In one of the most frightening moments from the first episode of the television series “Chernobyl,” three workers at the nuclear power plant open the emergency door to the room where the reactor lies and see hell yawning before them. Their friend, meanwhile, is bleeding to death outside the door. Most of their colleagues had no chance of surviving.
In 1986, the meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor released the nuclear genie from its bottle and made clear to the world how dangerous the peaceful use of atomic energy could be. HBO’s 2019 series breached the wall of secrets, lies, unsettled accounts, accusations and propaganda from the past. It’s a real flashback to the Cold War – assuming we can talk about that in the past tense.
But no less important, the series roused memories – a lot of difficult memories that had been buried for three decades somewhere in the basement of the post-Soviet consciousness. Granted, there had been films, articles and investigative reports, and the media marked the day of the explosion in some fashion every year. But the issue never aroused real public interest, and unlike other dates in Soviet history – such as the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany – April 26 never achieved symbolic or mythic status.
“Chernobyl”changed all that. On Facebook, accounts of people who lived within a hundred-kilometer radius of the reactor emerged, full of memories: the fear, the lack of knowledge, the radioactive rain that painted the streets all the colors of the rainbow, the panic, the rush to self-evacuate. There was even a story of how someone was miraculously spared from being dispatched to “the zone” – the area within 30 kilometers of the reactor. Suddenly, the collective trauma has reemerged.
Like a number on the arm
“As soon as I heard that HBO had made a series, I began to cry,” says Michal, who asked that her real name not be used. She was born in Kiev eight months before the disaster and immigrated to Israel as a child. “When I read reviews, I also cry,” she says.
A few years ago, after giving birth, Michal discovered a cancerous growth in her thyroid – a common phenomenon among people exposed to radioactivity as children. She recalls that “when I told the doctors I’m from Kiev, they said, ‘Oh, why didn’t you say so right away?’”
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She underwent an operation and radiation therapy and has since recovered. But the memories remain.
“It’s still very hard for me,” she says. “What’s most difficult is that the people involved weren’t punished. I was a baby and my mother saw cars packed with belongings leaving Kiev and didn’t understand why. That was about two days after the explosion.
“We never sunbathed, we didn’t eat snow. I was afraid of clouds. It wasn’t justified, of course, but to me, everything seemed radioactive.”
“There’s no such term as ‘first-generation Chernobyl,’ and there should be,” says Michal. “Not long ago I met a friend. He pointed to the scar on my neck [from the operation] and said, ‘Have you seen “Chernobyl” yet?’
“It’s like a number on your arm. I’m exaggerating a little, but you know what I mean. Because none of those creatures ever paid for this terrible tragedy, just as nobody paid for the gulags.”
Thousands of people who lived in the affected areas – mainly in Ukraine and Belarus – at the time of the explosion are in Israel today. More than 1,300 Israelis have been recognized as Chernobyl Disaster Neutralizers, meaning those who helped contain the disaster. In the Soviet Union, they were known as liquidators.
When I called to speak with some of them, I was ashamed that I hadn’t covered this issue before “Chernobyl” aired. Journalistic coverage of the disaster turns out to be another side effect of the series.
But the liquidators didn’t hold a grudge. Most of them seemed happy to finally tell their stories, even after 30 years.
“When I got out of the army at age 20, I wanted to tell the girls, and also the guys, to boast a little,” says Lev Klotz, today a musical producer who lives in Moshav Givati. “But it didn’t interest anyone. Apparently, that’s how people are made. And it’s strange, because if it we hadn’t neutralized the disaster, it would have been the end of Europe. At least, that’s what they said.”
‘Nobody explained anything to us’
In April 1986, Klotz was an 18-year-old soldier who had just been drafted into the Soviet Army. He had barely finished his training at an engineering corps base when he was sent to the disaster zone.
“Not only did they not explain anything to us –obviously, after all, it’s the army and we were sent under orders – but they also didn’t prepare us for what awaited us there,” he says. “We were kids. We came and ran around there. We ate whatever came to hand, we drank water from the well. Nobody explained anything to us.”
Klotz and his comrades, who arrived to the area on May 2, six days after the explosion, were housed at a base 32 kilometers from the reactor. But almost every day, they entered the disaster area with their engineering vehicles to clear the debris next to the power station itself.
