It was the fall of 1986, some six months after the catastrophic Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion, and a group of soldiers suited up to enter the radiation-riddled site. Their task: Clean hundreds of tons of expelled, highly radioactive, nuclear fuel from rooftops near the reactor.
Dressed in what appears to be foul-weather gear, one of the young men cinches his gloves and tightens the drawstring of his hoodie to shield his cheeks. Another slips a .1-inch-thick piece of lead, thinner than the protective coverings provided for dental X-rays, over his back. Some insert the sheets inside their undershorts, creating what is cheekily referred to as an “egg basket,” to protect their private parts.
“Radiation is nonsense!” one of the men crowed on camera as his buddies goofed around and put bunny ears behind each other.
After all, their government had told them they were safe.
The new documentary “Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes,” premiering Wednesday on HBO, exposes the shocking lies the Soviet government fed its citizens in an effort to downplay the dangers of the Chernobyl explosion — even as officials who knew better protected themselves.
Among the recently discovered and previously unseen footage is video originally shot to be propaganda as the country scurried to downplay the severity of the event.
“The Soviet government played fast and loose with the truth,” director James Jones told The Post. “They thought they would be able to film the clean-up and look like a country full of heroic people. There were government-made documentaries, released in Soviet theaters, one year after the explosion. But it was dangerous for the filmmakers [to have gone so close to the radiation]. One of the directors died, as a result of radiation poisoning, one month after his film premiered.”
Officially, the Soviet Union claimed a total of 31 deaths from the explosion, which happened during a safety test on April 26, 1986, at the power plant located in the Ukrainian settlement of Pryp’yat, 65 miles north of Kyiv. (At the time, Ukraine was still part of the USSR and this was five years before the Soviet collapse in 1991.) As per Jones, “We will never know the true number [of fatalities]but it’s certainly thousands of dead with millions affected by the radiation in some way.”
By the time the young soldiers were sent in for clean-up, months after the explosion, the radiation in Chernobyl City had risen to a point where, according to a government official, “the explosion was equivalent to 400 nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” It had already drifted from northern Ukraine to Scandinavia.
The men were among some 5,000 of the country’s soldiers who were coerced into the job. Before the mission, they received a pep talk from General Nikolai Tarakanov, the man in charge of removing the radioactive debris. In the doc, he is seen telling them that he “asked the commission to choose the strongest, healthiest soldiers who were inventive and sporty.”
Jones describes the men as “young” and “naive.” A bureaucrat in the film calls them “bio robots.”
“Nobody knew anything, especially the first ones [to go to in],” Nicolai Kaplin, a so-called “liquidator,” one of the civilians and military members recruited to help with the the clean-up, says in the doc. “They knew nothing and were literally descending into hell.”
According to one of the soldiers, some 80 percent of those assigned to the clean-up died of diseases stemming from radiation poisoning, thanks to the government leading them to believe that the work was safe — even telling people radiation was a myth.
“What surprised me the most was the scale of the lies. The Chernobyl explosion happened one year after Glasnost, when everything was supposed to be open and honest,” Jones said, referencing then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1985 policy promise of a more transparent government and broader dissemination of information.
“But when the disaster happened on Gorbachev’s watch, he hid the causes of the explosion and, subsequently, the horrific effects, like the deaths and illnesses.”
Those who emerged from the cleaning mission received a bonus of 800 rubles and a commander’s praise: “You have completed the assignment excellently. I wish you health and a long life.”
As illustrated by new material in the documentary, government-sanctioned lying began hours after the nuclear explosion, which took on the shape of a mushroom cloud as it rose out of reactor number four. Residents of Chernobyl were gently suggested to leave town for a few days due to “unfavorable radiation conditions,” as it was announced over public address systems.
As Oleksandr Sirota, who was 10 years old and living in Chernobyl at the time, said in the film that officials didn’t “tell everybody to go home and shut the doors and windows.” Instead, following government advice, parents “took kids to the playground. [There was] 10 times the radiation outside.”
