Chernobyl: The Real Stories Behind HBO’s Characters

The Chernobyl accident is on everybody's lips, thanks to the Chernobyl mini-series. HBO's original show reveals the story of the dreadful night that happened in Ukraine, the Soviet Union 34 years ago - on April 26, 1986. 

«What is the cost of lies?» - this is a question the writers of Chernobyl tried to answer while sharing the most chilling and thought-provoking story. But how much of a difference is there between the real people and the characters of the HBO series? What happened to those who stayed alive after the end of the events in the show? And what challenges did the actors face in portraying witnesses of the nuclear disaster?

In this article, we found out what happened to those people in real life: who have survived the Chernobyl and how they are living now. Chernobyl in 2019 is still a very radioactive zone, which is forbidden to visit without special permission.

Boris Shcherbina (portrayed by Stellan Skarsgard)

There were many people who were in denial of what was happening at Chernobyl. Stellan Skarsgard plays Boris Shcherbina, who was the Deputy Prime Minister in the Soviet Union who got Legasov to investigate the disaster. Shcherbina wanted to downplay the situation at first, and then something changed. 

Getty Images

Getty Images

Skarsgard talked about what it was like portraying that journey. For the actor, this was an interesting arc to play because in real life most people don’t change their minds about anything, unfortunately. But Boris did and that’s an important part of the story. Stellan was fascinated with the quality of the script for the series and agreed to the role the minute he finished reading it. He liked how the script was not sentimentalizing the story.

He said: "It was not trying to put strength and sugar on everything. It’s very, very well written."

But there was one more reason the actor wanted to join the show. He wanted to work with Emily Watson again, whom he hasn’t worked with since they both did Breaking the Waves, some 20 years ago.

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Getty Images

The Swedish actor actually remembers the Nuclear disaster pretty well. He shared in an interview that back in 1986 he was in Sweden. He remembers the shock when they had so much downfall in Sweden. For years, they could not eat berries, or mushrooms, or reindeer meat from Northern Sweden. 

Actually, Chernobyl wasn’t the only disaster Shcherbina worked on, as only two years after the disaster, the debutant played a similar role following the 1988 Armenian earthquake. He died in Moscow two years after that.

Anatoly Dyatlov (portrayed by Paul Ritter)

Paul Ritter plays deputy chief-engineer of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Anatoly Dyatlov. Despite absorbing a near-deadly dose of radiation - which causes death in 50% of affected persons after 30 days - he survived. Anatoly attributed the disaster to the plant's poor design, rather than human error. Although it was later reported that he threatened some of the power plant workers with job termination if they did not carry out the test that night. 

As we remember from the show, the year after the disaster, he was found guilty of criminal negligence and was sentenced to ten years in prison. But that is not the end of his story. In real life, Dyatlov was granted amnesty after serving four years in prison, due to his poor health. 

Prior to his death, he wrote a book, saying he was a scapegoat and blaming the bad design of the reactor. It was later found that he threatened to sack staff if they didn't comply - but this could be a reflection of the pressure on him from his superiors.

There is an interview that was carried out with him one year before his death, where he reflects on that dreadful night shift. And we need to give the HBO series credit, as the story he tells in this interview is practically a word for word match for is shown in the series. What is especially interesting, is the moment when Dyatlov tries to justify his absence during the fateful minutes before the explosion. 

Despite the radiation, Anatoly lived to be 64 years old and died of heart failure in 1995. 

The people on the bridge of Death 

While the firefighters bravely fought the blaze, a group of Pripyat locals gathered on a railway bridge to get a better view of the colorful flames from the explosion. In the scene, a large group of men, women, and young children are seen chatting and laughing on the bridge as the faint sounds of sirens carry on in the background. 

It’s a haunting scene – but what happened to the people on the bridge, according to Chernobyl, is even more harrowing. In fact, today, the bridge is widely known as ‘The Bridge of Death’. But while it’s often been reported that everyone who visited the bridge that night passed away, others have dismissed the claims as simply an urban myth.

Although it is known that people did in fact line up to see the fire from the bridge, it’s unclear whether those people on the bridge developed acute radiation syndrome as a result or if they suffered from other health problems such as cancer years down the line.

Pasha Kondratiev was one of the many people who watched the fire from the bridge that fateful night alongside his wife Natasha and their daughters, 12-year-old Tatiana and 10-year-old Marina. 

“I could see the ruins of the reactor. It was completely destroyed and there was a cloud of smoke coming from it," - he said.

