The True Story Behind HBO’s Chernobyl, Explained

One of the perks that come with being a human is the innate ability to f**k things up. We are the creators of our own problems and when they escalate beyond control, we, ourselves, have to pay the price. Our own pursuits fire back at us with the incidents like the catastrophe at the Chernobyl Power Plant disaster. If this is an alien topic for you, then you must be one of the worst students in the history of History classes. No worries, though! HBO is here to educate you. ‘Chernobyl’ is the series based on these horrifying true events. It is written by Craig Mazin, who is known for his work in ‘Identity Thief’, the second and third part of ‘The Hangover’, and ‘The Huntsman: Winter’s War’. Johan Renck serves as the director for the series. Mazin also takes the mantle of the executive producer, with Jane Featherstone and Carolyn Strauss sharing the title.

What Happened at Chernobyl?

Chernobyl is a city located on the Belarus-Ukraine border, known for its devastation after the accident at the nearby nuclear power plant. Located near the Ukraine-Belarus border is a small town named Pripyat, which was closest to the site of the No. 4 reactor of the Chernobyl Power Plant. On April 25, 1986, during one of the power failure tests the core of the reactor inadvertently exploded during the emergency its shutdown. As a result, the steam explosion and fires released at least 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the atmosphere and downwind.

Two Chernobyl plant workers died on the night of the accident, and a further 28 people died within a few weeks as a result of acute radiation poisoning. What actually happened there might be a bit difficult to understand, especially if you don’t have any prior scientific knowledge. The one thing that is easier to grasp is that the death count could have been reduced had proper measures been taken by the people higher up. Whenever a catastrophe occurs, it is majorly because the people in-charge buckle under the pressure and can’t do their job properly. HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ explains how the failure of humans was more harmful than the failure of the reactor itself.

Who Was Responsible For the Disaster?

As soon as the fire exploded, the firefighters were called on the scene. However, as some of them later claimed, they weren’t fully aware of the situation they were getting themselves into. They thought that it was just another case of a simple fire, most probably electrical. Lieutenant Volodymyr Pravik was at the helm of the firefighter brigade, who were the first responders on the scene. Unaware of the danger they were walking into, many of them saw their friends and co-workers walk into something that they never came out of. One of the root issues that emerged in the early hours of the disaster was the incapability of the government to own up to it because acknowledging you have a problem is the first step to finding a solution. Covering up is not the same as solving it. But the government officials didn’t have to pay the price for it. It was paid by the men who were sent to mitigate the thing that they didn’t have a proper idea of.


It wasn’t just the fire that killed these men. Those who didn’t die instantaneously had the misfortune of being exposed to the radiation. Most of the deaths happened after it all had settled down. More than 100 men were hospitalised because of the effects of the exposure, 28 of which died, which included both the firefighters and the staff of the plant. The death toll continued to tally even a decade after the disaster. The actual number of casualties isn’t accurately known because the effects of the radiation are still under scrutiny.

It isn’t that the authorities did nothing to save the people. Even before it had officially become a disaster, the Chernobyl Power Plant accident was anticipated to be a dangerous thing for the people in nearby towns like Chernobyl and Pripyat. A rapid evacuation helped them mitigate the disaster by not allowing more victims to it. Still, they didn’t quite succeed at it because nature had taken its course faster than their transportation. The radiation effect in the plant itself was estimated to be more than 20,000 roentgens per hour. Just so you know, the lethal bar is set at 500. Even if the effect fades with distance, it would still have been dangerous for the populace of the town. If you want to know what exposure of such radiation feels like, imagine being pinned with needles all over your body. This is the description given by people who have met this situation, with rarely any of them surviving it.

Who’s Playing Who?

The cast of the show includes some very decorated names in Hollywood. Jared Harris plays the role of Valery Legasov, the chief of a committee that was set up to look into the matter to find out what went wrong and who were the people responsible for it. Harris is one of the most reputed veteran actors, who has worked in a great number of movies and TV shows. He is also known for his extensive work in theatre. Some of his best-known works include ‘The Crown’, ‘Fringe’, ‘Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows’, ‘Lincoln’ and ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’.

Stellan Skarsgard plays the role of Boris Shcherbyna, who works alongside Legasov, making his presence felt even in the early hours of the tragedy. Skarsgard is known for a great number of roles, the best of whom include names like ‘The Hunt for Red October’, ‘Good Will Hunting’, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, ‘Avengers’ movies. He also played the lead role in BBC’s ‘River’, a story of a detective haunted by the death of his partner. Next, he is set to appear in Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated adaptation of ‘Dune’.

Emily Watson plays the role of Ulyana Khomyuk, another physicist who becomes a key character in figuring out the “where we went wrong” part, alongside Legasov and Shcherbyna. Watson is an Academy Award-nominated actress who is known for her roles in ‘Breaking the Waves’, ‘Hillary and Jackie’, ‘War Horse’, ‘Synecdoche, New York’, ‘Miss Potter’ and ‘Red Dragon’. She has also given a lot of her time to theatre, especially starring in the productions of Shakespearean plays.

Paul Ritter plays the role of Anatoly Dyatlov. Dyatlov was the man-in-charge of the experiment taking place at Chernobyl. He was the deputy chief engineer of the power plant and it was in his presence that things went so out of hand that the whole towns had to be displaced to save the people. Ritter has gained recognition for his role in films like ‘Quantum of Solace’, ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, ‘Their Finest’ and TV shows like ‘The Hollow Crown’, ‘Lovesick’ and ‘The Last Kingdom’.

Jessie Buckley plays the role of Lyudmila Ignatenko. With their husbands running off to put off a fire, the wives were left behind in apprehension, not knowing that this could very well be the last time they were saying goodbye to each other. Ignatenko was the wife of one of the firemen and the show takes her perspective into account, as well. Buckley is a young Irish actress, who has made her presence felt with her acting in shows like ‘War and Peace’, ‘Taboo’, ‘The Woman in White’ and ‘The Last Post’.

Adrian Rawlis plays the role of Nikolai Formin. Formin was the chief engineer at the power plant and felt responsible for the atrocity that fell upon everyone due to the disaster. He is shown a conflicted soul throughout the show, suffering from mental breakdown to the point where he tries to kill himself. Die-hard ‘Harry Potter’ fans might recognize Rawlins as James Potter, even though he made very few appearances in the film. He is also known for his roles in 1989’s ‘The Woman in Black’, ‘Breaking the Waves’, ‘Silent Witness’ and ‘Darkest Hour’.

Con O’Neill plays the character of Viktor Bryukhanov, who was the plant manager and the Director of the Chernobyl site. In the investigation and trial of the people responsible for Chernobyl disaster, he was found guilty and served a sentence, that might seem a bit light as compared to the blunder that happened under his watch.

Where can I watch Chernobyl Online?

Shot in Lithuania, ‘Chernobyl’ debuted on HBO on May 6, 2019. Keeping up with the good name of the channel, the show has garnered critical acclaim, with the praise directed towards acting and the cruelly accurate portrayal of the characters and their thought process in the face of such a devastating tragedy. It is a retelling of one of the worst disasters, which, to be honest, could have taken a lot worse shape. However, its importance resonates in the current time, making the viewers question the current predicament of the nuclear, and arms, race that the nations of this world are indulged in. You can watch the show on HBO Go. You can also watch the show on Amazon Prime. In Canada, ‘Chernobyl’ is available on Crave. In UK, you can watch ‘Chernobyl’ on Sky.  Catch the terrific trailer before you leave.

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