Is Chernobyl historically accurate about the things that matter?

The HBO mini-series is painstakingly accurate about certain historical details, but also takes a number of narrative liberties

Jared Harris.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Liam Daniel/HBO, AP Photo)

"We live in a time where people seem to be re-embracing the corrosive notion that what we want to be true is more important than what is true," Craig Mazin, the writer and creator of HBO's Chernobyl, told the Moscow Times; "This is why this story is more relevant than ever." And in many ways, his show is unbelievably painstaking in its fidelity to historical truth: Most of the actors play real people — saying and doing the things they are reported to have said and done — while everything from the graphite debris to the buckets used to take out the trash are scrupulous reproductions of the real thing. Entire scenes and storylines are lifted directly from Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.

However, like Nobel laureate Alexievich — whose work is less oral history or journalism than a kind of creative adaptation of both — the show alters, omits, condenses, and even invents much more than viewers might realize. The show's main protagonist, Valery Legasov, was a real person, and he really did do most — or at least many — of the things that we see actor Jared Harris doing: leading the disaster recovery effort, spearheading a much more open (and critical) account of Soviet nuclear science, and wearing those blocky, unflattering glasses. But although he dictated a suicide note almost exactly two years after the disaster — albeit not exactly on the anniversary, as the opening prologue of the miniseries shows him doing — he never asked "What is the cost of lies?" nor dramatically answered that "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."

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up
To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us
Aaron Bady

Aaron Bady is a founding editor at Popula. He was an editor at The New Inquiry and his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, Pacific Standard, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. He lives in Oakland, California.