Shocking, authentic, breathtaking – that’s how HBO’s new TV mini-series Chernobyl is described around the world. The bigger part of it was filmed in Lithuania in 2018. The first episode attracted almost 2 million viewers and presented the country as immersed in a surreal and mystical Soviet atmosphere. Those who want to experience the near past no longer have to go to Ukraine to see Chernobyl – for Lithuanians, it’s as simple as going outside. That’s why claim compensation company Skycop is inviting you to a tour of locations that entranced viewers worldwide and helped Chernobyl’s ratings unseat such heavy-hitters like A Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad.
Chernobyl in Lithuania: tens of locations, hundreds of filming hours
The explosion on the night of 26th of April 1986 seared the event into human memory with the radioactive flames of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant’s 4th reactor. Critics agree on the mini-series that came out three decades after the events that inspired it should also be enshrined in history.
HBO and its partners shot the horrifyingly detailed show in Lithuania in the summer of 2018. The success of Chernobyl is no surprise to the many members of the Lithuanian cinematographer community that worked on the project.
“I don’t want to brag, but I was not surprised by positive reactions. After reading the script, it became clear that Chernobyl is well written, revealing the global tragedy through the eyes that witnessed it,” said Jonas Špokas, CEO of Baltic Locations, the company that managed Chernobyl’s filming locations. “That’s why I knew that the viewer will empathize with them and feel it all. The series was hugely ambitious, and the director, the scriptwriter and the designer all put in the effort to take Lithuanian suggestions into account since they wanted it to be as authentic as it can be.”
It was for the sake of this authenticity that Jonas and his crew carried out a meticulous search of filming locations. The work began back in autumn 2016, as Pripyat, Chernobyl and Moscow had to be recreated almost entirely in Lithuania. That’s how the Soviet era was restaged at places as far apart as Pravieniškės and Visaginas – in total, over 40 different locations can be seen in the series. There were around 1000 hours of filmed footage.
Moscow in Kaunas: the director thought he was dreaming
You can start touring the Chernobyl Lithuania in Kaunas. The city that’s known for its interwar architecture was perfect for creating the Soviet Moscow you can see in the series.
However, one of the most memorable moments came from the magical scene in episode 1, where the locals in Pripyat are standing on a bridge, completely unaware of what truly happened at the nuclear power plant. The radioactive fallout that swirled on the screen like pollen created a palpable feeling of both mystery and calm.
“The scene was shot at M. Gimbutienė Street in Petrašiūnai. There’s an abandoned water-supply bridge there. Director Johan Renck said that he ‘could not have even dreamed’ of it,” said Jonas. “He was looking for a spot that seemed to emerge out of nothing. This bridge is just like that: purposeless, it seems to have neither a beginning nor an end. Built over a railroad track and meant for the water pipes running from the Petrašiūnai cemetery, it’s abandoned and decaying.”
There’s more than one such mystical location in Kaunas. “The apartment of protagonist Valery Legasov, we found it by accident, and it was filmed in an impressive art-deco building at Vytauto Ave. 58,” said Aurelijus Silkinis, who assisted the shooting with his company Kaunas Film Office. “The creepy 6th clinic in Moscow, the one which firefighters from Pripyat were brought to, was recreated in the former 8th building of Kaunas Technical University at Kęstučio St. 27. It’s now privatized. The KGB prison and the workroom at the nuclear research institute were filmed at the radio factory located at Savanorių Ave. 66.”
Chernobyl was also filmed at the former helicopter maintenance hangar at Europos Ave. 27. The 4th episode scene of firefighters dousing houses with chemicals was staged on Chemikų street in Kedainiai.
Pripyat, reborn in Fabijoniškės, puts Lithuania on the map
Next stop on the Chernobyl tour of Lithuania – Vilnius. However, you must visit Pravieniškės on your way there. “We filmed there as well. It’s a unique town, devoid of any tourist traps; you’d never think to visit it. However, it’s a must-see for those pining for the Soviet atmosphere,” said Jonas.
