‘Chernobyl’: How Accurate Is the Show?

HBO is turning to real history dramas for the time being now that Game of Thrones is a distant Sunday night memory. While Game of Thrones had elements of British history, it didn’t have to worry about criticism from historians on fudging historical facts. It’s possible HBO will face intense scrutiny in coming weeks/months as they start to air these history-themed shows, with Chernobyl already leading the way.

Those of you who happened to catch this compelling miniseries likely wondered how accurate it really was. Despite bringing a compelling warning about how to not handle a major nuclear crisis, some doctors who worked there say a few health facts aren’t true. Russia has also stepped into this, inflating more drama through our already shaky relationship with them.

Stellan Skarsgård
Stellan Skarsgård | Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

An American doctor says the depiction of radiation effects on the populace aren’t true

When a writing team hears from a UCLA doctor that their miniseries is inaccurate, it no doubt brings a crushing blow after months of writing work put in. This likely hurt, even more, when said doctor so happened to travel to the real Chernobyl to treat the victims in 1986.

According to Dr. Robert Gale, HBO’s depiction of how the patients reacted to the radiation is extremely inaccurate. He says the show made the patients look more like zombies rather than human beings.

Based on his recollections, the patients didn’t have the physical decay shown in the miniseries. All of the radiation exposure was reportedly internal rather than external, leading to fewer of the exaggerated health effects portrayed.

While it’s true birth defects did occur in pregnant women, Dr. Gale notes medical room procedures often expose people to more radiation than what Chernobyl exposed to the populace.

What about Russia’s stance on the show?

Yes, it’s painful to see an American doctor bash Chernobyl so much, especially when it obscures the deeper message about how we might deal with similar crises in the future.

Making things worse was when Russia recently condemned HBO for their depiction of events. In their view, America is biased in making the Soviet Union look remiss in how they properly treated the victims. They also think the depiction of Russia at the time is filled with stereotypes, something that can easily haunt any historical project.

Russia’s response inspired them to make their own movie depicting the events at Chernobyl, this time showing America and our CIA in the worst possible light. At a time when we’re all concerned about what kind of control Russia has over us, our elections, and maybe our President, this probably seems inevitable.

At the same time, it might sound alarm bells about how careful HBO should be with history now that they’re dabbling heavily into depicting key world events.

Should HBO have deeper insight from historians on upcoming shows?

Upcoming on the HBO slate are other history-themed shows like Catherine the Great, Brexit, and Lovecraft Country as just a few. All of these are going to depict major points of history here in America and abroad.

We have to wonder if Russia will go after Catherine the Great as well considering she’s practically a folklore arts hero from Russia’s past. Having us depict Russian history is arguably a risky move during a time when we’re seemingly heading back to a different kind of Cold War. Or was this by design as a form of American payback for them possibly meddling in our Presidential election process?

It’s not that HBO is focusing entirely on history. Even so, it’s still about half of their upcoming programming block. Chernobyl could end up being a pawn in Russia one-upping us in factual events of their own history, even if they’ve already mastered the art of history revisionism at times like our own government.