILERS AHEAD.
Chernobyl 1986 Plot Synopsis
The film opens in the town of Pripyat in Soviet-era Ukraine, where a hairdresser named Olga meets her old lover Alexey from a decade ago. Alexey eventually convinces her to go on a date with him and subsequently finds out that she has a 10-year-old child named Alex that is very likely his. Alexey is a confident, headstrong, and selfish firefighter who has worked extensively on the nearby nuclear power plant. However, soon after finding out that he might have a son, he applies for a transfer to Kyiv, much to the disappointment of Olga, who realizes that the man that disappeared 10 years ago is still as undependable.
On the night of his farewell dinner, Alexey attempts to win back Olga. Unbeknownst to them, young Alex goes to the nuclear power plant to film it and witnesses the explosion. The next day, the firefighter finds out about the explosion and rushes to the powerplant, only to find his former team members, who were amongst the first on-site, badly blackened from radiation, delirious, vomiting, and dying. He manages to rush back to the hospital and is lucky only to be mildly exposed (14 rem, according to the nurse).
He is then summoned by a committee of various department heads who discuss how the radioactive core will cause another steam explosion upon coming in contact with the coolant water under the reactor. To avert it, they must release the water in the reservoir below the reactor, which will require them to wade through radioactive water that is getting steadily hotter. Alexey initially refuses to go on the mission. However, when he finds that Alex has become very sick from radiation exposure, he decides to embark on the deadly mission.
Chernobyl 1986 Ending: Is Alexey Dead?
Along with the engineer Valera and the military diver Boris, Alexey enters the collapsing reactor building, only to have their mission fail and leaving Boris fatally exposed to radiation. Valera then decides to embark on an even more dangerous mission to open the reservoir sluices manually, for which Alexey joins him. Though the two succeed in opening the underwater valve, they are unable to resurface.
Olga then finds Alexey in the hospital, badly burnt from radiation, and hugs him despite being told that he is contaminated and that it is hazardous to go close to him. We then see her three months later, waiting on an airstrip for her son Alex to return from Switzerland, where he has undergone treatment for radiation poisoning. In the closing scenes of the movie, Alex emerges looking weak and without any hair on his head — but being able to stand up — and embraces his mother.
The film closes with the mother wordlessly embracing her son without giving audiences any clue as to the fate of the man she is seen hugging in the previous scene. The last that we see Alexey he is badly disfigured from the extended time he spent in the hot, radioactive water trying to open the valve and then attempting to save Valera. As the nurse mentions to Olga, his radiation poisoning is so severe that he is at risk of contaminating others. As is the case with so many of his colleagues and rescue workers, we can be almost certain that Alexey succumbs to the radioactive exposure and dies.
Why Do Alexey and Valera Go Back Into the Reactor?
The mission that Alexey, Valera, and the others first embark on to get power back into the reactor and drain the reservoir is so dangerous that they cannot get themselves to ask others to volunteer for such a dangerous mission. Things are even more complicated because the mission involves being submerged in hot, radioactive water. Despite Alexey, Valera, and Boris succeeding in linking an external power cable to the conduit, the reactor is unable to draw power, and the mission fails despite their heroic efforts and Boris’ sacrifice.
We then see the armed forces and “liquidators” being brought in to attempt to drain the reservoir, but Valera, who knows the reactor well, is not sure that they will succeed and decides to go in and attempt the much more dangerous procedure of opening the reservoir valve by hand. Alexey eventually decides to go back in with him, possibly realizing that if he doesn’t go along, the mission might fail (which turns out to be true!)
Valera also mentions that there are no other volunteers brave enough to go with him, making Alexey’s role in the mission all the more important. Lastly, the fact that Alexey is the one that motivates Valera to continue with the earlier mission when the latter gets cold feet (and now seeing Valera take on the massive responsibility of going into the reactor again) most likely pushes him further to join the engineer in what seems to be a suicide mission.
