8 Historical Inaccuracies In HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ All History Buffs Should Know

8 Historical Inaccuracies In HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ All History Buffs Should Know

By: Oliver G. Alvar -

'Chernobyl' might be one of the best TV shows ever, but it's not without its flaws. Here are 8 historical inaccuracies in HBO's miniseries all true history buffs should be aware of.

HBO's new series about the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant is as exhilarating as it is haunting. Johan Reck's direction and Craig Mazin's writing do a great job at capturing a terrifying and tense atmosphere few movies or shows can achieve, as they manage to keep you on the edge of your seat staring at the screen in utter disbelief. And the whole thing is made even more powerful by the fact that what you're seeing on screen actually happened—for the most part.

But, a TV show being what it is, Chernobyl is not without its inaccuracies. It's a series, after all, not a documentary. Still, many have praised the realistic depiction of the incident perhaps a bit beyond what it deserves, so we should set the record straight. Some details are minor, others are more significant: here are 8 historical inaccuracies in HBO's Chernobyl that all true history buffs should be aware of.

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Ulana Khomyuk didn't actually exist

Let's start with an easy one. As the show itself lets you know by the final episode, Emily Watson's  character didn't really exist: she's a composite creation meant to represent many actual scientists who worked with Legasov at the time. That's a real shame, though: she was one of the most badass characters in the show, and it would've been awesome if she had been real.

The final trial was very different in real life

Surprise, surprise: Legasov's shining moment in the final episode's fateful trial didn't go down as depicted in the show. So, you're saying a Soviet scientist didn't actually use modern American values, ideals, and thoughts to criticize his own country? What a shocker. 

Though Legasov was in fact critical of his government's role in the disaster and the subsequent cover-up, he would never really use Hollywood-like freedom speeches to get his point across. Still, Craig Mazin, Chernobyl's writer, claimed the scene was inspired by the real events that surrounded the actual trial, though it was compressed and a little embellished for the show. Legasov wasn't even present there in real life, and the trial itself involved a weeks-long examination of every minute detail that had gone down during the accident and afterwards, with many people appearing and testifying—people the show could never have possibly introduced properly. So, it's just as well that we got more a summary than a literal depiction here.

8 historical inaccuracies in hbo chernobyl

The steam explosion averted by three heroic divers would not have been so devastating

Much of the tension from the second episode comes from the fear that a steam explosion was imminent as soon as the core meltdown reached the groundwater underneath. That's what brought Ulana Khomyuk into the lives of the main characters, after all—she warned Legasov of the approaching danger and miscalculations that led Legasov to neglect it. Khomyuk claims that the follow-up explosion would involve a force of 2 to 4 megatons, wiping out Kiev and most of Minsk in the process. The radiation released by that secondary incident would also devastate much of the continent, carrying a lethal cloud all across Soviet Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and most of East Germany.

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Unfortunately, there was nothing as dramatic brewing after the initial catastrophe. Though it was technically possible that would happen, it wasn't really a likely scenario, as Jan Haverkamp, a senior nuclear energy expert, points out. If all of the melting core were to hit groundwater at once, then yes, it's plausible an unprecedented radiation leak would damage most of Europe. But since core meltdowns happen very unevenly, that would not have really been a worry. Also, the 2-to-4 megaton range seems to have been a gross exaggeration. 

Legasov recorded a suicide note in real life, but it wasn't quite as the show depicts it

As you might have imagined, Legasov's suicide recordings never really asked "What is the cost of lies?" nor did he answer with the dramatic line "It's not that we'll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that we'll hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all." It's pretty clear that it all was creative license on the part of the writers—Legasov was far from a Hollywood writer to be interested in talking like that. There are also some other details that seemed to have been romanticized for the show. He didn't actually die exactly on the two-year anniversary of the accident, but a bit later. A minor detail, sure, but worth mentioning. 

