Hero of Chernobyl: An Interview with Alexei Ananenko

On 6 May 1986, 10 days after the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, three engineers entered the building’s flooded basement on a mission to prevent the disaster from getting a whole lot worse. I met with one of them in 2019 to hear his story.

Alexei Ananenko opens the apartment door and with a wide smile, he says in English: “Come in, come in, you are welcome!” His eyes have a youthful twinkle to them, and he seems genuinely delighted to see us. I hadn’t known what to expect, exactly, meeting a celebrated Hero of Chernobyl – the recipient of countless honours and prestigious awards, a man sometimes credited with no less than having “saved most of Europe from becoming a radioactive wasteland.” But in person, Ananenko is as humble and down-to-earth as anyone I’ve met. He’s funny too – relentlessly cracking jokes throughout the time we spend together.

It is September 2019, and along with millions of other viewers, I have just recently seen a dramatised version of Alexei Ananenko on screen, played by Baltasar Breki Samper in HBO’s acclaimed Chernobyl miniseries. After the series aired, Ananenko tells me, he was busy for months with visits from journalists. “All of June,” he says. “The BBC first, then others too.” He would have every right to be tired of the attention by now, but instead, he’s happy to talk to me for hours, as well as presenting the collection of various medals that decorate cabinets throughout his home in the Troieshchyna district of Kyiv, where he lives with his wife Valya. They seem a very close team – Valya knows Alexei’s story so well, that she’s able to fill in the gaps when he forgets details; and later, she shares some of her own perspectives too.

In May 2018, former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko awarded Ananenko the Order of Courage medal. In the summer of 2019, the new president Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave him the Hero of Ukraine award. But Alexei Ananenko is a modest man, who discourages the media sensationalism that surrounds the disaster, and his own actions at Chernobyl; he’s quick to shrug off terms like “hero,” instead insisting that he only did his duty.

Alexei Ananenko at home in September 2019, holding the Order of Courage medal awarded to him the previous year by President Petro Poroshenko.
Alexei Ananenko at home in September 2019, holding the Order of Courage medal awarded to him the previous year by President Petro Poroshenko.

Anyone who has seen the HBO series will already have an idea what Ananenko did to earn those medals. On 6 May 1986, as the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was still unfolding, Ananenko took part in a crucial mission to drain the “bubbler pool” of Reactor 4. The design of this RBMK-1000 reactor funnelled the exhaust steam internally into a pool of cold water, where it condensed into liquid waste that could then be safely piped out for cleaning or storage. Following the disaster on 26 April however, the drainage valves in the basement would need to be opened manually… and if they weren’t, there was an increasingly high chance that the molten reactor core – which was now bubbling over into a hellish mess of radioactive lava above – would reach the pool first. If this happened, the heat would vaporise the water, causing a steam explosion right beneath the radioactive material.

Three men were assigned to this mission: Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov and shift supervisor Boris Baranov. Kitted out with wetsuits, spanners and dosimeters, they descended into the semi-flooded basement levels of Reactor 4, beneath the melting core, to prevent the imminent escalation of the disaster.

In the HBO Chernobyl series, the events of 6 May are set up in a dramatic scene towards the end of the first episode. Vice-Chairman of the Council of Ministers Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgård) faces a room full of soldiers and engineers, and gives a blistering speech as he calls for volunteers to drain the bubbler pool:

“You’ll do it because it must be done. You’ll do it because no one else can, and if you don’t, millions will die. And if you tell me that’s not enough, I won’t believe you. This is what has always set our people apart. A thousand years of sacrifice in our veins. And every generation must know its own suffering. I spit on the people who did this. And I curse the price I have to pay. But I am making my peace with it. Now you make yours. And go into that water. Because it must be done.”

The Soviet commander speech is a Hollywood staple. Shcherbina’s “Do it for the Motherland” scene in the HBO series follows a long-established tradition in American film and television, where the gruff Soviet leader inspires his troops to action with a blood-and-thunder speech drenched in ideology. (See also: Sean Connery’s Captain Marko Ramius in The Hunt for Red October (1990), or Bob Hoskins playing Nikita Khrushchev in Enemy at the Gates (2001).) That scene was also entirely fictional, Ananenko tells me.