Do Olga and Her Son Alex Survive?
In the film’s closing scenes, we see Olga and her son embrace after the latter’s return from receiving treatment in Switzerland for radiation poisoning. Having been left on a stretcher, the fact that the young boy is now walking seems to convey that he is healthier than before. However, he is as emaciated as before and still doesn’t have any hair on his head, meaning that he is still suffering from the effects of the radiation. Considering he was standing next to the power plant when it exploded, young Alex has most likely received a significant blast of nuclear radiation that will continue to harm him for the rest of his life. Though not explicitly stated, he is most likely suffering from an advanced stage of cancer and might tragically die in the near future.
His mother Olga’s fate is more mysterious. In the previous scene, we see her take off all her protective gear and embrace Alexey, who is heavily contaminated by nuclear radiation. So severe is his state that the nurse warns Olga that it is dangerous to go too close to him, much less hug him without protective gear, which is what she does. There is no doubt that Olga faces radiation poisoning from this encounter. The effects of her radiation poisoning remain unknown and difficult to pinpoint because, as stated earlier by a doctor, nuclear radiation affects different people differently. Therefore, Olga might live on for many years with relatively minor ill-effects from the exposure.
Why Does Olga Take Off Her Radiation Suit Before Hugging Alexey?
Perhaps more telling about the fate of our heroine Olga is not the extent of her contamination but why she purposely gets exposed to it in the first place. We see her very deliberately take off all her protective gear and lie down with her arms around Alexey, who, even in his moribund state, seems surprised at her actions.
One explanation for this seems to be Olga’s undying love for Alexey that she has so far kept largely hidden because of how he has hurt her every time she has trusted him. Even when they meet at the beginning of the movie, she is exceedingly distant towards him despite their history. However, we see sparks of true love between them throughout the film, and near the end, she finally breaks down and asks him why he left them (her and Alex) all those years ago.
Olga’s silent love for the dying firefighter might be so strong that seeing him on his deathbed makes her disregard her own fate and risk getting exposed to fatal levels of radiation. Additionally, at the time when she embraces Alexey, she does not know whether her son (who is being treated in Switzerland) will survive or not. The fact that the two people she loves most (Alex and Alexey) both seem to be on their deathbed possibly also drives her to not caring about whether she lives or dies.
What Happens to Engineer Valera?
Engineer Valera, who embarks on the second mission with Alexey, perishes in the murky radioactive water shortly after the valve is opened and a second disaster is averted. From being too scared to continue with the first mission, the engineer has come a long way and seems to have made his peace with death multiple times before finally perishing.
Whilst recovering in the hospital after the first mission, we see Valera’s mother crying because he has informed her of his decision to go under the reactor again in an attempt to open the valve. He says to Alexey that he understands that it is a suicide mission and that he wishes to undertake it anyway. As his final act, he severs the cord connecting him to the firefighter when he realizes that he will not make it back to the surface and perishes after saving countless lives.
What Causes the Explosion?
The reason for the nuclear reactor explosion is hinted at multiple times in the movie but is never specifically discussed and is left enigmatically vague. When Alexey finally asks Valera in private why the explosion occurred, he simply replies, “People.” This hints at the explosion being caused due to oversight or mismanagement at the nuclear facility, which led to the tragic disaster.
Additionally, high-level corruption is also hinted at when it is revealed that part of the concrete flooring near the reactor was actually made from metal sheets instead of reinforced concrete in order to meet construction deadlines. The case for corruption being at least partly responsible is further supported when one of the engineers, upon being told to silently listen to the government officials as they berate him for the accident, stands up to his boss and says that he will not remain silent. He says that he will not hide the fact that it is because of corruption that the reactor was “built to explode,” to which his boss chides him and says that corruption is like radiation: “Invisible, ever-present, and everlasting.”
Read More: Is Chernobyl 1986 Based on a True Story?