That was the second line of defense of containing the disaster. The first line of defense were the people at the plant when the explosion occurred and the firefighters who put out the fire. As the series shows, few of them survived.
By the time their mission ended about a month later, Klotz and his comrades had absorbed, according to the official count, the maximum permitted amount of radiation: 25 rems. In reality, he said, they had absorbed dozens of times that amount.
The soldiers were sent to recover at a Kiev hospital for a time, and then they returned to their army jobs. The hospital treatment consisted mainly of giving them vitamins, Klotz says. Only a few years later, when he immigrated to Israel, did he undergo thorough testing and treatment that included multiple blood transfusions.
“I’m 52 years old. I don’t have a hair on my head and my teeth are dentures – they fell out at age 22. But aside from that I’m healthy, knock on wood,” he says.
“We got up at 4 A.M.,” he recalls. “We would wear hazmat suits and gas masks, enter the zone in a giant column – about 200 heavy vehicles and trucks – and do our work amid all this shit, excuse my language, for four hours. We would sit in armored engineering vehicles built on a tank frame, hermetically sealed, in the heat of Ukraine in May, and of course it was forbidden to open the turret even for a second.”
Klotz was demobilized from the army with two medals: one for participating in the containment of the disaster and the second for an act of personal heroism.
“I don’t want to explain what I got the second medal for,” he says. “Those people, my comrades, are no longer alive. One died immediately after the army and the second 10 years later – a horrible death, a lot of suffering. I think that maybe if I hadn’t saved them then, they would have died immediately, without suffering so much.”
He said the HBO series was “excellent. It’s clear they added some things; otherwise, it wouldn’t get watched, just like a war film. Clearly you have to fill it with artistic significance, add a little imagination. In life, everything is more boring. In any case, you also have to market the series.
“But it was done with great tact; it’s all reasonable. There are no lies or distorted facts. There are things that go unsaid, but some very important things are said. Since then, several generations of people have grown up who don’t know anything about the disaster. I would guess that for them, this is a shock.”
“Chernobyl” sparked as much of a storm in the Russian media as it did on social media. Overall, the state media and outlets supportive of the Kremlin invested major efforts in challenging the series’ credibility, among other things through the testimony of liquidators. Bloggers and opposition media returned fire by attacking the attackers.
For instance, the state-owned channel Russia 24 devoted a 20-minute program to alleged inaccuracies in the series. But it later turned out that one of the main claims raised by anchor Stanislav Natanzon wasn’t true.
Natanzon was adamant that nobody prevented Prof. Valery Legasov, the series’ protagonist , from publishing his opinions about the Chernobyl disaster. He insisted that nobody forced him to record his thoughts and memories in the dark and hide them from the KGB. As evidence, he presented a photograph of an article about Chernobyl written by Legasov and published in the newspaper Pravda.
But it turned out the article was published after Legasov committed suicide, based on his recordings. His numerous efforts to publish his ideas while he was alive went nowhere.
Some of the liquidators did note inaccuracies in the series. One is Vladimir Asmolov, a former colleague of Legasov’s and one of the people at the power plant after the disaster who worked to contain its aftermath. He insisted in interviews that Legasov’s report to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna – which he contributed to – was “the truth and nothing but the truth.”
In contrast, “Chernobyl” says the Soviets downplayed the flaw in the reactor itself and put too much blame on the mistakes of the operators. An IAEA report published several years after the disaster confirms the series’ version of events.
There were also some liquidators who changed their tone depending on which media outlet was interviewing them. Gen. Nikolai Tarakanov was in charge of the soldiers who removed radioactive material from the roof of the power plant. In the series, his character tells the soldiers under his command that this is the most important 90 seconds of their lives. He then orders them to climb the roof, do their work and return as soon as possible so as not to absorb critical levels of radiation.
In an interview with the independent television station Dozhd, Tarakanov said the series was “brilliant.” But in an interview with the state-owned channel NTV, he voiced reservations.
In any case, work has already begun on a Russian version of the story. According to the director, it will be more faithful to reality – and to Russian conspiracy theories.
Anatoliy Khodus (Sharipov), the chairman of the association of Chernobyl liquidators in the town of Kiryat Gat, also has complaints about some details of the series. For instance, he says, there were no armed soldiers on the grounds of the power plant itself; rather, they were stationed around the grounds and around the 30-kilometer radius, to prevent looting.
