Chernobyl explained: Is Valery Legasov accurately depicted?

Chernobyl is the five-part miniseries that everybody is talking about from Identity Theif’s Craig Mazin. The series dramatises the Chernobyl nuclear powerplant disaster that occurred on April 26, 1986. Mad Men actor Jared Harris stars as the show’s main protagonist, Valery Legasov.

Is Valery Legasov accurately depicted in Chernobyl?

Valery Legasov is depicted relatively accurately in Chernobyl, with only a few anomalies throughout the series.

Although some events and the timeline are altered for dramatic effect, what Legasov did and what happened to him is completely true.

Jared Harris plays the real Legasov, the Soviet inorganic chemist who was appointed as the chief of the commission investigating the Chernobyl disaster.

Harris bares an eerie resemblance to Legasov, making his portrayal even more believable.

In the miniseries, Boris Scherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgard) is seen calling Legasov to ask him if he is an expert in RMBK reactors.


Legasov confirms that he is but, in reality, this is not true.

He was a chemist at Kurchatov Institute – the premier nuclear physics institute in the Soviet Union – not an unclear physics expert.

Legasov did also not work alone, he was helped by numerous experts and the experts are reflected through the fictional character of Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson).

Show creator Craig Mazin explained in the Chernobyl podcast that Legasov: “Understood a lot about radiation and the chemistry of radioactive materials but he was not really an expert on the function of an RMBK reactor and a lot of other people were and those people, kind of frequently had to help him out and explain to him in certain ways why this is happening and why this is not.”

Mazin added: “I think one of the reasons that Legasov was called was because he was seen as a rather zealous member of the party. He was considered a real Soviet and a loyalist and somebody that you out not o but tow the party line.

“Not to take away from his own expertise, he was a brilliant scientist in his own right but that’s why he as called in, I think. That is my suspicion ”

Throughout the series, Legasov is portrayed is a man out of his depth and trying to challenge the Soviet authorities but in reality, he was one of them, being a devoted communist party member his entire life.

What is not dramatised in the Chernobyl miniseries is the important role Legasov played at the Vienna conference in August 1986.


There, Legasov presented the Chernobyl report at the meeting of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna which was attended by more than 800 scientists and government officials who were experts in nuclear energy, radiation safety and health care.

The Vienna conference is mentioned in episode five of Chernobyl and it is in that moment Khomyuk tries to convince Legasov to tell the truth about the Soviet government’s cover-up of Chernobyl and other RMBK reactors (the same as the one at Chernobyl) operating in the USSR.

In reality and in the series, Legasov did not criticise the Soviet government at the Vienna conference, nor did he make the revelations at the show trial of Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), the deputy chief engineer and supervisor in charge, plant director Viktor P Bryukhanov (Con O’Neill) and chief engineer Nikolai Fomin (Adrian Rawlins) in 1987.

In fact, Legasov did not even attend the show trial and did not present any of the damning evidence or scientific explanations that are seen in the fifth episode.


In the Chernobyl podcast, Mazin admitted the scene was imagined, but the point Legasov is making about a Soviet government reflects the truth he was trying to tell the world up until his death in 1988.

In his five-hour-long hearing at Vienna Legasov argued that disaster was caused by multiple factors including human error combined with poorly designed RBMK reactors.

Overall, he stressed human error was the overriding cause

The truth about The Soviet’s Government knowledge of RMBK reactors operating in the USSR and their faults were not revealed until Legasov recorded serval tapes before he took his own life.

These tapes were revealed in the opening seconds of Chernobyl episode one, seconds before Legasov took his own life.

In the tapes, Legasov claimed that Soviet government security and security prevented plant operators from knowing about previous accidents with RMBK reactors in the Soviet Union.

What happened to Legasov, in the end, was almost completely accurately depicted.

It is true that as a result of Legasov’s determination to tell the truth, he was ridiculed by his scientist peers and rejected for Hero of Socialist Labor award, despite everybody else on the commissioner receiving the title.

Legasov became increasingly isolated and depressed and had even attempted to take his own life before, unsuccessfully.

The scientist took his own life on April 27, 1988, one day after the two-year anniversary of the nuclear power plant disaster.

He was 51-years-old at the time of his death.

The simplest yet most inaccurate thing that is not accurate about Legasov in Chernobyl is his accent.

Legasov was from Tula, Russia and would have spoken in Russian.

Speaking exclusively to press in London, including, Mazin explained that it was a conscious decision not to have the actors speaking in Russian accents.

He said: “He said: “We didn’t want to mess around with any of that either really and just to speak in a way that felt natural to you because, in the end, the language should disappear.

“It is why we will occasionally use Russian in the show and hope in a way it just disappears. There is no translation for the poem at the beginning of episode two, but you kind of get a sense of it in the strangest way.

“There is no translation for what the woman is saying during the evacuation but you kind of a have a sense it. And that is what we are trying to do, to create as little friction as possible between our audience and the material.”

Small details such as the location of his death, language, accent, the content of the tapes and the timeline may not be completely accurate but overall, Legasov’s actions and his role in stopping the spread of the Chernobyl disaster is entirely accurate.

Chernobyl is streaming on NOW TV now.

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