In reality, no one volunteered for this job. It was not considered to be a “suicide mission” at the time, and while a failure to act could have spread much more radioactive material across the local area, the chance of a steam explosion causing a nuclear chain reaction that “would vaporise the fuel in the three other reactors, level 200 square kilometres, destroy Kyiv,” and even “render Europe uninhabitable” (a claim made by numerous commentators, and repeated in HBO’s miniseries), was essentially impossible – owing to the very precise conditions that are required to trigger and sustain a fission chain reaction. Put simply, a nuclear power plant doesn’t turn into a nuclear bomb by accident.

The three men who entered that basement all lived to see the next century: Baranov died from a heart attack in 2005, at the age of 64; Bespalov now works for the EnergoAtom state enterprise in Kyiv. And when I was in Kyiv, working on Chernobyl: A Stalkers’ Guide, I got in touch with Ananenko – who immediately invited me to his home to talk about Chernobyl. Over the course of our conversation, Alexei Ananenko shares many of his memories of Chernobyl, from both before and after the disaster… and he explains what really happened on that day in 1986.

Alexei Ananenko as a young engineer, photographed in the years before the Chernobyl disaster.
Alexei Ananenko as a young engineer, photographed in 1987.

Working at Chernobyl

Alexei Ananenko was born on 13 October 1959, in the Komi region of Russia. His father had previously been relocated there as punishment – in 1937, Ananenko’s father was arrested for treason and was allowed to choose between the gulag, or manual labour in this remote region of northwest Russia. He chose the latter, and it was there that he met Ananenko’s mother, who was one of the indigenous Finno-Ugric Komi people.

Ananenko went away to study at the Moscow Power Engineering Institute, and he tells me how this opened the door for his placement at the prestigious new Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

Alexei Ananenko: I was 23. It was 1983, right after I left the institute. In Soviet times, there was an automatic assignment of careers after graduation. It’s not like that any more, of course. But I graduated with honours, which gave me the right to choose my job. I was among the first to choose to go to the Chernobyl NPP.

Why did I decide to come here? Because I knew that people who came to this place, after just one year they would be given an apartment, and this path meant I could choose the jobs I took in the future too. The station was developing very rapidly in those times… it was still under construction. They said they would build a total of twelve [reactor] units there! And with that, they were building new housing. So everyone went to Chernobyl for the housing.

My first job at the plant was manual labour. It was a common practice in Soviet times – you would finish at the institute, and they’d say: “Now forget everything you learned in university! We’ll teach you about real work.” So I began with manual labour.

I think that’s probably a good approach… particularly for an engineer, it’s important to learn all the processes from the beginning. Here, look – there’s a note. [He passes me his employment record book to look at.] “Enrolled as a young specialist operator, category six, in reactor shop number two.” So that means I was just a common operator. But a year later, I was promoted to the position of full engineer. My diploma said “engineer,” but at the plant, it took me some time to actually get promoted to the job I had trained for.

Like most of the other plant employees, Alexei Ananenko was given accommodation in the new city of Pripyat. I ask him what the city was like, before the disaster.

Alexei Ananenko: Ah, it was good. Everything was good… I lived in the workers’ dormitory at first. But my mother was old and ill, so I fetched her from our home in Tambovsk region. She was alone there, so I brought her here. I rented a house for us in a village near Pripyat, because I couldn’t take my mother to the workers’ dormitory. So we lived in a house outside Pripyat for a while… we didn’t pay much for it. I remember going to chop firewood just nearby, to keep us warm through the winter. And then an apartment was given to me in 1985. So fast! They gave me an apartment after just two years.

By Soviet standards, Pripyat developed very quickly. Workers received apartments fast, and this is part of the reason why so many people went to work in Pripyat. In Kyiv, you’d have to wait for 20 years to get an apartment!