Khodus, who was already 36 when the disaster occurred, arrived as a reservist after receiving an emergency call-up order. He helped clear radioactive graphite from the plant’s roof and took part in the effort to clean up its dining room.
“We cleaned the station,” he says. “We washed it for several days, we scrubbed it down to the concrete. But when we returned the next day, the radiation was there again.”
He recalls the effort to clean up the surrounding villages.
“There were small villages there where very old people lived, and they weren’t willing to move,” he remembers. “They said, ‘We’ve already seen this radiation of yours in ‘82.’ Because there was a radiation leak in 1982 as well. ‘We’re not moving from here,’ they said. So we cleaned their wells, we built drainage pipes. There were cows there, so there was humus, which is like sponge. We got rid of that too.
“They wanted to invite us for borscht with nettles, but the commander said, ‘Don’t you dare.’ Because it was forbidden to eat anything there.”
After Khodus returned to his hometown in Ukraine’s Donetsk region about two and a half months later, he started feeling ill. He was hospitalized and was recognized as disabled shortly thereafter. He never returned to his position in the armored glass factory, where he worked before the disaster. Two hundred eighty three people from his city died after participating in the clean up of the disaster. Many of those who survived suffer from a range of illnesses.
Today, the city is near the frontline in the war between the Ukrainian army and the Russian separatists. “There is no medicine, no treatment,” Khodus says bitterly after a recent visit. “The liquidators are barely surviving.”
Like Khodus, Nikolay Nesterenko was also sent to Chernobyl as part of his military reserve duty. At first, the soldiers were not told about the reason for the call-up. “They said at the beginning that they were taking us for training,” he says. “After that, they said Chernobyl. We made a ruckus. Then they told us: ‘By all means, you want to be court-martialed? No problem. After all, you are required to do military service.’”
Nesterenko spent a month and a half in the Chernobyl area in the autumn of 1986. He evacuated liquidators who worked right next to the nuclear plant to a hospital that was also located nearby, within the zone. “That they treated them there, that’s what’s strange,” he says.
When Nesterenko went home to Zaporizhia, in southeastern Ukraine, he started suffering from heart problems. In Israel, like other liquidators recognized by the government, he receives a yearly allowance of 5,700 shekels ($1,590) and at age 62 continues to work as a welder.
No way out
Yelena Artyomenko lived in Kiev with her whole family when the disaster occurred. She had a 12-year-old daughter and had given birth to a son two months earlier. She remembers in horror how her friend called her and said, “We need to do something, Chernobyl blew up.”
Artyomenko, who today lives in Haifa, remembers that on April 30 there were television reports of a fire at the power plant in Chernobyl, but the Ukrainian health minister calmed residents down and said they could go outside with their children. On May 1, International Workers’ Day, the authorities went ahead with the annual demonstration and did not inform anyone of the excessive and dangerous dosages of radiation in the streets. Schoolchildren drew with chalk on the asphalt under the blazing sun.
But the rumors had already begun to spread. One was that the members of the Communist Party of Ukraine’s central committee had rushed to evacuate their children from the city. The panic began. “A girlfriend of mine worked in the institute of nuclear physics, they had a small nuclear reactor for research purposes and they had a radiometer [to measure radiation] there. She warned me the meter had reached the end of the scale. My mother just happened to be outside with the baby carriage. I made a fuss, she came back,” says Artyomenko.
For two weeks Artyomenko tried to leave the city with her children. They had relatives and friends at different ends of Ukraine and also in Moscow, but they were not allowed to buy tickets to anywhere. “My mother went to the train station, came back and said: ‘People are hanging on the train cars like during the [evacuation] in World War II. You won’t be able to get in there.’”
Artyomenko obtained a map of the radioactive pollution in the city – in absolute secrecy, of course. “We knew that it was forbidden to go to this playground, for example,” she remembers. I ask her if these measurements were published anywhere. “Of course not. No one knew.”
“The whole time it was stress, fear, and terror that doesn’t let you rest. To this day it hangs over me and pulls me down to the ground,” she says.
Michal says the series has had a therapeutic affect on her. “I really cried during the part when the main character gives the secretary iodine and tells her about thyroid cancer. This anti-Sovietness is a delight for me,” she says with a laugh. “I really feel part of it. Finally, people want to talk to me about my illnesses. You almost can’t see the scar. If they could see it, I would be a star.”