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Chornobyl BEFORE the disaster — pictures from an old album
And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from
heaven…and the name of the star is called Wormwood:
and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many
men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.”
The Revelation of Saint John the Divine, 8:11-12
Chornobyl, if translated literally, means “black grass” — that is, wormwood. It also happens to be the name of a town which became inextricably associated with a devastating nuclear power-station accident whose radioactive and psychological effect cannot be as easily measured as the toll it exacted in human lives. Chornobyl has come to be widely used as a warning, a catchword in senses more than one.
But Chornobyl remains a town — a ghost town by now — “situated on the right bank of the Prypyat River at the place where Prypyat’s tributary, the Uzh River, joins Prypyat, 133 kilometers from Kyiv, and 18 kilometers from the railroad station Yaniv. The town has a wharf; its population is 10,1 thousand people.” So says a reference book published in Kyiv in 1971.
I remember Chornobyl as it was before the nuclear disaster, a small provincial place surrounded by a most scenic countryside.
In the year 1970, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union (it seems so long — ages! — ago), I, a fourteen-year old, spent the entire month of August on the bank of Uzh, living in a tent with my parents and their friends, 3 kilometers (just mere two miles) from the suburbs of Chornobyl. And I could not care less about learning anything about the town, in the close proximity to which a nuclear power station was shortly to be built.
I look at the black-and-white snapshot with my Mom and my godmother in it, staring at me, with The mermaids, in my father’s hand scribbled on it (frankly, considering their physique, this remark seems to be somewhat too caustic). Danay, my pet, then a six-month old spaniel, is in another photograph. Oh how he loved baked corn! And here is a glade with pieces of “white mushrooms” (the most sought-after species of wild mushrooms) strewn all around — it was the way we dried the mushrooms to be used in the winter months. I remember that the summer that year turned to be a wet one.
My memory extends beyond the photographs — those sunups on the bank, near the beavers’ nests, stalking these curious creatures, just to watch them toil away; those tiny lakes, close to the banks of Uzh, each of which had at least (I swear it’s true!) one carp the size of a piglet, waiting to be caught and fried on a skillet for dinner; those jars of the still warm, fragrant milk, fresh from the cow which are delivered by a milkmaid named Nastya whom my father addressed as “Nastya the Speedy — Don’t be greedy” (when the jars did not seem full enough).” But she never took offence at Dad’s teasing, and was always fast with the comeback, replying “Nastya ain’t greedy — but somebody else’s needy!” She talked in a local dialect and called spuds “them bulbs” and mushrooms “mashed roots”.
I do remember though the way Chornobyl looked then — a tiny provincial town which had an appearance of a village rather than an urban settlement, with a dilapidated community centre and an office building housing the local council and “communist party committee”, so typical of a backwater place. Strangely enough, it had a wooden church, with local old women wearing babushkas and singing something incomprehensible in their dialect.
Strangely enough, the recollections lack colours — everything is either in black-and-white or sepia — a serene, quiet and simple world, with no anticipation of the doom.
The first written mention of Chornobyl dates to 1193. Archaeological evidence supports the early date but not much is extant — there are only some traces of an early settlement and tumuli. In one of the barrows, which is locally known as Tatarsky (“Tartars’”) iron weapons were discovered. The locals tell a story of a cache once unearthed in the area with bronze and silver things and decorations in it that allegedly dated from the twelfth or thirteenth century; these artifacts are believed to have been placed in some museums. How the town came by its name is not known and there are several theories which give several explanations — one of them has it that there was a lot of wormwood (chornobyl) growing in the area; another suggests the name may have come from Chorna Rus (“Black Rus” as the land of the Drevlyany was often referred to; Chornobyl was part of it), whose inhabitants preferred to wear black — or maybe because their houses did not have chimneys and the interiors were black from the smoke that was coming from the stoves and ovens.
It is known that Chornobyl had a castle of the local ruler, complete with a double row of defensive walls and a moat and drawbridge; the castle was destroyed only to be rebuilt and then destroyed again — to go up even more formidable than before. In 1362, Chornobyl was included in Greater Lithuania and trade began to be developing. The Mongol and Tartar raids were a frequent occurrence and the local population often sought protection behind the castle walls.
In the sixteenth century, there were over two hundred houses and fifteen hundred inhabitants. Among the most popular trades were blacksmiths, hoopers and shipwrights, and gradually Chornobyl rose in importance to become the centre of a starostvo — a territorial division of Greater Lithuania, and later of Poland which merged with Lithuania. Some of the local starostas (starosta — local ruler, head of starostvo) left a mark in history by their exploits. One of them, Yanguryn Tyshkevych who repeatedly defeated the invading Tartars, was honoured with burial in the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery, with the following epitaph on the gravestone: “Yanguryn-Skumynovych-Lvovych Tyshkevych, Vicegerent of the King, Starosta of Chornobyl, departed to the eternal joys leaving his body here on October 10 in the year 7071 (1553).” In eulogies singing his deeds, he was called “Ukrainian Pyrrhus” (Pyrrhus — the famous king of Epirus who defeated Romans in several battles in the third century BC — tr.) and “Sarmatian Hector” (Sarmathia was the name under which a vast territory of Eastern Europe was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans — tr.). But Gloria mundi, as is well known, transit very fast. In 1941, the tomb was destroyed and our contemporaries seem to have completely forgotten Sarmatian Hector.
