The case of Chernobyl chief investigator Valery Legasov is to this day mysterious and unsettling. Although the horrifying 1986 nuclear plant explosion at Chernobyl has never disappeared from the news cycle, the rave reviews that the 2019 HBO miniseries Chernobyl is garnering bring the disaster firmly to the fore. Winning particular attention in the miniseries is the role of Soviet scientist Valery Legasov, portrayed by Jared Harris.
Valery Legasov was an inorganic chemist specializing in noble gases and became a key member of the Soviet government’s investigation into the Chernobyl disaster less than 24 hours after it occurred. While some officials tried to minimize the explosion’s effect and cover up the causes, Legasov called for honesty and pushed for the evacuation of the town of Pripyat, also saying action must be taken to save lives across Europe in case of a secondary, even more damaging explosion.
He had been the deputy director of the I.V. Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy and a member of the Presidium of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
On April 26, 1986, Reactor Four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine exploded, and fire from the explosion raged for 10 days, releasing tons of radioactive nuclear particles into the open air. More than 30 people succumbed within days of acute radiation, among them the local firefighters who raced to the plant without any idea of the lethal risks. It is estimated about 4,000 people died later of related cancers, and experts say the surrounding area won’t be fit for human habitation for 20,000 years.
The miniseries begins in 1988, two years after the explosion, with a furtive Legasov making audio tapes before taking his own life at 51 years of age. The narrative then heads back to 1986, and the fateful control room of the Chernobyl plant, where the reckless actions of one man in particular, deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, led to disaster.
In one of the most effective scenes, Jared Harris says just after arriving at the scene, “You are dealing with something that has never happened on this planet before.”
In 1986, four months after the explosion, Legasov participated in a 5-hour hearing on what caused the accident at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Legasov acknowledged human error as well as faulty design of the reactor, writing in his report, “Neglect by the scientific management and the designers was everywhere with no attention being paid to the condition of instruments or of equipment.”
He was applauded in the international community for his frank explanations and commitment to the investigation. His bravery was noted as well, as he was one of the only members of the team to not leave the site until the situation was contained, whereas other members rotated in and out of Chernobyl to avoid contamination. However, back home he was rather coldly received as the authorities didn’t want to bring any more attention to the matter and wanted to downplay the effects and causes of the meltdown.
Legasov hanged himself two years and one day after the explosion, leaving no note behind stating the cause for his final act of despair. There is speculation that he was deeply traumatized by his experience, and disillusioned with the Soviet government. Intense pressure on the Soviet nuclear plants to perform in the 1980s led to unsafe risks, some say. Reportedly, Legasov said that Chernobyl was the “apotheosis of all that was wrong in the management of the national economy and had been so for many decades.”
Some believe that it was what he learned about his government’s role in the catastrophe that led to his hopelessness. Legasov had detailed how there was no infrastructure or organization within the Soviet Union that had the capability to deal with the mammoth effects of the Chernobyl situation.
Vladimir Gubarev, a close friend of Legasov who wrote a popular play based on Chernobyl, stated in the Soviet newspaper Pravda that Legasov was ridiculed by his colleagues for how he handled the investigation despite the international praise he received for it. He subsequently lost a seat on the scientific and technical council of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, where he had previously served as deputy director. This was a devastating blow and many speculate also played a large part in his sad fate.
Legasov left behind many journals and allegedly audio tapes in his final days. However much of this is still being sifted through and called into question.
Jared Harris, while preparing to portray Legasov, told The Cheat Sheet that he didn’t listen to any audio tapes to prepare for the role, but not because he did not want to. “There weren’t audio tapes,” Harris said. “He left behind journals. But that’s not as cinematic as audio tapes.”
Harris continued, “They’re very hard to get a hold of. In fact, there’s not a lot of him left in the historical record because they basically wrote him out of the story. They erased him from history. That’s what they were trying to do as a threat.” The actor said this was “to stop him from trying to get the story out.”
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Harris said the director of Chernobyl wanted to recover some of these names from history that have been forgotten and give them an appropriate place and have their sacrifice be remembered.”
Correction: In a previous version of this article we wrongly stated that Legasov was a nuclear physicist. He was in fact an inorganic chemist. The correction was made on 7/9/2019.
Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. Her new book, The Blue, is a spy story set in the 18th-century porcelain world. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com