Alexei Ananenko shows off his diploma from the Moscow Power Engineering Institute. The National Chernobyl Museum in Kyiv have previously asked if he'd consider donating it to their exhibition.
Alexei Ananenko shows off his diploma from the Moscow Power Engineering Institute. The National Chernobyl Museum in Kyiv have previously asked if he’d consider donating it to their exhibition.

The Disaster

Ananenko remembers his own experience of the Chernobyl disaster, on 26 April 1986.

Alexei Ananenko: There was, as they say, some kind of flaw in the reactor design. The experiment was supposed to happen on 25 April, during the daytime – like Bespalov told us. Everyone was working according to a strict manual, and that manual didn’t allow for any such deviations. They really shouldn’t have tried conducting that experiment at night. I’m no specialist in this department, but the current at night is apparently higher throughout the power grid – because of the lower consumption. And they did something they were not supposed to. The plant workers said that the old manuals were taken away right after the accident. Of course, the designers of the reactor didn’t confess to any flaws – it was easier to blame the workers at the station.

Maybe [Deputy Chief-Engineer Anatoly] Dyatlov should have said No. But in Soviet times, you know… it’s like they say. If the Party tells you to do something, you can’t just say No. Still, Dyatlov was wrong to agree to this. They also say that he was a very authoritarian person. Though nobody will prove anything now, anyway. Most of the documents were taken to Moscow immediately after the accident.

Myself, I remember that day clearly. People often come to see me, and ask about this. I always tell them the same thing. So when I went outside on the 26th [April], in the morning to go to work… well, before work I went to the canteen to have some breakfast. And I saw that the streets were being washed – there were cleaning vehicles spreading some kind of white foam. And then I immediately realised that something had happened at the station. In a normal situation, they never sprayed foam. They would just use water to wash the streets. Then after breakfast I took the bus, and as we approached the station, I saw the ruins of the reactor.

Mmm, I remember that. Because people were all staring at it… and I decided that if you looked at it, the radiation would come to you. So I looked this way instead. [Ananenko laughs as he mimes looking away, and shielding his face.]

Of course, that didn’t work. The firefighters, and others who were exposed to the radiation, were taken away to Moscow immediately. We were told they’d be separated there into a single room each. They had very weak immune systems – you could walk in and sneeze in the room, and that might’ve killed them. The doctors were drawing blood from them, because they knew their bodies could not produce any more blood cells. And when they got worse – they would get injected with their own preserved blood.

The Monument to Those Who Saved the World was installed in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on 26 April 1996 – the 10 year anniversary of the disaster.
The Monument to Those Who Saved the World was installed in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on 26 April 1996 – the 10 year anniversary of the disaster. (From my article on the Monuments of Chernobyl.)
The sculpted figures around the monument represent firefighters, doctors and dosimetrists – as well as an engineer shown opening a valve, in recognition of the efforts of Ananenko and his colleagues.
The sculpted figures around the monument represent firefighters, doctors and dosimetrists – as well as an engineer shown opening a valve, in recognition of the efforts of Ananenko and his colleagues.

The Evacuation

I ask Ananenko about the aftermath of the disaster. What was it like to be in Pripyat, in the days and weeks that followed?

Alexei Ananenko: A lot of things were covered up. They could have told people to stay home for the 1 May parade [in Kyiv], for example, but they let it go ahead. And it’s all because they were afraid of panic. The same with the phone lines. In Pripyat most people didn’t have phones anyway. It was just some of the bosses who had them. But after the accident, they immediately disconnected all of the city’s phone lines… to prevent the panic spreading, they completely disconnected us.

They were even offering people money to leave the city… because people didn’t understand how bad it was. During the evacuation on 27 April, some of the buses stayed overnight on the bridge outside Pripyat – just downwind from Reactor 4. The drivers all got high doses of radiation, and the buses did too. In the morning, those buses were sent in to evacuate people, and nobody even warned them about it.

Then after that, everything was closed. All the stock was taken out of the shops and destroyed – nothing remained. We didn’t stay much longer… we [Ananenko and some colleagues] found an apartment on the 8th, or 12th floor of a building, and we stayed there, we all slept in one apartment for a few days while we began the disaster response. But by then, all the elevators were already disabled, so we had to walk up and down the stairs… and meanwhile, they said they had prepared a place for us somewhere far away, and safer.

