Robert Peter Gale’s series of stories on the HBO drama Chernobyl

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on print

This story is part of our 2019 Summer Reading Series. You can read the whole series here.

Gale was there, in Moscow’s Hospital Number 6, famously taking care of people injured in the nuclear plant disaster. He is also the author of two books that address Chernobyl, other nuclear accidents and radiation in general: “Final Warning” and “Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know.”

How much of the HBO miniseries was true? How much was just truthy?

“Knowing the limited resources available to my Soviet colleagues to deal effectively with an event of this magnitude, I contacted Mr. Gorbachev through Armand Hammer, offering my help and that of my colleagues at the International Bone Marrow Transplant Registry (now the Centre for International Blood and Marrow Research),” Gale writes. “Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet ambassador to the U.S., called me the next day, asking me to come immediately to Moscow. Two weeks later, I recruited two UCLA colleagues (Paul Teraski and Richard Champlin) and one colleague from the Weizmann Institute in Israel (Yair Reisner) to help.

“I spent the following two years mostly in the Soviet Union, working with my colleagues at the Institute for Biophysics and Clinical Hospital 6, dealing with a bit more than 200 persons with acute radiation exposures. In the subsequent 30-plus years, I have been involved in several studies of the long-term medical consequences of the accident—initially in the ex-Soviet Union, and later in the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Belorussia; more details as the series progresses.”

Gale’s central question: Does historical fiction give writers the license to wander away from historicity?

Trying to put the Chernobyl disaster in historical perspective, Gale writes: “I knew each of the firefighters intimately, including the 29 who died. I never heard one of them express regret over what they had done to contain the Chernobyl disaster. These men are the real heroes.

“In the miniseries, the liquidators are portrayed as being coerced into their mission. I interviewed many of them at the time of the accident, not 30 years later. Almost everyone I spoke with volunteered. Anyone with knowledge of Russians will recognize how these people respond to adversity. Recall Napoleon’s 1812 excursion into Russia, or the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in WWII. These people are tough; 20 million Soviets died fighting the Nazis. The notion that most liquidators were conscripted against their will shock people who know Russians respond to adversity: they thrive on it.”

Gale’s series of four essays is among The Cancer Letter’s most read stories so far this year, and it has been quoted worldwide. We have just given the Russian news publication Kommersant Nauka permission to excerpt and translate Gale’s essays.

To drill deeper into the Chernobyl story, you might want to look at Gale’s detailed account of becoming one of the first two humans to be injected with GM-CSF. The drug, which is used extensively in cancer and is now approved for boosting survival in people acutely exposed to myelosuppressive doses of radiation, was first used to treat Chernobyl patients at Hospital Number 6 (The Cancer Letter, May 29, 2015).

The full series is posted here.

Chernobyl, the HBO miniseries: Fact and fiction

Two weeks ago, HBO began screening a five-part series on Monday nights on the Chernobyl nuclear power facility (NPF) accident, which occurred more than 30 years ago on April 26, 1986.

Read more

Chernobyl, the HBO miniseries: Fact and fiction (Part II)

Last week, I discussed events resulting in the Chernobyl NPF accident, including unique aspects of the reactor-design which contributed to the accident, and which resulted in release of radiation to the environment. I also discussed the initial Soviet response. Next, I focus on the immediate medical consequences and the response of Soviet government to medical interventions.

Read more

Chernobyl, the HBO miniseries: Fact and fiction (Part III)

With episode four of the series, we moved even further from reality than in prior episodes.

Read more

Chernobyl, the HBO miniseries: Fact and fiction (Part IV)

Readers will be pleased to learn this is the final installment of my reviews of the HBO Chernobyl miniseries, which just ended its TV run June 3. The series, which has received extraordinary critical acclaim, had a vast global audience.

Read more

This story is part of our 2019 Summer Reading Series. You can read the whole series here.