Under the starostas from the rich and noble families of Sapegas and Khodkevyches who were prominent figures in the Polish government, Chornobyl prospered to become one of the major cities of Eastern Ukraine. Several times in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the course of rather quiet life of Chronobyl was disrupted by peasant and Cossack revolts and insurrections. In the mid-seventeenth century, during the War of Independence, Chornobyl saw several battles in which the Polish forces were given a drubbing but the Polish came back with a vengeance after the 1667 Andrusiv Truce which gave Chornobyl back to Poland. The freedom years proved to be but a few.
The geographical position of Chornobyl gave it some economic advantages — contraband and duty-free movement of goods along the rivers were the main sources of revenue. It was at that time that the Russian Roskolniki (those who refused to accept the church reforms of the seventeenth century — tr.) began to come to Chornobyl, fleeing from persecution, and settling down.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, a major insurrection — Koliyivshchyna — against the Polish rule spread across vast areas of Ukraine, and Chornobyl was additionally fortified. The castle was armed with cannon and a several hundred-strong garrison. The insurrection which aimed at restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine and freeing it both from the Polish and Russian domination, was brutally crushed by the combined military effort of Russia and Poland. A curious phenomenon — in spite of all the seemingly irreconcilable differences Russia and Poland had through the centuries, they always found ways to join forces when the independence of Ukraine was involved. One of the leaders of the insurrection, Bondarenko, was captured by the forces of the then starosta of Chornobyl and brought to Chornobyl. The “crimes” of Bondarenko were deemed to be so heinous — an attempt to win back independence! — that he was quartered rather than simply impaled or beheaded.
After the final partition of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century between Prussia, Austria and Russia, Chornobyl quickly sank to the status of a small provincial town. It came to life briefly in 1812, during the invasion of Russia by Napoleon, when Chornobyl was given a new garrison — the Ukrainian units being considered “unreliable,” an army unit from the Russian town of Kostroma was stationed there — and defensive works were repaired. The fate of the unit was cruel — several hundred soldiers died of cholera rather than in battle. In 1863, during one of the insurrections in Poland against the czarist rule, the insurgents wanted to make use of the old cannon left in Chornobyl but the cannon proved to be too old and failed to fire.
However, the sleepy course of life in Chornobyl was rarely disturbed. In the mid nineteenth century, a local census showed that there were 2160 Orthodox Christians, 3683 Jews, 566 Roskolniki, and 84 Catholics living in Chornobyl in tolerance and peace. Among the merchants there were more Jews than Christians. Excellent onions grown at Chornobyl vegetable gardens were the principle item of trade, Kyiv being the major market where the onions were sold. The flourishing onion trade gave a boost to the town which began to grow, and by the end of the nineteenth century it had over 2000 houses peopled by almost 17,000 traders, artisans, menial workers and housewives. The fact that three Orthodox churches, one Catholic church and five synagogues were built may suggest that the inhabitants of Chornobyl were concerned not only with mundane, earthly things but also gave some thought to things spiritual.
There was no evident opposition to the new regime established by the Bolsheviks. The houses of prayer were neglected and fell into disrepair; the people of Chornobyl never suspected that terrifying trials were still waiting for them to go through — the famine, the war, and later, in April 1986 — the nuclear disaster, the final blow.
I came to Chornobyl for the second time in June 1986, when I was a student of the Kyiv Polytech. My visit there had nothing to do with my studies — I was a member of an amateur student choir and we were sent to the radioactive Chornobyl to “cheer the local people up.” In fact, it was not Chornobyl itself that we were taken to — it was a former children rest camp, which some of the inhabitants of Chornobyl were evacuated to. I saw young and old women, their children and grandchildren, sitting in the open by the barrack-like building, and sadly listening to our falsely cheerful songs. Their eyes did not sparkle or light up with a new hope — even the amazingly sweet singing of the nightingales in the bushes did not stir our downcast audience. And all of a sudden, the scenic view began to look black and white to me, poisoned by the nuclear wormwood.
A decade later, I found myself in the Chornobyl area again, this time in the capacity of a young deacon at the funeral service at a Chornobyl cemetery. The tolling that came from the Illinska Church sounded subdued and depressing. At the funeral repast, I saw on the table “the white mushrooms” of the kind that we used to pick and cut and dry years ago — which felt like centuries ago. And for some reason, there emerged from my memory, through the silently said prayers, the image of the robust young milkmaid Nastya, whom I silently asked “We are not greedy, Nastya, we are needy — beguile us, Nastya, beguile, with your charming smile,” but Nastya who was always so fast on the comeback, did not reply.
The Rev. Andriy VLASENKO
Materials supplied by V. Kyrkevych
have been used in compiling this article.
All the photographs featuring in this article were taken
by Yury Buslenko in the late 1960s and early 1970s,
years before the 1986 nuclear disaster.