When we left Pripyat, we left in cars. But you weren’t allowed to take big things with you – only small. I took my TV set. I had spent a lot of money on it, so it would’ve been a pity to leave it behind. They checked it, of course. Checked the radiation dose. And anything that showed a level higher than the acceptable norm had to be thrown away.

I remember how afterwards, some people came back there to collect their things. I remember this because it seemed so strange to me. The elevators were offline, so they had to use the stairs… and some people brought vodka with them, so they could have one last drink in their old homes. And after that, when they realised the elevators weren’t working anymore, they just wrapped their belongings in bed linen, and threw them down from the windows.

Unfortunately, looting was also a thing. Nobody knows how they got this stuff out [of the Zone]! Either through the forest, or they bribed someone. I bet they bribed someone. I think, because of the nature of radiation, that these people, the looters, must have suffered some terrible effects from this. Because I’m sure they didn’t check anything for radiation, and some of them were stealing stuff for themselves – to use at home, or in the garage.

Like many of those evacuated from Pripyat, Alexei and Valya Ananenko now live in the Troyeschina district of Kyiv. In 2007, the Heroes of Chernobyl Memorial Complex was opened nearby, to honour those who risked their lives during the disaster.
Like many of those evacuated from Pripyat, Alexei and Valya Ananenko now live in the Troyeschina district of Kyiv. In 2007, the Heroes of Chernobyl Memorial Complex was opened nearby, to honour those who risked their lives during the disaster. (From my article on the Monuments of Chernobyl.)

6 May 1986

It was 10 days after the disaster, the city of Pripyat was already evacuated, and the fires at the plant were still burning, when the decision was made to send a small team of engineers into the basement level of the Chernobyl plant, to manually open the valves on the bubbler pool.

Alexei Ananenko: They called me and said I had to go down and flush the bubbler pool. They called me and told me what to do. I called Baranov, the shift supervisor. I asked for one more person to come with us [Bezpalov], because we needed to open two valves. We went there together, and Baranov said he’d be there in case we needed help.

When I came to work that day, people from the previous shift gave us the radiation readings. Not from the pool, but from the area above it. I don’t remember the readings, as they weren’t bad enough to be memorable. We could easily walk there, then go down one level to where the water was. I took two dosimeters with me, like this. [He points to where one would have been, attached to his chest, and then another just below his kneecap.] The water only reached our knees because the firemen had already pumped some out.

Why was I sent? Because I had been part of the maintenance team, so I knew this place inside out. I took a flashlight with me. There was a light switch there on the wall, but after the accident it didn’t work and it was dark where the corridor had flooded. We didn’t want to walk in it, but there was a pipe running above the water – so we walked on that instead. You couldn’t move fast on that pipe though, or you’d fall into the water.

One more thing that I had with me was an adjustable spanner. I was planning to use that in case I couldn’t open the valve manually. But everything went okay – we opened the valves, and heard the water rushing out of the tank. When we returned to the surface I gave my dosimeters back. I don’t remember the measurements at that point either, but there wasn’t any kind of high radiation reading there.

I never thought it might mean death, and they only sent me because I knew how to do it. They couldn’t have sent anyone else! And of course, in that position, I could hardly have said No –  why would you employ someone like that [as a maintenance engineer]?

The mission was a success, and due to the efforts of Ananenko, Bezpalov and Baranov, the risk of another steam explosion was averted. But after the three of them came back to the surface, in the coming weeks they would all show signs of radiation sickness.

Alexei Ananenko: My legs are usually pale, that much is not strange! But while I was in the hospital, I started developing black spots on my legs. They call that the “radioactive tan.” It developed over time. I don’t remember this, but Bespalov talks about it: when we returned from the bubbler pool, we immediately went into the showers. And Bespalov said, “we washed ourselves, but we were still contaminated, so we went into the shower again, washed again – but we still set off the alarms. Again and again.” So it seems those diving suits they put us in really didn’t protect us from the radiation.

