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Tearjerker / Chernobyl

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Given that the people the Chernobyl disaster killed had lives and loved ones, how can a series exploring the lives of people personally affected by such a catastrophe not sometimes be heartrending?

As a Moments subpage, all spoilers are unmarked as per policy. You Have Been Warned.

Miniseries

  • The miniseries opens with Valery Legasov committing suicide on the two year anniversary of the accident, down to the minute. Before that, he is shown laying out extra food for his cat so that it won't starve before someone finds him.
    • In real life, Legasov was living with his wife and son at the time of his suicide. It was not just him and his cat.
  • Poor Sitnikov.
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    • He is berated and borderline-gaslighted by Fomin, Bryukhanov and (radiation-poisoned) Dyatlov for stating that he saw graphite on the ground. Dyatlov says he'll go on the roof to check, and then his radiation sickness kicks in and he has to be hospitalised. Fomin and Bryukhanov, somehow still in denial, waste no time in drafting him to do the job in Dyatlov's stead. The muted terror and sadness as Sitnikov tries to resist his fate is heartbreaking.
      Fomin: The feed water. Been around it all night. [turning to Sitnikov] You go, then.
      Sitnikov: What?
      Fomin: Go to the main block roof, and report back what you see.
      Sitnikov: [hopelessly] No...no, I won't do that...
      Bryukhanov: Of course you will.
    • Sitnikov gets press-ganged onto the roof at gunpoint, walks across it and looks down into the hole. We see a shot of him from behind. When he turns around, his face has been burned completely red. He has a completely broken, dejected look on his face. He knows that he's already dead. The look doesn't leave his face even as he returns to the conference room as a living piece of evidence of how just bad things are, and Fomin and Bryukhanov panic and yell at him.
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  • The evacuation of Pripyat: From one moment to another, the persons that once lived in one of the most comfortable towns in the Soviet Union are forced to leave behind practically everything they had due to the radiation in the area. Despite being told this was temporal, none of them would ever return to their homes and were forced to seek a new place to live. And this is not counting the health issues that the radiation would cause in them years on.
  • When Pripyat is evacuated, at least one person is forced to leave behind their dog, which runs desperately behind one of the buses to try and get back to its owner. That dog almost certainly starved to death or was shot.
  • An on-screen example: Firefighter Vasily Ignatenko lies in a darkened room in Moscow Hospital Number 6, blinded and slowly dying from Acute Radiation Syndrome, with his wife Lyudmilla keeping vigil. He asks Lyudmilla to open the curtains, and describe to him what she sees. We are shown that in reality, the view is nothing remarkable — the building of an adjacent hospital wing or some such. However, Lyudmilla instead describes an imaginary, idyllic Moscow cityscape to Vasily: The Kremlin, Spasskaya Tower, Lenin's Mausoleum and St Basil's Cathedral. She describes the view as "Beautiful". Vasily replies "I told you I'd show you Moscow, didn't I?" as Lyudmilla starts to cry.
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  • When the head miner Glukhov asks Shcherbina "Will they (the liquidators digging out a tunnel under the reactor) be looked after?" Shcherbina, a career Soviet bureaucrat, looks shaken for a moment before admitting "I don't know." Glukhov takes the answer hard but gives a knowing nod, understanding that Shcherbina gave the most honest answer he could. Glukhov then goes back to his men to continue the dig.
  • The realization that Akimov and Toptunov not only had to live out their final days in utter agony, but both also went to the grave mistakenly believing that the explosion was their fault.
  • The end of episode 3 where a group funeral is attended by Lyudmilla, and we see her crying as the concrete closes over the coffins. Her face and the image of this black sludge sealing off what remains of her husband really drives home the grief and trauma of losing him.
  • Episode 4. Puppies. It's a difficult scene to watch for any animal lover.
    • Hell, just about everything with animals in this miniseries. In Episode 2, we see a dog running after a bus that is carrying his owner away. In Episode 3, a dog runs up to Shcherbina and Legasov as they walk through the streets at night. In Episode 4, Bacho tells Pavel that the animals they will be hunting are mostly pets, so they will be happy to see them.
    • And this was what was chosen to show and film. The behind-the-scenes podcast, Craig Mazin shares a story of the pet burial that was true, but so horrifying that the executives said that recreating and showing it would be tantamount to Torture Porn.
