The Toxin of Chernobyl

19 June 2019

Cultural Studies | History | Politics

Chernobyl, HBO’s hit mini-series, thrust the catastrophic events of the infamous nuclear accident back into the public consciousness, prompting new discussions about how the disaster unfolded and who was ultimately accountable. As with any dramatisation of real events, the authenticity of the show came under scrutiny; according to some outlets, Russian state TV planned its own drama about the events of April 1986. Watching the series, we here at Adam Matthew were reminded of a Soviet-made documentary we had seen in the online resource, Socialism on Film: The Cold War and International Propaganda.



Produced just months after the explosion, The Toxin of Chernobyl (1987) documents the aftermath of the accident from May to early September. It makes for a fascinating yet equally harrowing companion to the HBO series. Whilst the latter revolves around the question “What is the cost of lies?”, the documentary focuses on the accident as a warning against nuclear war and an appeal for disarmament.

It blends footage of the wide-scale operations to eliminate the radiation with first-hand accounts from Chernobyl plant workers and evacuees who lived in the Exclusion Zone. Those interviewed express their feelings of displacement and longing for their homes. They discuss their fears over the unknown effects and extent of radiation poisoning, their heartbreak at the contamination of their land, and the “irresponsibility” that caused the accident.



Viewers of the TV series will recognise the frantic efforts of men on the roof removing radioactive debris by hand in treacherous minute-and-a-half shifts. Orders are translated in this footage by the narrator: “When you get to the 90, drop everything and run back.” Decontamination efforts of soldiers in the surrounding villages, so movingly recreated on screen, are also captured in The Toxin of Chernobyl, as are the efforts of miners. Boris Shcherbina, portrayed in the series by Stellan Skarsgård, is seen briefly in this documentary in his role as head of the Government Commission for the accident and Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) is mentioned by name.

Nevertheless, while Chernobyl shows how Soviet propaganda and cover-ups were exposed by the scientific community, this contemporary film instead celebrates the clean-up operation and charitable donations, while condemning US defence policy and placing blame on individual plant managers - those who, in the words of Toxin's narrator, “tried to subordinate the greatest discovery of our age, the energy of the atom, to departmental interests.” Despite their differences, both productions effectively capture the desperately sad toll that the disaster would unleash, not only in the present, but for years to come.

Digitised from the archives of the British Film Institute (BFI), Socialism on Film: The Cold War and International Propaganda is a collection of documentaries, newsreels and features that reveals the world as seen by Soviet, Chinese, Vietnamese, East European, British and Latin American film makers.

For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Amy Hubbard

Amy Hubbard

Since joining Adam Matthew’s editorial team in January 2015 I’ve had the privilege to work on some fantastic resources including ‘World’s Fairs: A Global History of Exhibitions’, 'Race Relations in America‘ and 'Socialism on Film: The Cold War and International Propaganda’. My academic background is in literature and film and my main academic interests lie in visual culture, in particular anything to do with David Bowie.
Lindsay Gulliver

Lindsay Gulliver

Since joining the editorial team at Adam Matthew, I have worked on a range of resources charting the history of colonial America, nineteenth-century publishing and socialist propaganda. My main academic interests lie in cultural history and Thatcherism, but I enjoy researching all areas of modern history.