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What the Russian Media Thinks of HBO's 'Chernobyl'

"The producers probably think the audience are a bunch of illiterate, stupid idiots who won't ask any questions."

by Marianna Prysiazhniuk
20 June 2019, 11:09am

Sam Troughten and Paul Ritter, from HBO’s Chernobyl. (Photo: Liam Daniel for HBO/The Hollywood Archive)

This article originally appeared on VICE Romania.

The Russian government is doing everything it can to stop people in Russia from watching HBO's wildly popular miniseries Chernobyl about the 1986 nuclear disaster. Yet despite banning the show from being broadcast, millions of people in the country are still streaming it – to such an extent that some reports claim Chernobyl is having a tangible effect on what people believe about the causes and aftermath of the disaster.

You can understand why Putin isn't a big fan of the show. Chernobyl is heavily critical of the Russian authorities' attempts to cover up the extent of the damage and pretend everything was fine, while millions of tons of radioactive gas blanketed the nearby city of Pripyat. So now in response to the series, pro-Kremlin media are desperately trying to rewrite history.

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Leo Bocharov's quote in Sputnik.

The most common tactic is to claim full ownership of the history of the disaster by accusing "them" (read: Americans) of intruding on "our Chernobyl". This despite the fact that the nuclear plumes spread across large parts of Europe.

And to prove that the show wasn't true to life, the website Sputnik has published a piece titled, 'Chernobyl, their series on our catastrophe,' that includes an appeal to the collective memory not to "forget the Russian patriotism of the era". To support their argument, they've quoted Leo Bocharov, a former engineer at the nuclear plant. He says the disaster would have caused tragic consequences the world over had it not been for that patriotism. "What this film achieved was that it scared the world," Bocharov told Sputnik. "The truth is not found in its entirety in the film, and it seems that what they wanted to show was fear and terror."

Bocharov gives voice to one of the Kremlin's biggest criticisms of the show: That Chernobyl doesn't convey the actual level of heroism on the part of the people who cleaned up the area and contained the effects of the accident. Instead, the Russian media believe that the show almost solely focuses on the lies of the officials who were trying to save their own jobs by covering up the devastation. In other words: Europe should be grateful to Russia for saving it from the consequences of a disaster that Russia itself caused.

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Liquidators, civilians recruited to help deal with the disaster, criticise HBO's 'Chernobyl'.

There are also the accusations that the series leaves out important facts. A number of Russian journalists have interviewed Chernobyl liquidators – civilians who were recruited to help deal with the aftermath of the tragedy and help oversee the area's evacuation.

Many of these liquidators have claimed that HBO simply invented scenes that never occurred in real life. Liquidator Gennady Zatsepin from the Siberian town of Novosibirsk, who entered the nuclear exclusion area when he was 21 years old, told Russian site Lenta.ru that the series is only believable to those who weren't there because "it presents a shallow take on what actually happened". But Zatsepin does admit that the series realistically portrayed the atmosphere at the time. "By and large, I wouldn't say the film is excellent," he said. "I'd rate it 4 [out of 10]".

The series ends by blaming the Communist regime for causing the disaster in the first place, by blocking certain safety protocols and building the reactors on the cheap. Many TV anchors and op-eds have responded to this by accusing the American government of being behind a plot to rewrite Russian history. In an article on Life.ru calledd, 'They don't remember their own, but try to stir up others: Why the Americans produced Chernobyl,' one journalist wrote: "It's the same textbook propaganda about the so-called 'stupid Russians that ruin everything'".

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News agency RIA Novosti says the film is worth a watch, but adds that it contains “elements of American propaganda”

The Gazeta Express agreed. "The Americans have dealt yet another brilliant strike of propaganda. They shot the series and, of course, upheld the interests of the United States," writes Yury Tkachev, in the article 'The truth about the Chernobyl miniseries.'

"What the fuck?" he goes on to add. "The producers probably think the audience are a bunch of illiterate, stupid idiots, who don't ask themselves any questions." Popular TV channel Russia 24 has probably gone the furthest to dispute the show by airing an entire show on the series, in which the station has tried to pick apart the series fact by fact.

The ultimate comeback is in the works, however. According to several reports, the Russians are developing their own own film about what "really" happened in Chernobyl. Unsurprisingly, the film is expected to blame the American government, specifically the CIA, for the disaster. But even though the Russians are operating in an alternate universe, at least it's provoked some conversation in Russia about what really happened – and perhaps it will go a little way in ensuring such a tragedy never happens again.