  • At the start of the episode, a soldier is tasked with evacuating an old woman from a farm. She stubbornly refuses to leave, saying that Whites, Bolsheviks, and Nazis all tried to remove her from this farm. Then the soldier shoots the cow she is milking.
  • From the same episode, Lyudmilla goes into labour... and later we find out from Khomyuk that the baby died at just four hours old. Lyudmilla should have died, due to the radiation she was exposed to while hugging and touching Vasily in his last days, but as Khomyuk and the doctors put it, "the baby absorbed it instead." Just to bring the point home, the episode ends in a maternity ward with new mothers and crying babies and the camera pans towards an empty cot... next to the bed of Lyudmilla, who is sitting with a Thousand-Yard Stare.
  • When the bomb disposal robot that West Germany loaned to clear the graphite off the plant’s roof breaks down from the high radiation, Shcherbina learns via telephone that Moscow undersold the level of radiation at Chernobyl (2,000 Roetgen as opposed to 12,000) to the West German government. The reason being that the State’s official position is that a nuclear disaster on the scale of Chernobyl can never occur within the Soviet Union. In other words, the Soviet government wasted months of precious time that could have been used to seal the reactor earlier and prevent more radiation fatalities, on a solution that was doomed to fail anyway, because their priority was saving face before the West. As a furious Shcherbina destroys his telephone, the anger and frustration in his voice makes it clear that he’s just about had it with the sheer incompetence of the Soviet apparatchik and their inability to treat the disaster seriously even as people continue to die.
  • Legasov is told to go to Vienna to testify in front of an international audience as to what happened. Khomyuk can give him an explanation and a proper timeline...but if Legasov reveals it was gross incompetence and a fundamental design failure, the KGB would take ruthless vengeance on him and everyone he loves, because it would be tantamount to "humiliating a nation obsessed with not being humiliated." The best chance they have is to reveal the reasons to the KGB, Legasov not saying a thing about it in Vienna and the KGB maybe letting the scientists remedy the design flaw.
  • The beginning of Episode 5 shows the city of Pripyat before the explosion on April 25, with all the citizens (who would later on be seen at the Bridge of Death) enjoying time together, chatting, shopping and living normal lives...and it being their last time of normality before the disaster happens on the 26th.
    • Even worse, among them we see Vasily and Lyudmilla Ignatenko chatting with a neighbor and playing with a baby. This young couple that is on the cusp of starting their own family, only for it to be taken away.
  • A small one, but there's something heartbreaking abut Formin, Dyatlov, and Bryukhanov having the look of regret when they hear Legasov's explanation of why Reactor #4 exploded. One hand could be that they realize their actions caused the worst human disaster in history and lead to thousands dying or the dawning realization that their own government lied to them over something they thought was safe. Despair Event Horizon doesn't cover it. Granted for Dyatlov, it became an Ignored Epiphany considering he blamed everyone else and the reactor's flaw for the disaster except himself.
  • The ending of Episode 5: Legasov is told by Charkov that his position as a scientist and everything else (his accomplishments and such) will be removed from him and he will be forced to have nothing. All for telling the truth. He even goes as far as to tell Legasov that he isn't a hero for making the choice. Not helped that Charkov tells him he can never contact Shcherbina nor Khomyuk ever again due to them being connected to the Chernobyl case.
    • Legasov watching Shcherbina and Khomyuk as he's taken away by the KGB, the look on their faces considering his Heroic Sacrifice to finally tell the truth.
    • Makes more as to why Legasov told the truth as well: Shcherbina telling him about his cancer and coughing throughout the episode.
    • Though also a Heartwarming Moment, Legasov and Shcherbina's whole aforementioned conversation, especially since it ends up being the last conversation they will ever have.
  • The "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue:
    • Legasov committed suicide, leaving his taped account of what really happened to a collective of Soviet scientists, despite the Soviet Union's attempts to silence him.
    • Shcherbina died four years and four months after being sent to Chernobyl. Legasov's prediction was tragically accurate.
    • Although Formin, Dyatlov, and Bryukhanov were all convicted for violating safety regulations, they were only sentenced to ten years in a labor camp. Formin even went back to working at a nuclear power plant after his release.
    • Despite the thousands who died because of the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet Union's official death count to the whole mess was (and is still today) 31.
    • The final slate card for the series:
      In Memory of All Who Suffered and Sacrificed