Two years after the Chernobyl disaster, the couple's daughter, Tatiana, became asthmatic. Several years later, at age 19, she collapsed in the street in Slavutych and died. Kondratiev, who started work at the plant over 30 years ago, still works at Chernobyl on checking radiation measuring equipment.

irishroadrunner / CC BY 2.0 /

irishroadrunner / CC BY 2.0 /

Valery Legasov (portrayed by Jared Harris)

For Jared Harris, who played Soviet nuclear physicist and "hero" Valery Legasov, this role was definitely a daunting task. He had to portray a leading nuclear physicist who was brought in to help after the explosion and was the first to grasp the enormity of the disaster.

Getty Images

Getty Images

Harris had a hard time while exploring nuclear theory. He jokes that at the beginning, the only thing that connected him to the character was his experience of hardcore drinking. Legasov was the person that really understood the reality of how bad the situation could get… and he was the smartest person in the room, but nobody listened to him. 

The actor shared that for the real person, to make all those decisions was especially hard because everything that you did come with the risk of a different knock-on risk. Although in real life Legasov was not alone in making his decisions. Legasov was supported by dozens of scientists who worked alongside him to expose what had happened. Some spoke out against the official account and were subject to denunciation, arrest, and imprisonment. 

While the series does not feature all of them, it created another character, Ulana Khomyuk, to represent them all. What the HBO series did not show, is that Legasov initially attempted suicide in 1987, probably because of being pressured into lying in the official report of the incident. But was found dead in his apartment a year later, the day before he was due to present the results to the politburo. Legasov's gun was found on his table, but the scientist ultimately preferred to use a climber's rope.

There is information that a section of Legasov recording was deliberately deleted shortly after his death - just like in the opening scene of the first episode of the show. But did the actor listen to any of them to prepare for the scene? Jared revealed that there weren't actually audiotapes. Legasov left behind journals. But that was not as cinematic as audiotapes... so the scriptwriter changed it.

In fact, there was too little to know about the real person, as Soviet Authorities basically erased Legasov from history. The actor shared that one of the scariest things during the filming was being on the set of the real Nuclear plant in Lithuania. 

As the actors literally had to act while being surrounded by machine guns. This was a security measure as workers of the Plant were still taking the radioactive material out of it, despite the fact the Plant itself was officially closed in 2009.

Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, Lithuania / Schyll /  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 /

Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, Lithuania / Schyll / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 /

The Divers

One of the most chilling moments in Chernobyl was when three volunteer divers, who opened the gates and prevented the catastrophic nuclear meltdown. While in series they died soon after, it turns out that all three survived after being hospitalized, and two of them are alive today. 

Although the divers recall that their decision to open the gates was not voluntary at all, they were actually obeying order and doing their jobs. And they did not even expect any sort of reward back then! Years after the tragedy, one of the divers, Ananenko, was almost killed by the car while he was crossing the road. After that, the legendary diver was in a coma for several months. He is now retired and is struggling with his health.

The fireman Vasily Ignatenko and his wife

Vasily Ignatenko was a senior sergeant fireman who was part of the first crew to attack the blaze on the reactor roof at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. As he attempted to extinguish fires on the roof and in the reactor core, he was exposed to an overwhelming amount of radiation. 

As it is shown in the series, he died two weeks after the disaster in Moscow Hospital. In real life, his pregnant wife Lyudmilla actually took care of not only her husband but also of other decomposing firefighters - as other nurses didn't want to approach them. Their baby girl Natasha died of cirrhosis and congenital heart disease four hours after her birth. 

In another scene, we see Lyudmilla holding Vasily's shoes at his funeral - this was revealed to be because the firefighter was buried barefoot, as no shoes would fit him because of the effects of the radiation. HBO has been commended for keeping it as close to real life as possible. The couple had only just gotten married when the tragedy at Chernobyl took place. 

Lyudmila told in the book Voices of Chernobyl that they were newlyweds, who still walked around holding hands. Lyudmila's whole life revolves around those terrible days after the Chernobyl accident. Though after Chernobyl, Lyudmila’s life has become far scarier than what is depicted in the series. 

A few years after the explosion, Lyudmila gave birth to a son, Tolya. She thought it was a blessing, as doctors told her this would not be possible. From the very beginning, the boy had asthma and he's been collecting disability ever since. Long-lasting therapy brought some positive results and the boy finally was able to walk and his asthma attacks became slightly less severe. 

Lyudmila later experienced a micro stroke and underwent several operations. She confessed that "Everybody has forgotten about us" and she never received any financial support from special Chernobyl organizations. After years, Lyudmila finally received a two-room apartment in one of the 20 “Chernobyl” houses in Kyiv. Today Lyudmila still lives in her homeland. She tries to make money wherever possible, working as a seller on the local market. Unfortunately, her job only results in more hospital visits.

Kyiv / Eugene / Unsplash

Kyiv / Eugene / Unsplash

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