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Unhappy with HBO's 'Chernobyl,' Russia plans its own series — blaming the CIA

As if someone were about to play a concerto, a decaying piano still stands in a store in the abandoned town of Pripyat.

CHERYL L. REED, CHICAGO TRIBUNE/TNS

By KYLE SWENSON | The Washington Post | Published: June 7, 2019

HBO's recent miniseries "Chernobyl" has become another hit for the premium network, pulling in critical praise and triggering a global conversation about the dramatic 1986 nuclear disaster at a Soviet Union reactor in a region now recognized as Ukraine.

The binge-worthy five-episode series recently jumped to the top of IMDb's all-time rankings of television shows with a 9.7 average score out of 10, nudging aside longtime favorites like "Breaking Bad," "Planet Earth" and "The Wire," Variety reported on Wednesday.

Despite the glowing international reception, there's one place the series has not gone over well: Russia, specifically in the power corridors of the Kremlin.

As the Hollywood Reporter reported Thursday, a Russian company is in postproduction on a series on Chernobyl — one that implicates the United States as playing a role in the disaster.

The Russian series has reportedly been commissioned by NTV, a network owned by the media division of Russian natural gas company Gazprom and known for pro-Kremlin spin, according to THR. The government's cultural ministry has also reportedly kicked in $460,000 (30 million rubles) for the production, whose plot reportedly would run counter to established history.

On April 26, 1986, the No. 4 nuclear reactor exploded at the Chernobyl plant outside of the Ukrainian city of Pripyat, then part of the Soviet Union. More than 30 people died in the initial aftermath of the accident, which raged for 10 days, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Radiation spilled into the atmosphere, forcing 115,000 residents to be relocated by the government in 1986, with an additional 220,000 residents moved out in the subsequent years. The Soviet government eventually quarantined an area stretching 18 miles in radius from the explosion, creating a radioactive ghost town that stood out as a stark symbol of dark risks of the nuclear age.

The United Nations determined in 2018 that nearly 20,000 cases of thyroid cancer among individuals under the age of 18 at the time of the accident could be traced to the contamination.

Memories of the disaster are particularly ego-bruising for Russian President Vladimir Putin's government, which attempts to project a Teflon-like reputation as a world power.

Writing this week in the Moscow Times, columnist Ilya Shepelin noted a number of pro-Kremlin media figures have used their columns or state television programs to chip away at the HBO production's credibility or to gripe about its portrayal of Russian leaders.

"If Anglo-Saxons film something about Russians," Anatoly Vasserman, an "ultra pro-Soviet columnist," according to Shepelin, wrote in response, "it definitely will not correspond to the truth."

The Russian series apparently is part of this patriotic pushback. According to the Times, the production will be anchored in the premise that a CIA operative was at Chernobyl conducting sabotage. The series follows a group of KGB officials working to track down the infiltrator.

"One theory holds that Americans had infiltrated the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and many historians do not deny that, on the day of the explosion, an agent of the enemy's intelligence services was present at the station," the director, Alexei Muradov, told the Times.

The idea does not match reality. Experts from the United Nations and the Nuclear Energy Institute have determined the explosion was probably the result of a faulty reactor design and human error — an assessment that Soviet officials agreed with in their own 1986 report on the explosion, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Shepelin, the columnist, points out the gripes in Russia over the HBO blockbuster have less to do with accuracy than national pride.

"The fact that an American, not a Russian, TV channel tells us about our own heroes is a source of shame that the pro-Kremlin media apparently cannot live down," he wrote this week. "And this is the real reason they find fault with HBO's 'Chernobyl' series."
 

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