In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant experienced a meltdown that resulted in one of the worst disasters of the century. The plant exploded and spewed radioactive clouds throughout Europe and a massive portion of the planet. One man, Boris Shcherbina, was charged with overseeing the cleanup process of a nuclear mess that had released as much radiation as 500 Hiroshima bombs.
However, he had to deal with dithering, delays, and attempts to conceal the truth by communist party officials. Nobody wanted to be the person to declare that the reactor was dead until Shcherbina was called in.
HBO Show’s Chernobyl Was Accurate In Its Portrayal Of The Disaster, But Not Boris Shcherbina
When HBO released the Chernobyl miniseries, the world was reminded just how disturbing the nuclear disaster was. The show got plenty of praise for accurately portraying the catastrophe.
However, they seem to have missed one thing: Shcherbina’s role in the cleanup process after the disaster. He helped everyone realize that the worst had happened and that an immediate evacuation was necessary as time was quickly running out.
When the disaster took place, Boris Shcherbina was the Deputy Prime Minister and Vice-Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers. In truth, he helped save many lives, although his role was downplayed due to the culture of secrecy that typified the Cold War era within the Soviet Union.
In the show, Boris Shcherbina threatens a member of the Academy of Sciences, Valery Legasov, as they are heading to Chernobyl using a helicopter. Legasov is threatened with execution after hesitating when trying to explain how nuclear reactors work.
However, this was a dramatization meant to make the story more interesting, as executions in the Soviet Union had long been done away with by then. The real Shcherbina would never have thrown the scientist out of the helicopter.
Boris Shcherbina Took Responsibility For Evacuating Pripyat
At the time Shcherbina was informed about the disaster, he was on a business trip to Siberia. He got to Pripyat 18 hours after the explosion and ordered that the town be evacuated.
Official guidelines claimed that evacuations should take place when the accumulated radiation in individuals reached 75 roentgen. At the time, people were soaking up around 4.5 roentgen a day, which meant the stipulated thresholds were still unmet. For this reason, some senior officials were unwilling to start the evacuation process.
In the HBO show, Boris Shcherbina is portrayed as a cold bureaucrat before he turns into someone determined to save people from the disaster.
Although he represents a broken system, he eventually realizes that he has to stand up for something else other than the defense of a system that had resulted in this disaster.
People Were Kept In The Dark About The Scale Of The Disaster
When the disaster first happened, there were fears that any interventions would worsen or offend superiors. However, the problem could not be ignored for long, especially when the fumes began wafting across Europe and reached as far as Germany.
Shcherbina apparently suggested that water be used to put off the flames, but he was told that might make things worse. Sand and boron were more suitable under the circumstances.
Initially, there was also some back and forth on whether to evacuate Pripyat or not, with some superiors opposed to the idea. However, Boris Shcherbina was sympathetic and called Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov, his boss, to voice his concerns.
He informed Nikolai that Pripyat had to be evacuated immediately since the radiation was horrible. However, people were seemingly oblivious to the danger around them, and celebrations were still going on.
Telephone networks to the area were cut to keep the news from spreading, but informal networks helped residents know what was happening, and they started fleeing. Hours after the explosion, rumors about what had happened were already circulating.
Ironically, the police wore respirators and gas masks, and residents trying to flee from the area were turned back by the police. Later, military personnel joined the police officers, and people were advised to stay indoors.
People eventually heard rumors they could get out if they wanted, and train stations filled up with women and children. By this time, the air had a distinctive metallic smell.
Boris Shcherbina’s Life Story Was A Huge Secret
The man who played Boris Shcherbina’s role in the HBO show, Stellan Skarsgård, noted that the man was different from how he was portrayed in the show. He also lamented that it was difficult to find any information about the real Boris Shcherbina.
Stellan also admitted that the real Boris Shcherbina did not even look like him.
Even today, it is not easy to find much information on political figures from the Soviet Union. For instance, the information that is publicly available about Boris relates to his involvement with the cleanup effort at Chernobyl.
That, too, would have remained a secret, except for the fact that the whole world was following that story to see how it was evolving.
However, some digging into his past revealed that Boris Shcherbina was born in 1919 in Donetsk Oblast in Ukrainian SSR and graduated from Kharkov Institute of Railroad Transport Engineers when he was 23.
In 1950, he was already the secretary of the city committee of Kharkov, and he continued to rise through the ranks until he became a Minister for Oil and Gas Construction in 1976.
He also got many awards, including several medals for his patriotism to the USSR.
In 1984, he became Deputy Prime Minister, and in 1986, he found himself dealing with the worst nuclear disaster in history.
Evacuations Began Soon After The Disaster
A day after the disaster, on April 27, evacuations were ordered. They would take place through buses and trains, and the job had to be done in two hours.
By 4.30 in the afternoon, the evacuations were complete.
In total, 47,000 residents were evacuated from Pripyat, including 17,000 children. The locals were asked to carry only a few personal possessions and identity papers.
The people were given the impression that they would be back after a few days, but that never happened. The buses that ferried these people absorbed a lot of radiation and spread it to other places.
While some people were relieved when the evacuations began, others were surprised. Some people were going on with their lives as usual, and some restaurants were filled with people enjoying themselves.
However, everyone turned out into a good citizen and did as requested by the officials in charge of the evacuation. Still, what was described as a “temporary” evacuation of only three days turned out to be permanent.
In fact, some people wondered why they needed to go if they had to come back after three days.
Only animals were left behind after the evacuation, and squads were organized to kill them. Nonetheless, there are still animals in the zone, and they have adapted and survived.
Also, a day after the disaster, 26 people were admitted into hospitals with signs of radiation sickness.
Four years later, in 1990, Boris Shcherbina died in Moscow. The world still recognizes how much his resistance to a plan to cover up the full scale of the disaster helped make it less destructive than it would have turned out to be.
Over 50,000 square miles were contaminated by the disaster in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Experts estimate that it will take at least 180 years before cesium, one of the chemicals that was released into the atmosphere, is completely eliminated.
In the 90s, around 3,000 cases of thyroid cancer were reported among children aged less than 14 years in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. However, the heroic and timely actions of Boris Shcherbina will always be remembered as they helped save many lives and keep the destruction the disaster could have ultimately caused under control.