The unsung heroes of Chernobyl

In the last few weeks the world watched in amazement (with a potent mix of fascination and horror) HBO’s new series Chernobyl, which tells the story of the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion in Pripyat, Ukraine, at the time part of the Soviet Union.

The series received almost universal acclaim, both because of the gripping story telling and it’s historical accuracy. Out on the web there are already a million articles debating exactly how historically accurate the series is or isn’t, but I don’t want that to be the theme of this post.

I want to focus on what is the only admitted fictional (main) character of the series, and why that is. The character in question is Ulana Khomyuk, played by Emily Watson.

The fictional character of Ulana Khomyuk, played by Emily Watson. Copyright HBO

In spite of all the production efforts to recreate the events as they unfolded and to give credit to the people that with their actions pretty much saved a good chunk of Europe from nuclear annihilation, first of all the Russian scientist Valery Legasov, too many people had a vital role in the aftermath of the disaster to be able to fit them into a five-episode tale.

The character of Ulana Khomyuk was therefore created to represent all of the scientists and many other people who worked tirelessly at the time to challenge the Soviet government’s narrative of events and help save Europe from disaster.

Emily Watson, the actress who plays lana, said: «Craig Mazin [the serie’s producer] describes her as a character who has been created in tribute to many of the scientists who were involved in the search for the truth and the aftermath.”

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The key aspect that unfortunately does not emerge from this “simplified” narrative is that all these scientists and specialists went to help voluntarily.

Truth be told, also the character of Ulana Khomyuk in the series joins the effort on her own will (to some degree even fighting to be able to go to Chernobyl), but the fact that one person did so does not fully represent, nor communicates the meaning and significance of hundreds of people putting their life at risk (and being nuclear scientists and specialist they fully understood what the risks were!) voluntarily and not because they were following orders.

In the series we see other groups of people who “combined” the fact that they were ordered to Chernobyl with a sense of duty not only towards their superiors, but also to the people they wanted to save with their effort (think about the miners, the helicopter pilots and so on).

But for the scientists it was different. They were not ordered to Chernobyl and at first their help was not immediately welcome, either, but they knew they had to go and do their part, no matter what. They left wives, children and friends at home, fully aware that they might not return and likely they would not return in full health, affecting the lives of those closest to them.

Such was the mentality of the “Soviet Man”: the needs of the many come before the needs of the few. And, as a logical consequence, the needs of the State came before the needs of the family.

It is certainly not the only case of selfless volunteerism in history, but, still, I find it quite unique and most remarkable.

After the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, a number of people offered themselves as volunteers to go to work in the contaminated zone, fully conscious of the risk of radiation poisoning, and subsequent illness or death. But these people volunteered themselves because they were old, and they though it was best to send old people, rather than young, where the risk to die is so high.

The Soviet scientists did not think in such a way. They chose to go because it was the right thing to do. Because it needed be done, and because they were in a position do do it and to help.

Monument in the Park of Chernobyl Heroes in Tver. The feature picture of this post is a close up of the same statue.

I first became aware of this a few years ago, during a visit in the Russian city of Tver, about 180 Km North of Moscow. I was surprised to see a monument to Chernobyl’s heroes here, so far from the place where the disaster happened. So I asked a local friend if she had any explanation to offer.

«A lot of people from Tver and the Tver region went to clean up Chernobyl, – she replied – some estimates are as high as 3,000 individuals»

One mystery solved, another emerged: why so many from here? It is a disproportionate number compared to the inhabitants of the region!

«Ah, it is very simple – she explained – there is a big nuclear power plant in the region [the Kalinin Power Plant, I wrote about it in the post “The lake that never freezes“] and the people who worked there, when they heard the news, immediately understood that, in spite of the little importance that the media were giving it, something big had happened and that their help would be needed. So they all went, because they understood that help would be needed, even if they were fully aware that it could very easily mean never coming back home to their families. This was the Soviet mentality. At least, this was a good aspect of the Soviet mentality».

The back of the Heroes of Chernobyl monument in Tver

On the backside of the monument there is a bronze sphere, likely symbolizing the atom and its energy. I haven’t been able to find any information about it, but it definitely looks like (to me, at least) one of the sculptures of Arnaldo Pomodoro. And I admit that I would be proud to know that another Italian played a role and contributed with his art to the never lasting remembrance of this selfless, unsung, heroes of Chernobyl.


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