Released in January 2019, Ukrainian-American historian and writer Serhii Plokhy’s work was magnificently timed to coincide with the critically acclaimed HBO mini-series Chernobyl.
As appalling as the 1986 tragedy was, we find it infinitely fascinating. Not least as it represents a timely reminder to the world about the dangers of humanity’s climate crisis trajectory. And this account is about as definitive as you get.
Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy
A meticulously researched work, Plokhy’s focus is on the minor details – as a historian, he’s buried himself thoroughly into the subject matter. He was also in the region studying at the time of the event.
Whereas the mini-series glosses over certain characters for the sake of narrative cohesion, here you can read about the finer details of the worst disaster the world had endured since WWII.
Located in Ukraine, the city has a long history of human settlements. Its first mention in any records is 1193.
Largely nondescript, the most notable incident for centuries took place in 1794. A young Chernobyl noblewoman called Rozalia Lubomirska happened to be in Paris at the time of the French Revolution. She was guillotined.
The 1917 Russian Revolution posed further disruption, but the Nazi invasion during WWII led to bloody standoffs with the local population until the city fell to the Germans.
However, Chernobyl’s defining moment took place on 26th April 1986 – it and other local cities such as Pripyat will remain uninhabitable for centuries to come.
Plokhy charts the road to the event, which began with the construction of unit one of the RBMK-1000 nuclear reactor. Director Viktor Bryukhanov (featured as an uptight, husky-voiced party line tower in the mini-series) took control of the project.
Famous for his hard working ethic, he shot through the ranks to become a leading light in Soviet-era nuclear power and had the first unit up and running in time for 1977. Four more would follow (the fifth unfinished at the time of the disaster).
Unit four was in operation by 1983. Plokhy explains in great detail that the (now decommissioned) RBMK-1000 reactors were state of the art for the time, but had design flaws that – along with various other factors – led to the catastrophic meltdown.
In the immediate aftermath, many power plant workers and firefighters died horrifying deaths due to acute radiation sickness (ARS).
It was a cruel fate for the many brave individuals who battled to control the situation. Had they not done so, the consequences would have been much worse than the nightmare that followed.
And it’s after this build-up phase that Plokhy skillfully takes the reader through the deeply unpleasant aftermath of the disaster. The Soviets initially didn’t tell the world, or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
It was only when Sweden and Finland started reporting disturbing levels of radiation that the Americans pointed satellites at the Soviet Union. The game was up.
To his credit, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev did at least organise a heroic fight back against the “invisible enemy” of radiation. But all whilst political wrangling and deceit raged in the background.
The consequences ensured the crumbling Soviet state would dissolve by the end of 1991, with glasnost signalling a more open political responsibility to the world. A great irony being that Chernboyl, encased as it is in a New Safe Confinement, will stand as a statement for hundreds of years to come of the dangers of half-arsed political dealings.
It’s an astonishing story that Plokhy details in methodical fashion. As the impartial narrator, he provides poise and calm over the utter carnage of the events.
If you enjoyed the mini-series, or want to learn more about one of the defining events of the 20th century, then this brilliant piece of historical writing is the only place to turn to.
It took many years of research to write the work, so it’s great to see Plokhy awarded this June with the Pushkin House Prize – amongst various others.
The 62 year old is a history professor at Harvard University. If you have a spare 30 minutes, he discusses the historical accuracy of the May 2019 mini-series below.
Whilst praising its overall accuracy, he does note some of the writing is clearly adapted for dramatic effect. For instance, there wasn’t an enormous mass of smoke spewing out of unit four after the explosion.
The firefighters battling the raging inferno in the immediate aftermath put most of it out. As journalists descended upon the scene in daylight, there was only a thin trail of translucent smoke. This was, of course, horrifically radioactive.
However, a key difference from reality is in the depiction of the power plant’s three leading figures: Viktor Bryukhanov, Nikolai Fomin, and Anatoly Dyatlov.
The show makes them the villains of the piece. But these were intelligent and highly skilled individuals wrongfooted through various Soviet state inefficiencies.
Some of their colleagues who survived the night have defended the trio – all of whom were handed a 10 year hard labour prison sentence. They also claim the Soviet state made scapegoats for its failings.
Of the three, it appears Bryukhanov is the only one still alive – he’s 83.
Meanwhile, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has banned the mini-series outright. He’s so angry about it he’s commissioning a Russian-made rebuttal that implicates the CIA and US. £300,000 has already been raised for the production.
Putin told Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s most read tabloid:
"There is a theory that Americans infiltrated the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Many historians do not rule out the possibility that on the day of the explosion, an agent of the enemy's intelligence services was working at the station."