5 Facts About HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ And The Languages Of The Soviet Union

Why do the actors in HBO’s miniseries speak with British accents? Was the native language of Chernobyl Russian? Let’s dive into the language and culture questions of this popular show.
Ukrainian city of Pripyat, site of Chernobyl disaster | Babbel

Executive Producer Craig Mazin does not shy away from the emotional and physical horror of the events following the Chernobyl Disaster in his HBO miniseries. Although most of the world had heard of it as the world’s worst nuclear disaster, very few knew much about it. Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of the series is the insight into the mindset of the former Soviet Union — a state (and culture) that continues to have a huge impact on Europe and Asia today. 

The makers and producers have undeniably produced a television masterpiece (even overtaking Breaking Bad on IMDB), and have also raised fascinating questions about the Soviet Union’s language and culture. Let’s dive in.

1. Brits Aren’t Very Good At Russian Accents

After Chernobyl aired in May, there was one question at the forefront of social media: Why are the actors speaking with British accents?

Creator and writer Craig Mazin explained that he and his team decided to quickly scrap any attempts to get the primarily British cast to put on Eastern European accents. Speaking on Chernobyl’s official podcast, Mazin said, “The decision not to use Russian accents was a big one that we made early on. We had an initial thought that we didn’t want to do the ‘Boris and Natasha’ cliched accent because the Russian accent can turn comic very easily. At first, we thought that maybe we would have people do these sort of vaguely Eastern European accents — not really strong but noticeable.”

“What we found very quickly is that actors will act accents. They will not act, they will act accents and we were losing everything about these people that we loved. Honestly, I think after maybe one or two auditions we said ‘OK, new rule. We’re not doing that anymore.’” Listen more about this choice in the podcast here:

2. What Was The Language Of Pripyat, Ukraine?

The Soviet Union was a one-party socialist state that existed between 1922 and 1991. It consisted of 15 Soviet republics across Eurasia with a centralized government in Moscow. At the time of the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986, the people of Ukraine would have communicated primarily in Russian. But why is that when Ukrainians have their own language, Ukrainian? 

Ukrainian and Russian, while similar, are different languages and held different social statuses in Soviet Ukraine. In the USSR, Ukrainian school instruction was taught in Russian and Ukrainian language newspapers were banned. Ukrainian intelligentsia were also rounded up, arrested and executed. Even when these restrictions loosened in the ’80s, Ukrainian was treated as a lesser-language. Today, many people in Ukraine still speak both languages, with 68% of the population speaking Ukrainian as their first language.

Russian and Ukrainian, like most other languages in the former USSR, are part of the Slavic language family. But there were hundreds of different languages and dialects spoken within the Soviet Union, from Baltic languages (Lithuanian and Latvian), to Finnic languages (Estonian) and even Romanian — the only Romance language in the region. 

3. Cultural Details Were Fact-Checked With Soviet Ukrainians

Despite adapting some aspects of the story to fit the miniseries format, the directors ensured the details were authentic by asking for guidance from people who grew up in Soviet Ukraine. Mazin stated that accessing this knowledge “required kind of both living inside that mind in that culture and sharing the scripts early on with people who grew up in Soviet Ukraine and having them vet through things.” 

Mazin further explained the lengths he and his team went to guarantee an accurate depiction of Soviet Ukraine: “Insane attention to tiny details, clothing, watches, glasses, everything. Shooting in Lithuania, a lot of our crew was old enough to remember what it was like living in the Soviet Union. They would let us know, ‘You know, if you brought your lunch to work, you would use a briefcase for that. You wouldn’t use a paper bag.’”

4. Embracing A Culture Without The Language

Speaking to Indiewire, Johan Renck, the director of all five episodes in the miniseries said, “It’s the culture that you need to embrace and it’s really hard to embrace culture without the use of language. But then, it was trying to find some kind of Soviet behaviorisms, whatever you can do to try to sort of promote a cultural expression and body language and facial expressions.”

The British cast had to downplay their natural expressiveness to stay in line with the behavior of people in the USSR. Renck explained, “To be honest, one of the tricky parts was we were using mostly British actors. Brits are very, very expressive, whereas the Soviet and Eastern European way is much more stern, stone-faced.” This isn’t just a stereotype — researchers have found that some cultures smile more (and are more open) than others.

Western viewers found the unquestioning obedience of orders, even when it meant walking into nearly certain death, difficult to understand. Similarly, viewers felt confused about why characters accepted there was no graphite on the ground, even though it was burning a hole in their hands. But these scenarios paint a strong picture of the cultural landscape and mindset of people living under Soviet rule.

5. Russia Will Be Shooting Its Own Chernobyl Story

Unsurprisingly, the Russian government wasn’t a big fan of the series. Pro-Soviet columnist Anatoly Vasserman wrote, “If Anglo-Saxons film something about Russians, it definitely will not correspond to the truth.”

Russia’s NTV channel recently announced they will shoot their own version of the Chernobyl events based on the premise that a CIA agent had infiltrated the Chernobyl plant. The film’s director, Alexei Muradov, justifies the storyline: “One theory holds that Americans had infiltrated the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and many historians do not deny that. On the day of the explosion, an agent of the enemy’s intelligence services was present at the station.”

We assume HBO won’t be airing this version, but it could still prove to be a very interesting learning resource for Russian learners.