They didn’t tell us anything at first – nobody said “go see the doctors, let them give you some medication.” Nothing like that. In three years of liquidation, I accumulated 92 REM. While the acceptable norm for a nuclear power plant worker is 5 REM annually, I think.

The Liquidators

In the years after the disaster, and even after the destroyed reactor itself had been sealed within a steel and concrete sarcophagus, hundreds of thousands of people worked in the region as liquidators – fighting to contain the spread of the leaked contamination. Ananenko was one of them, and he talks about his experiences on the liquidation project.

Alexei Ananenko: I worked as a liquidator for three years after the disaster. So, how was that exactly? Well, I can only talk about my own experience. There were a lot of us… I’m sure the rest can tell you about themselves!

We were taken to the camp – the ‘Skazochniy’ Summer Camp near Pripyat. It was a long way, so they took us on a big bus. That wasn’t such a comfortable place to stay though, as everything there had been made for children! But they adapted the place to accommodate us. I remember, whenever we came back there, they would immediately check us for radiation. If we had anything on us, we’d be made to strip. New protective clothes were bought in from different power plants, so we’d all change into those instead.

We had a bench at the entrance to the camp… so we all sat there when we returned to the camp each evening, we’d take off our clothes and boots, and throw them away. Because while we were out there – walking or driving – our clothes always got dirty. So we left them all at the entrance, and then slept in the camp.

Though in the end, the camp ended up becoming contaminated anyway. So we were moved to boats instead. They moved ships into the harbour, and us liquidators lived on ships that had been brought in from all around the Soviet Union!

Those were hard days. We had to leave for work early in the morning, because it was a long drive, and we had to get up for breakfast before that. I can’t remember so clearly, but I think we were issued food stamps for a free breakfast. Also, we were given iodine pills. Then we’d put on our suits, and masks to cover our mouths and faces. We went straight to the plant each day, but [to avoid contamination] the bus didn’t go all the way there – so we had to change buses. The second bus was operating just around the power plant itself.

I injured myself there one day [during the liquidation work]. There was a heavy steel door at the plant, and I smashed my head on it. I wanted to see the doctor, so I went to the hospital – but there was nobody there. They had left a note though. It said: “Gone to see Pugacheva.”

Alla Pugacheva, a singer who was described as the “Queen of Soviet pop,” was one of a number of artists who participated in a Chernobyl relief concert held in Kyiv, in May 1986. An audience of roughly 30,000 people turned out, and the event was later televised too, all with the purpose of raising funds for the Chernobyl liquidation project. In addition to the main event in Kyiv, Alla Pugacheva also made a special appearance in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, to perform for the liquidators themselves.

Alexei Ananenko: This was right after the accident, when we were living on the boats. And I remember – I wanted to see the concert too! Because Alla Pugacheva came there specially to perform for us, the liquidators.

But it turned out that many people from Kyiv had come by car to the Exclusion Zone, for the free concert! They weren’t scared of the radiation, apparently. As a result I couldn’t find anywhere to sit – every seat was already taken. So I went back to the ship, I opened the window and listened to the concert from there. I remember she said some nice words about us, the liquidators, and there was huge applause.

Alexei Ananenko presents the prestigious Hero of Ukraine award, given to him by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in July 2019. Photograph taken at his home, two months later.
Alexei Ananenko presents the prestigious Hero of Ukraine award, given to him by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in July 2019. Photograph taken at his home, two months later.

Nuclear Power

For decades after the disaster, Alexei Ananenko continued to work in the nuclear industry, giving lectures and seminars on nuclear safety. When I ask him if he’s pro-nuclear today, he looks at me as if I’m crazy.

Alexei Ananenko: What, would you want to live in a world without nuclear power? Well, here’s your answer: you couldn’t.

I have spent the last 16 years working in the state committee for nuclear safety. I was the head of the division for nuclear safety – I was tracking all accidents, both large and small. And if you ask me, can humanity survive without nuclear power? The answer is, of course not! Or at least, it would be much worse off without it.