Thirty-six hours after the blast, some 2,200 busses were sent to Chernobyl and loaded with residents for what was promised to be a short respite from the city. Happy to be off from school and work, people danced and sang as they waited to board. “It was all lies … No big deal [they were told],” former USSR General Nikolai Tarakanov says in the doc. “[The government claimed] the radiation level is acceptable. In fact the level of radiation was extraordinary. If we were told the truth, there would have been immense panic.”
To make sure any bad news did not spread, said Jones, “They cut the town’s phone lines.”
With government controlled newspapers, such as Pravda, carrying a small story about the explosion buried on back pages, people in Ukraine and Russia had little clue that anything serious had transpired — and little way of protecting themselves from the dangerous radiation.
Jones said he was particularly shocked by “images of the May Day parade going ahead in Kyiv just days after the accident, when the Kremlin knew there were dangerously high levels of radiation … People in the crowd noticed that prominent politicians who would normally be on stage with their families were not present. [But they] allowed the parade to go ahead despite the risks to all those present.”
Meanwhile, a big deal was made about the bodies of Chernobyl workers being buried in Moscow, as if it was an honor. But, according to Jones, this was so that the government could insure that those exposed to high levels of radiation could be secretly interred in “special graves reinforced with metal and concrete. [The Soviet government] claimed they were worried the corpses were so radioactive they would contaminate the land … although some people think that the real reason they insisted on burying them like that in Moscow is so that the families couldn’t exhume the bodies and take them back to Ukraine. Their deaths are still shrouded in secrecy.”
Unknown to most of the USSR’s populace, their government had been dealing with problems at the nuclear power plant prior to the Chernobyl catastrophe. “The Ministry of Health had a so-called Fourth Department,” Eleksiy Breus, a Chernobyl engineer, reveals in the documentary. “It was in charge of nuclear medicine. There were countless cases of people with radiation sickness before Chernobyl. Treatment schemes had already been developed [by the time of the explosion].”
After the incident, doctors in the classified Fourth Department played God and practiced a pitiless form of medicine that was kept tightly under wraps: “The doctors knew who would make it through and who wouldn’t from the first days. They treated those who could be treated,” says Breus.
A widow in the doc recalls being told that her husband was doing well and would be fine, only for him to perish days later.
Meanwhile, the government did everything it could to evade responsibility. According to the doc, KGB agents pressured Soviet citizens with attachments to Chernobyl — either as workers or relatives of the deceased — to sign non-disclosure agreements forbidding them from revealing “the true cause of the Chernobyl Power Plant nuclear disaster.”
Even though the hospitals were riddled with radiation, Soviet government officials played dumb about the skin peeling, discoloration and blistering conditions that came to those exposed to radiation. They insisted that nobody was suffering physically as a result of radiation poisoning and blamed the symptoms on a concocted psychological disorder: Radiophobia.
“The Soviet government couldn’t admit the scale of the catastrophe,” said Jones. “They denied radiation was having a serious effect on the health of local residents and people involved in the clean-up despite mountains of evidence. They invented radiophobia to explain medical symptoms [and] implied that the causes weren’t in fact expunged but just a fear of radiation. They were effectively gaslighting an entire population by telling them it was all in their head.”
Lyumila Ihnatenko, whose firefighter husband helped extinguish the Chernobyl blaze and died from an incredible intake of radiation, was newly pregnant at the time and is lucky to be alive today. As for the couple’s child? She died five hours after birth.
“All that radiation I inhaled,” Ihnatenko says in the doc, “she absorbed it.”
In the movie, a hospital nurse speaks grimly about defective babies. “Women are giving birth to so-called ‘sirens,’” she says. “The lower part of the [baby’s] body turns into, like, a fishtail.”
As for today, the fallout was so intense that it has yet to dissipate. In a kangaroo-court trial, six workers at the plant were saddled with full responsibility for the catastrophe and given prison sentences. Bitter and behind bars, Anatoly Diyatlov, former deputy chief of Chernobyl, stares into a camera lens and says, “I didn’t make any risky decisions about the reactor. Mistakes made by staff are a lie. A lie of the Soviet Union.”