A US-made television series on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was well-received by Russian audiences, even if some critics accused the makers of distorting the facts to show the Soviet-era authorities in a particularly bad light.
Entitled simply “Chernobyl”, the hard-hitting five-part HBO and Sky series received the thumbs-up from critics when it was broadcast in the United States and Britain starting from last month for its graphic recreation of the 1986 nuclear disaster in Soviet-era Ukraine.
It was not shown on terrestrial TV in Russia, but was legally available via the Amediateka streaming site, which gained the exclusive Russian rights to popular series such as “Game of Thrones”.
Russian audiences praised the series for what they said was its eerie accuracy.
“The degree of realism in Chernobyl is higher than in most Russian films about that era,” wrote pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia.
“I think this is a very high-quality product in terms of television series, there’s nothing to find fault with,” Susanna Alperina, film and television critic for Rossiiskaya Gazeta daily, told AFP.
But some Russian media described the series as “propaganda” that exaggerated the callousness of the authorities at the time, their slowness in reacting and the long time they took to officially acknowledge the accident and evacuate the area.
Starring British actor Jared Harris as deputy head of the USSR’s main nuclear research centre and directed by Sweden’s Johan Renck, “Chernobyl” delivers a hard-hitting account of the accident at the fourth reactor of the nuclear station that sent radioactive fallout over much of Europe.
The world’s worst nuclear accident happened on April 26, 1986. Thirty people were killed in the explosion or died soon after from radiation exposure and thousands have since died of related illnesses, though the exact figure remains disputed.
Authorities say it will only be safe for humans to live in Chernobyl again in 24,000 years.
Filmed both in Ukraine and at a decommissioned nuclear power station in ex-Soviet Lithuania that resembles the doomed plant, the TV series was, for many of its Russian viewers, an emotional experience.
It reawakened childhood memories and focussed on the heroism of ordinary citizens, while top officials — including the then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev — were depicted as indecisive and mendacious.
The show was made “with such respect and sympathy for people, our Soviet people… And with such contempt for the authorities who despised their citizens”, Ksenia Larina, a presenter on Echo of Moscow popular radio station, wrote on Facebook.
‘Excellently filmed lie’
However, others slammed not only what they felt was unjustified criticism of the Soviet regime, but also a sly dig at present-day authorities.
The series shows “careerists from the Politburo saving their skins at the price of the lives of abject and enslaved people”, wrote Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid, referring to the Soviet Communist Party’s ruling organ.
It also aimed to foment protests against Russia’s current projects to build power plants abroad, the newspaper claimed.
The show is an “excellently filmed lie,” wrote Argumenty i Fakty newspaper, complaining it depicts the Soviet people as “bloody executioners or helpless victims.”
But Rossiiskaya Gazeta’s TV critic, Alperina, dismissed such accusations.
“I don’t think there are elements of propaganda in the series,” she said. “Sometimes, an outsider’s view is truer.”
The show has prompted soul-searching over why Russia has never made any comparable series of its own, although several shows and films have touched on the nuclear disaster.
“We don’t have anything that is equal to ‘Chernobyl’,” Alperina said.
This may be partly because the budgets of Russian television shows are “nothing compared to Western ones,” she said.
“Maybe people are afraid to do such a project, fearing that the viewers won’t like it. In fact, our viewers are waiting for such a series.”
In 2014, youth channel TNT aired a teen drama series called “Chernobyl. The Exclusion Zone,” set in the disaster zone and including elements of horror.
Russian actor and director Danila Kozlovsky in March announced plans to make a film about Chernobyl that he will star in.