Valya Ananenko: Humankind could not survive with an electrical supply provided by green energy. Our ex-president Yuschenko once told us to “burn straw to heat your houses.” Well, straw just isn’t going to do it! One kilowatt of green energy in Ukraine costs us about 5 hryvnia [0.15 euro]. Meanwhile, one kilowatt of nuclear power costs something like 50 kopeks [0.015 euro]. Humanity pays for its comfort. And after Chernobyl, major reforms were made – nuclear power became much safer. After Chernobyl, there are still fourteen RBMK-type reactor units operational. They’re in Russia, and major investments have been made into improving their safety. The only RBMK reactor that was shut down is Ignalina NPP [in Lithuania, and a filming location for HBO’s Chernobyl].

Alexei Ananenko: I worked in different countries after the disaster. In Russia, and I visited the USA too. I was sent to explain what happened [at Chernobyl]. I worked at the Nuclear Safety Committee, and we created a crisis centre together with some help from the Americans. Every morning the centre receives information from all stations, about all kinds of accidents and incidents. And then they have to notify the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] even if it’s just a small scale incident. The communication is so much better these days.

Chernobyl Tourism

I ask Alexei and Valya how they both feel about the growing Chernobyl tourism industry.

Alexei Ananenko: Chernobyl tourism is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the world. We were there recently – I wanted to try and visit my old apartment, but I couldn’t find the place! Everything was so heavily overgrown. You can’t see anything. I looked at one of the buildings, and I thought that was it. I had to duck to get inside. But then I realised it wasn’t my building at all, and we never found it in the end.

Valya Ananenko: It will be dangerous to go inside those buildings in a couple of years. I went inside some of them – in some places, where the concrete plates connect, there’s water dripping now. Everything is crumbling. The rain and the frost destroys everything.

The fictional versions of the trio of engineers, as they appear in HBO's Chernobyl miniseries.
The fictional versions of the trio of engineers, as they appear in HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries. Sky Atlantic / HBO.

HBO’s Chernobyl

Finally, we come to the subject of the American dramatisation of Ananenko’s actions in 1986. I ask if he saw HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries, and if so, how he feels about his own portrayal in it.

Alexei Ananenko: I watched it, and the way they presented it all. A lot of people have already been here and asked me what I think about it! I tell them – American people think like that. And I cannot say they are bad, or that we are better. For me this is absolutely okay. They are talking about us, but it was very much their own interpretation. They presented it in the way they would have done things had it happened over there [in America]. But here, things are a bit different.

Valya Ananenko: They did great. They did a lot of work. The households are displayed flawlessly. But the power plant bosses are significantly misrepresented. [Something that another former Chernobyl engineer, Oleksiy Breus, has heavily criticised.] And nobody was drinking vodka at work, like they do in the series! After work, sure – but they weren’t giving out crates of vodka to drink on the job.

Shortly after the release of HBO’s Chernobyl, it was announced that Russia’s NTV channel was producing its own Chernobyl drama… and it was rumoured that this version would place a CIA spy at the scene of the accident. I ask Alexei and Valya what they think about that.

Valya Ananenko: There was a theory back then, that America’s Challenger shuttle had crashed [in January 1986] due to Soviet sabotage. So there was a joke people told here – that the US were looking for revenge against the Soviets, and [three months later] they retaliated with another “Ch”… Chernobyl!

But seriously, how would the CIA have got in there? It was so heavily guarded. And the KGB were everywhere. Did they recruit someone from the KGB as a double agent, I wonder? Each shift had so many people working on it, that really, nobody was left alone long enough to cause any trouble.

In 2000, during a military drill, a rocket accidentally hit an apartment building in Brovary. [As reported here.] Our Minister of Defence at that time made a statement, saying this was “both theoretically and practically impossible.” But it happened! I think every government just makes things look however they want. In the case of Chernobyl, the Soviet Union, and now Russia, did not want to take the blame for this – so of course, now they have invented some CIA agents to blame instead.

Alexei Ananenko: It’s true, and now the Americans have a version of our story too… they made everything their own way, but I’m not against them. If it wasn’t for HBO, nobody would know about us!