Chernobyl’s ‘real’ Lyudmila tearfully breaks her silence

A widow who inspired a central character in HBO’s Chernobyl has spoken out for the first time since the series aired, revealing tearfully how her firefighter husband gave her flowers from his hospital bed before he died of radiation poisoning. 

Lyudmila Ignatenko was pregnant with her first child when her husband Vasily hurried to the scene of the 1986 nuclear disaster. 

She stayed with him in hospital where he gave her carnations from under his pillow, but died painfully of radiation poisoning two weeks after the accident. 

Speaking to BBC News, Lyudmila said she had suffered abuse from viewers outraged that she had stayed in the hospital with her unborn baby, who lived for only four hours after being born. 

Taking aim at HBO, she also revealed she had been ‘hounded’ since the series aired and claimed she had not been consulted, although HBO disputes this. 

Emotional: Lyudmila Ignatenko revealed tearfully how her firefighter husband gave her flowers from his hospital bed before he died of radiation poisoning

Emotional: Lyudmila Ignatenko revealed tearfully how her firefighter husband gave her flowers from his hospital bed before he died of radiation poisoning

Emotional: Lyudmila Ignatenko revealed tearfully how her firefighter husband gave her flowers from his hospital bed before he died of radiation poisoning

Family: Lyudmila and her husband Vasily (pictured on their wedding day with their family) were expecting their first child at the time of the 1986 nuclear disaster

Family: Lyudmila and her husband Vasily (pictured on their wedding day with their family) were expecting their first child at the time of the 1986 nuclear disaster

Family: Lyudmila and her husband Vasily (pictured on their wedding day with their family) were expecting their first child at the time of the 1986 nuclear disaster 

Vasily Ignatenko was one of the first responders at the power plant when it exploded in the early hours of April 26, 1986, in what was then the Soviet Union and is now Ukraine.  

Ignatenko was summoned to the blaze but suffered severe poisoning from the radiation which was released into the atmosphere. 

Lyudmila was by his bedside in hospital, in a scene depicted in the HBO series which was released earlier this year. 

‘He stood up and gave me three carnations from underneath his pillow. They were the last flowers he brought me,’ the real-life Lyudmila recalls. 

‘I shall remember until the end of my life how we stood by the window together. We didn’t know this was the last time we would share a romantic moment.’

Revealing how she had been criticised for ‘killing her baby’ by staying with her poisoned husband while pregnant, she said: ‘How could I leave him? I thought my baby was safe inside me. We didn’t know anything about radiation then.’

Dramatisation: Lyudmila was by her husband's bedside in hospital, in a scene depicted in the HBO series which was released earlier this year (above)

Dramatisation: Lyudmila was by her husband's bedside in hospital, in a scene depicted in the HBO series which was released earlier this year (above)

Dramatisation: Lyudmila was by her husband’s bedside in hospital, in a scene depicted in the HBO series which was released earlier this year (above) 

Depicted: Lyudmila looks at her dramatised self in the HBO series. She claimed she had not been consulted and was left feeling 'hurt and uneasy' by the series

Depicted: Lyudmila looks at her dramatised self in the HBO series. She claimed she had not been consulted and was left feeling 'hurt and uneasy' by the series

Depicted: Lyudmila looks at her dramatised self in the HBO series. She claimed she had not been consulted and was left feeling ‘hurt and uneasy’ by the series 

Although Lyudmila praised the ‘attention to detail’ of the HBO series, she said she was left feeling ‘hurt and uneasy’ by the series, in which she was played by Jessie Buckley. 

‘There were people hounding me at my flat,’ she said, saying she had not given permission to HBO or Sky to be featured in the series. 

She said she received a call from Moscow after the series had already been filmed, offering her $3,000 because she was featured in the show. 

However, she did not believe the call was genuine and did not believe she would be offered $3,000 for doing nothing.  

‘Of course I thought it was fake, some sort of fraud,’ she said, saying that the Russia-Ukraine conflict had added to her suspicion. 

HBO disputes this account, telling the BBC that producers had ‘multiple exchanges’ with Lyudmila ‘before, during and after’ the filming of the series. 

She was offered an ‘opportunity to participate in the storytelling process and to provide feedback’, and never indicated she was unhappy, they claim. 

Portrayal: Jessie Buckley in the role of Lyudmila, who says she was not consulted - but HBO said they had 'multiple exchanges' with her and say she never voiced concerns

Portrayal: Jessie Buckley in the role of Lyudmila, who says she was not consulted - but HBO said they had 'multiple exchanges' with her and say she never voiced concerns

Portrayal: Jessie Buckley in the role of Lyudmila, who says she was not consulted – but HBO said they had ‘multiple exchanges’ with her and say she never voiced concerns 

Tearful: Lyudmila recalled how she stayed with Vasily in hospital where he gave her carnations from under his pillow, but died painfully of radiation poisoning two weeks after the accident

Tearful: Lyudmila recalled how she stayed with Vasily in hospital where he gave her carnations from under his pillow, but died painfully of radiation poisoning two weeks after the accident

Tearful: Lyudmila recalled how she stayed with Vasily in hospital where he gave her carnations from under his pillow, but died painfully of radiation poisoning two weeks after the accident

Mourning: Lyudmila Ignatenko at a ceremony in 1990, four years after the nuclear radiation disaster which killed her husband

Mourning: Lyudmila Ignatenko at a ceremony in 1990, four years after the nuclear radiation disaster which killed her husband

Mourning: Lyudmila Ignatenko at a ceremony in 1990, four years after the nuclear radiation disaster which killed her husband 

Disaster: The ruined Chernobyl nuclear power plant in May 1986, weeks after the explosion whose radioactive effects are still felt today

Disaster: The ruined Chernobyl nuclear power plant in May 1986, weeks after the explosion whose radioactive effects are still felt today

Disaster: The ruined Chernobyl nuclear power plant in May 1986, weeks after the explosion whose radioactive effects are still felt today 

Clean-up: Workers in protective clothing in Pripyat earlier this month where a new structure has been put in place to contain the radioactive remains of the power plant

Clean-up: Workers in protective clothing in Pripyat earlier this month where a new structure has been put in place to contain the radioactive remains of the power plant

Clean-up: Workers in protective clothing in Pripyat earlier this month where a new structure has been put in place to contain the radioactive remains of the power plant 

Lyudmila said she had only seen a few snippets of the series on Ukrainian TV. 

She has never remarried since Vasily died, but did later raise a healthy child.  

The death toll from the explosion is widely disputed, but listed as 4,000 by the United Nations. 

Up to 350,000 people were not evacuated from the surrounding areas for 36 hours after the initial explosion. 

In addition, more than five million have lived in radiated land around the area in the 33 years since. 

Around 116,000 people were permanently evacuated from the exclusion zone around the power plant, with villages and towns left to go to ruin.

Radiation levels in the region are still too high for humans to live in, but some wildlife has returned to the area.  

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