Dramatizing the Chernobyl Disaster, for its Survivors

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine — In April 1986, Alexander Rodnyansky was a young documentary filmmaker living in Kyiv. When the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station exploded 60 miles north of the Ukrainian capital, most citizens of the Soviet Union were not informed. It took the government 18 days to share exactly what had happened, but Rodnyansky had been filming the disaster zone from the day after the catastrophe.

What he witnessed in Chernobyl after the explosion — and the Soviet government’s bungled response to it — has obsessed him ever since.

“It was probably one of the most important events of Soviet history and my own personal history,” Rodnyansky said in a telephone interview.

Rodnyansky went on to become an award-winning director, producer and television executive. His career-long ambition to make a feature film about Chernobyl came to pass this year with the release of “Chernobyl 1986,” a historical drama that he was adamant should focus on the lives of the people, known as “liquidators,” who prevented the fire from spreading to the other reactors and thus avoided an even bigger disaster.

The film, which recently arrived on Netflix in the U.S., comes on the heels of the 2019 critically acclaimed HBO mini-series “Chernobyl,” which critics praised for its focus on the failures of the Soviet system.

“Chernobyl 1986,” which was partly funded by the Russian state, has received some criticism within Russia and Ukraine for not emphasizing the government missteps to the same extent. But Rodnyansky said that doing so was never his intention. When he watched the HBO series — twice — his film was already in production, and he wanted it to focus on the people directly affected by the disaster.

“For years people spoke about what really happened there, especially after the Soviet Union broke up and the media were absolutely free,” Rodnyansky said, adding that most people understand that what had happened at Chernobyl was a failure of the Soviet system. Everyone involved in the disaster was a victim, he said — “they were hostages of that system.”

Whereas the HBO approach was to dissect systemic flaws in the Soviet system that led to the disaster, the Russian film does something familiar to the country’s cultural tradition: emphasizing the role of the individual, people’s personal heroism and dedication to a higher cause.

Before the disaster, Rodnyansky had been “living quite a stable life, and then something happened that made me think about the system which doesn’t allow people to know about the disaster that can kill hundreds of thousands — that is not a fair system,” he said, referring to the government’s silence immediately after the explosion.

Thirty-five years later, Rodnyansky said it was clear that the Chernobyl explosion was one of the major events that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union. It “changed the perception of life, the system and the country,” he said, making “many Ukrainians, if not the majority, think about the responsibility of Moscow and the need for Ukraine to be independent.”

Today, the power plant site has fewer than 2,000 workers who maintain a giant sarcophagus placed over the site to ensure that no nuclear waste is released. This month, Ukraine will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union. The anniversary comes as the country tries to protect itself against Russia after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its support for separatist militants in Ukraine’s east.

Although making this film had special resonance for Rodnyansky, he has taken on epic historical films before: He produced the 2013 movie “Stalingrad,” a love story set in the World War II battle of the same name, as well as “Leviathan,” which won best screenplay in Cannes in 2014.

In 2015, he got the script for “Chernobyl 1986” and sent it to Danila Kozlovsky, a prominent director and actor who was then on the set of the TV series “Vikings.”

Kozlovsky, who was born the year before the nuclear disaster, was initially dismissive. But he said in a telephone interview that the more he read the script, “the more I understood that this was an incredible event that influenced the history of our country, which is still a rather complex topic.”

In the film, he plays the protagonist, Aleksei, a firefighter and bon vivant. Upon encountering a former girlfriend in Pripyat, where most people working in the Chernobyl plant lived, Aleksei finds out that he has a 10-year-old son. Though he is interested in his son and ex-partner, he makes promises he doesn’t keep until he and his fellow firefighters are thrust into the horror and devastation of the explosion.

“For me it was important not to make just another pseudo-documentary feature film,” the actor said, but to tell the story of “how this catastrophe burst into the life of an ordinary family.”

Kozlovsky said he had spent a year meeting former liquidators and people displaced from the Chernobyl region to prepare for the role. In a sign of the political change in the former Soviet state since the disaster, Kozlovsky was unable to visit the protected 1,000-square-mile Chernobyl exclusion zone, where the reactors and the abandoned city of Pripyat are, he said, because Russian men of military age are restricted from entering Ukraine amid the countries’ ongoing conflict.

The movie, which is dedicated to the liquidators, has struck a chord for some people who survived the efforts to prevent further explosions and then to clean up the radiation-affected area. An estimated 240,000 people were involved in the cleanup in 1986 and 1987, according to the World Health Organization.

Oleg Ivanovich Gerikh was one of those people. He was working in the fourth reactor when it exploded, and today he regularly appears in documentaries and speaks to student groups to ensure that younger people understand the gravity of what happened.

Now 62, he said he was pleased that the new Russian-made drama explored the disaster through the lens of the experience of one of the people to arrive at the catastrophe.

“What is important is that the film shows the fate of a person who showed his love for and his dedication to his profession,” he said in a telephone interview, remembering the way he fought to contain the fires not only because of the environmental crisis that could result, but also because his wife and two young daughters were living nearby.

“I know for sure that that night we did everything so that our city, which was three kilometers from our station, would be protected,” he said. “And we understood that our families, our loved ones, our children, were at risk.”

Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Moscow.

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