Meta

  • A few of the comments for the show's YouTube trailer are from people who lived in the area when the disaster occurred, some of whom even claim to have encountered some of the Real Life players:
    dusyad: My dad served in Chernobyl as a liquidator and is now long gone. Besides the heath issues, Chernobyl caused a lot of mental issues to those who returned. The Chernobyl PTSD was not less than after an active combat. They came back believing they were dying slowly, and that was tough even on the men who bravely went to serve and save the people of the country that was on the edge of the collapse. They did it for the people and the strong sense of integrity they were raised with. I don't remember my dad's voice, he was not at my graduation, he is not going to be at my wedding. The country he served for does not exist anymore, and with that those men who went to serve at Chernobyl after the disaster are now forgotten too.
    Alina Rudya: Watched 3 episodes now and it really strikes a chord. Especially, since I know most of the names and met some of the people depicted here. Toptunov (the senior reactor engineer) was my father's friend, helped my parents to carry a new fridge up our apartment in Lenin Avenue 17 in Pripyat. My dad visited him in Moscow before he died. Ananenko and Bespalov (who, together with Baranov (RIP) prevented the 2nd explosion as depicted in episode 3) were also good friends and I've met Ananenko in Kyiv, since he lived next door. Lyudmilla Ignatenko (the firefighter's wife) was evacuated to Kyiv and lived 3 doors down from us. I met her several times and played with her son a couple of times. She told me about her husband's death and how they couldn't bury him in shoes, cause he was so swollen. As a child I didn't realize the severity of being "from Chernobyl". It was only when my father died, that I started seriously thinking about the horrible accident my family and thousands of other families survived. Being a photographer, I returned to the Exclusion Zone again and again in the past years. I think it will be haunting me for the rest of my life.
  • And then there are media commentators who have relatives who were directly impacted by the disaster, such as this Moldovan-born journalist talking to his elderly stepfather about the miniseries:
    My stepfather, retired Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Veytsman, lives in New York State and is always watching Pervyi Kanal, so I just wanted him to see something decent for a change. So I told him, here's a show with Russian dubbing. Look at the Soviet machinery here. I wanted [him] to know how well they nailed the military uniforms, and he was an expert on this, after all. And suddenly my stepfather tells me: I was there, and I don't want to watch this anymore. I was blown away, because he's not the secretive type. He's talked about his service and how he served in the Far Eastern Military District, but he'd never said a word about this before.
    It turns out that they called him up in May 1986, two or three weeks after the explosion, and put him on alert. He says he didn't believe it at first, thinking there'd been some mistake. They told him: rally all the chemical-warfare troops and move out to the Kyiv region. And so he brought a detachment of liquidators there, to Pripyat, from Moldova. And since he was from the senior officer personnel (his rank was captain but his command was an artillery battalion, which was normally given to a major), they made him deputy district supervisor.
    This was May when the evacuation of villages around Pripyat was underway. They made him responsible for the evacuation, and he monitored the provision of buses and caught marauders. There was a lot of marauding there: everyone would be gone from one village, but not yet from the neighboring settlement, and people just came over to the empty side and took whatever they liked. He says they logged all the soldiers' radiation exposure as 25 rem [0.25 Sievert], without even looking at the dosimeters. As he later learned, this was just the maximum [permitted on assignment], and nobody knows what their real exposure was. If you exceeded the maximum dose, you couldn't be sent back, and they needed people.
    My stepfather spent a total of two or three weeks there, and then they sent him back to Moldova, because there were joint exercises planned then between the USSR and the Bulgarian People's Army. They decided not to cancel them, to avoid fueling additional gossip. They sent him to lead an artillery division. He was lucky, of course: the rest of the chemical warfare troops stuck around longer to liquidate [the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident], while he, as senior supervisor, was sent back for exercises at the Tiraspol training grounds.
    My grandfather was a marine. He served in Crimea and never spoke about the [Second World] War, except once, in the late 1980s, when he had too much to drink. My stepfather served during peacetime, but he was still left with some pretty bad memories. He refuses to talk about Chernobyl to anyone but me for a very Soviet reason: "I signed a document," he says. It's pointless to try to tell him that it was all a long time ago, and that the Soviet Union doesn't exist anymore. "It's like an oath," he says.
  • In the script for Episode 4, Mazin makes a point that we never see the face of the Liquidator we followed on the roof and never learn his name. In the documentary Chernobyl 3828, one of the supervisors for the cleanup made sure he never saw the faces of the men going to the roof in order to detach himself from them.
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