Once you reach Vilnius, you should forget everything you’ve heard about its historic landmarks. It’s the northern Fabioniškės district that’s currently the most famous spot in Lithuania. Called “Fabai” by the locals, this part of Vilnius appeared in Chernobyl and became famous from New York to Chelyabinsk, albeit under a different name, that of Pripyat.
“It’s a very symbolic and cinematographic district,” said J. Špokas. “It reflects the idea of Pripyat, of idealized Soviet city of the future, quite wonderfully. Fabijoniškės is a symmetrical district, which is great for the current trend of translating the architecture of that era for the big screen: the forms are aggressive, there’s a lot of concrete and grayness.”
When talking about Vilnius, J. Špokas claims that any district further away from downtown can have the same charm as Fabijoniškės. “However, I’d like to single out the impressive [former] cultural center of Ministry of the Interior, located at Žirmūnai St. 1. I adore the building, even if we only used it to film the Pripyat hotel restaurant and the scene where the three volunteer divers are selected,” said J. Špokas.
Visaginas: the place to model a nuclear explosion
The Chernobyl tour of Lithuania continues to Didžiosios Kabiškės village in the Nemenčinė municipality. According to J. Špokas, the locals here and at the Laišaičiai village in Vievis municipality could not cut hay for the entire summer, as they had to maintain the image of abandoned settlements around Chernobyl.
However, something special truly awaits once you head to Ignalina. The trip may only last for one and a half hours, but you are traveling into history.
“All the power plant environments you the in the series – except for the ruined bits – were filmed at the Ignalina nuclear power plant (IAE),” said J. Špokas. “The firefighters driving towards the fire, the divers going into the pipes, the miners coming in to dig the shaft – it’s all here, as the atmosphere at IAE is unique, impossible to recreate anywhere else. However, it’s also a site of strategic importance for Lithuania, so filming there was not easy.”
During the day, one can visit the IAE with a guided tour. It’s not easy to get into one, but anyone can try. J. Špokas also suggests seeing a nuclear power plant control panel-simulator at the Visaginas training center – it’s identical to the one in Chernobyl and the IAE.
The set designers, the real one – for the training of power plant employees, made the one in the series. The simulator allowed the staging of various scenarios that may arise during the operation of the IAE, even an explosion. Today, visitors can even push the legendary emergency protection button AZ-5.
“Seeing the IAE is much more interesting than visiting the real Chernobyl. Sure, the real spot is more authentic and emotionally impressive, but it’s only a ruin,” said J. Špokas. “At the IAE, you can really feel how big and complex a nuclear power plant is. Nothing else in Lithuania can match the sheer scale, importance, and size you experience when you see the reactors and walk above them.”
Chernobyl: some scenes actually filmed in Ukraine
“Some scenes we could not film in Lithuania were filmed in Ukraine,” said J. Špokas. “The scene where the miners are encouraged to go to Chernobyl was filmed in Kiev, at the Nuclear Power Plants and Engineering Thermal Physics Department. There was also the scene where the Belorussian scientists Ulana notices the increasing radiation background. Also, only in Kiev could we find some of the backgrounds of the size we needed for Moscow.”
“In Kiev, we had the luxury of shooting Mi-8 helicopter scenes. There’s only two of them in Lithuania and they’re always on rescue duty, so they could be called away at any moment,” said J. Špokas. Overall, filming in Ukraine took 20 12-hour shifts.
“We also went to the Chernobyl zone to see how some of the old villages look like,” said J. Špokas. “However, it’s not a good place to film, it’s very remote and offers nothing you can’t find in Lithuania. It’s all abandoned, while we needed Pripyat to be alive. You can’t really stay in the Chernobyl zone for too long, the filming equipment is really sensitive to radiation.”
However, if you were planning to visit Chernobyl in Lithuania, but were left with nothing else to do but re-watch the series at the airport terminal due to a disrupted flight, hit Skycop up! The Soviet-era is in the past! The rights of air passengers are protected by Regulation (EC) 261/2004, which lays down rules for flight compensation. With Skycop , you can claim up to €600 for cancelled, delayed or overbooked flight. Back in the days of Chernobyl, that much money would have taken 4 months to earn!