8 historical inaccuracies in hbo chernobyl

The Soviet Union didn't really use threats of summary executions by the 1980s anymore 

Now, this one's is a bit more problematic than the previous. In the show, we're led to understand that the Soviet Union in the 1980s was such a totalitarian regime that anyone living there would have feared getting a bullet to the head if they said the wrong thing. People are constantly being threatened to shut up or be killed, and the KGB is depicted as this super-powerful organization that would lock you up at the first sign of dissidence. "Fly over the reactor or I'll have you thrown off the helicopter." "Keep quiet or I'll have you shot." We're even led to believe that Legasov was only spared for being a public figure who spoke in Vienna—which would make his execution "embarrassing." Wow, that's a harsh mentality.

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We're used to Western depictions of the Soviet Union to be like that, so we hardly ever question them. And it also adds a ton more of dramatic tension when we think the government can have anyone killed at any moment for saying the wrong thing. But in reality, as far as we (and the showrunners) know, by the 1980s summary executions were hardly the rule anymore in the USSR. They were at one time, though—especially under Stalin.

The helicopter crash did happen, but weeks later than depicted—and it was not caused by what you probably think

Another rather dramatic moment on the show occurred when the helicopter carrying the desperately-needed cargo to secure the breach suddenly plummeted down into the ground as it got too close to the violent radioactive fumes. It was unnerving and exciting to watch, but it could prove misleading. 

First, though that crash did actually happen, in reality, it occurred several weeks later. That might seem like a minor detail, but the atmosphere of sheer tension and desperation from the early days following the incident would've been very different by then. Second, many viewers seem to have interpreted that what directly caused the crash was the fact that the pilot got too close to the high levels of radiation coming up from the exposed nuclear core. 

This interpretation is further fueled by the constant talk during the show's episode that radiation can severely interfere with electronics. But that's not what actually happened. If you look closely at the episode's footage, the helicopter's blades hit a cable from a crane, immediately destroying the vehicle's means of propulsion—causing it to plummet. That's how it was in real life, so the show doesn't actually show the wrong thing. It's just the dialogue that can be misleading. 

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The Bridge of Death might not have been as lethal as the show claims

Again, it really makes for great nightmarish drama to think that the catastrophe was so lethal that any nearby witness would have suffered a terrifying death soon after—even those watching from what was later called "the Bridge of Death." The show would really have us believe that everyone on that bridge not only died, but died horribly (just look at their physical state when we encounter them later in the hospital).

But many scholars around the world dispute just how deadly that bridge actually was. In fact, there's no real evidence that the people standing there that night died from radiation exposure—let alone soon afterward. They certainly would not have suffered similar fates to the firefighters who were standing right in the middle of things. There's actually evidence to the contrary. For his book, Midnight in Chernobyl, author Adam Higginbotham has recently said that he spoke to a survivor who witnessed the incident from that very bridge when he was just about 7 or 8. All these years later, the witness was not only still alive—but perfectly healthy as well.

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Comrades galore

Columnist Leonid Bershidsky recently wrote an opinion piece for The Moscow Times about HBO's stellar drama. He points out that the show would've benefited if it had been done by people who, like him, actually lived in the Soviet Union at the time, specifying that among the things Chernobyl got wrong was the very Americanized depiction of colloquial speech. More specifically, "Soviet people in 1986 didn’t go calling each other 'comrade' except at Communist Party meetings."

Mazin himself said he didn't want to go down this route in the first place. He acknowledges it felt too "Westernized" to have everyone address the rest as "comrade" all the time. But apparently, when he presented the script for inaccuracies and corrections to a woman who lived through the period, she told him that's how people talked to each other most of the time. So, who knows, perhaps it was different in different regions.

8 historical inaccuracies in hbo chernobyl

Whatever these inaccuracies amount to, Chernobyl is still a pretty accurate depiction for a TV show, especially when you compare it with other "historical" series (I'm looking at you, The Tudors). But even if it were more inaccurate than it is, the sheer talent involved in the show, from the writing to the acting,  makes it a great piece of TV history in and of itself.

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