HBO's miniseries Chernobyl, a dramatisation of the 1986 nuclear disaster, proved a hit with TV viewers across the globe. Tourists now want to see not just the exclusion zone in Ukraine, but also the sites in Lithuania where the series was shot.
Alexei Ananenko, who was an engineer at Chernobyl nuclear power plant, is particularly interested in one scene in the HBO miniseries. It shows him and two of his former colleagues on a mission to drain a reservoir just metres from a burning nuclear rector. The dangerous task was necessary to save millions of lives.
Ananenko notes tiny discrepancies from what actually happened and one serious inaccuracy. Chernobyl depicts the mission as voluntary, though in reality, he says, he was following orders and did not know at the time how dangerous it was.
“I don't feel I'm a hero,” Ananenko says. “I was doing my job and I got paid. I received an order and I did what I had to do, that's all.”
But Chernobyl is not a documentary. As a fictionalized account of history's greatest nuclear disaster, the series is an artistic achievement, showing real events through fictionalized points of view of the workers at Chernobyl, local people, liquidators, scientists and high functionaries.
Praised for its bleak and ominous atmosphere, the series owes much for its success to its art direction and authentic Soviet setting that the makers of Chernobyl recreated in Lithuania.
The harrowing scene in episode one of unsuspecting people of Pripyat observing the plant on fire from the ‘bridge of death’ was shot in Petrašiūnai, Kaunas.
Lithuania's defunct Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant stood in for its ‘sister’ in Chernobyl. It is now said to be a big tourist attraction with people queueing for months to see the decommissioned facility.
But most prominently featured in the series is the Fabijoniškės district in Vilnius which was the setting of Pripyat.
Built in the 1980s, Fabijoniškės retains its ‘Soviet feel’ to this day. One thing that the makers of Chernobyl complained about, though, were the glazed balconies.
“Somebody should be fired for allowing these PVC windows in every building in this entire city, including in historic buildings,” said John Reck, the director of Chernobyl.
Russian TV critics, too, noted the distinctly anachronistic glazing. They also criticized excessive vodka drinking and everyone addressing each other “comrade”. Intimidation by authority was also unconvincing, Russian critics said – after all, it was 1986 under Gorbachev, not 1936 under Stalin.
The Russian government is generally sensitive to its unfavourable depictions in the arts. ‘The Death of Stalin’, the 2017 satire film by Armando Iannucci, caused outrage and was eventually banned in Russia. Chernobyl, too, has been accused of Russophobia and the Russian Communist Party has called for its ban.
Russia's NTV channel has announced plans to produce a more patriotic depiction of the Chernobyl disaster. In this version, the culprit is not the inherent defects of the Soviet system, but a CIA spy.