Chernobyl: Fact and Legacy

April 26 this year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion, when tests at the power plant there went calamitously wrong.

Then in the Soviet Union and now in Ukraine, the consequences for Belarus have been disastrous. The accident occurred a generation ago, yet it continues to blight lives today. Future generations will find little respite.

The facts: a night of horrors

In the early hours of 26 April 1986, safety tests to the fourth reactor at the nuclear power plant adjacent to the city of Pripyat​ (population 43,000) caused a power surge. A steam explosion ensued leading to a fire, a further series of explosions and then nuclear meltdown. The core of the reactor was totally destroyed and the roof blown into the sky.

Chillingly, survivors who watched from apartment balconies in Pripyat itself, just two kilometres away, reported that the deadly pall billowing from the roofless reactor actively glowed. Yet none of the onlookers had any idea of the mortal danger they were in from this spectacular pyrotechnical display.

The state’s response: ‘What explosion?’

In the immediate aftermath the State responded by saying and doing very little. The concerns of the international community were met with silence and denial.

Other than the commencement of evacuation from the immediate area, little was done in terms of measures to address the effects of radiation on the general public, who received no information about what had happened.

The authorities had little idea of what they were dealing with. A massive clean-up campaign subsequently began, largely involving the sluicing-down of buildings and other structures. But the major consequence of this was to wash the radiation down into the ground, increasing the level of contamination.

The impact: questions without answers

Land covering approximately 20% of the territory of Belarus (most of it in the south-east) continues to be affected by radioactive fallout. Thirty years on, accessing reliable information as to the impact of this in terms of hard statistics continues to offer something of a challenge.

Statistics can always be selectively presented to ‘prove’ a particular point, and perhaps it comes as no surprise that conclusions in high profile reports published by the energy and green lobbies differ extravagantly.

One side of the debate claims that only 28 people died from acute radiation exposure. The opposite side attributes thousands of deaths to the explosion, with many thousands more apparently identified as suffering from carcinoma and related conditions.

Visits to ‘hot spot’ areas where rain dumped larger doses of radioactivity are only permitted with the prior approval of the authorities, and then only when accompanied by officials. Here, signage displaying the international warning logo is everywhere to be seen, though the extent to which the authorities continue to control access is subject to question.

Whole villages stand abandoned to the elements. Once a year the bereaved are permitted to visit cemeteries to honour the dead, on the occasion of Radaunica (Ancestors Remembrance Day), a public holiday that falls on the ninth day after Orthodox Easter.

Over time, a number of people (particularly the elderly) have returned to homes that are still capable of habitation. No reliable studies exist as to numbers or the extent to which risk to health remains.

The impact: indisputable fact

Some issues are beyond ambiguity, not least the stark reality of fallout 400 times greater than generated by the bomb detonated over Hiroshima in 1945, and 16 million times greater than the accidental release at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1978.

Around 135,000 people were forcibly moved from the immediate area. The town of Pripyat itself stands as an abandoned wasteland, crumbling, frozen in time and left to the mercies of the elements. Wildlife rules events here.

As the scale of the catastrophe began to emerge, the circle of evacuation widened. The State moved many hundreds of thousands more from their homes in towns and villages further afield (including my own adoptive family living 236 kilometres away in Vetka).

Between 300,000 and 600,000 people were engaged in the decontamination of the 30-kilometre exclusion zone around the plant (known as ‘liquidators’).

In the years that followed the explosion, instances of thyroid cancer rose dramatically amongst those living in the area or under the path of the radiation cloud, particularly children and teenagers.

Over 500,000 people in Belarus alone present thyroid problems to this day resulting from absorption of radioactive iodine into the thyroid gland. In my own circle of acquaintance in Belarus, I personally know more than a dozen people so affected. Yet swiftly administered doses of non-radioactive iodine on the part of the authorities would have significantly reduced the absorption of this radioactive isotope.

Today, almost two million people continue to inhabit areas within Belarus that remain subject to radioactive contamination, largely from caesium-137. When this and other noxious elements fell on the ground and into the watercourses they entered the food chain, perpetuated still by the circle of life.

Caesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years. So on this thirtieth anniversary of the disaster, the concentration of contamination from this isotope has reduced by just 50%. It will be another 30 years and another generation before it halves again.

Remembering Chernobyl

Outside the Church of St Simeon and St Helena in Minsk (the iconic ‘Red Church’) stands the poignant Nagasaki Memorial Bell erected in September 2000, a powerful symbol uniting two communities ravaged by the elemental power of nuclear energy gone wrong.

On the day of the anniversary itself I shall be in Vetka for the annual service at the memorial stone and adjacent church bell, deliberately and symbolically cracked when cast, fatally flawed forever.

The pain remains visceral, though acts of remembrance extend beyond commemoration of loss into areas of practicality.

In the whole of Belarus, Homiel region suffered the worst contamination of all. To assist with the mitigation of the explosion’s consequences, the State established the Paliessie Radiation and Ecology Reserve in the region to study the effects of exposure to radioactive material and to develop long-term contingency planning.

As for the stricken reactor itself, the concrete sarcophagus erected in 1986 has exhibited cracks for many years, in all probability causing more radioactive material to leach into the surrounding ground and the waters of the River Prypiać, one of the largest expanses of free-flowing water in this part of Europe.

The international community has come together to design a more sophisticated tomb on a massive scale, this time made of steel. Still under construction adjacent to the reactor, the new arch will be painstakingly wheeled into place some time in 2017 and the ends sealed.

The legacy: never again?

Until Japan’s own nuclear disaster at Fukushima in 2011, the environment affected by Chernobyl was like no other on earth, affording a unique opportunity to study one of the most significant issues facing the future of the planet.

The fact that Fukushima happened at all suggests that by 2011, the lessons of Chernobyl had still not been heeded. Even today, questions about nuclear safety continue to arise.

The government of Belarus has commissioned a new power plant close to the border with the European Union, just 50 kilometres from Vilnius. ‘Unsafe,’ cries Lithuania. Belarusian submissions of observance of the strictest international standards are met with counter-allegations that international requirements are not being met.

While the debate rages, Chernobyl radioactive isotopes with half-lives of tens of years remain present in the land and waters of Belarus, and symbolically within the national psyche of its people.

Thirty years have now passed and the insidious consequences of the calamity show little sign of abating. In 2016, there remains significant ‘fallout’ still.

Nigel Roberts

Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK.




Jewish Belarus

Judaism in Belarus dates back to the 9th century. The Jewish community has made hugely significant contributions to every stratum of life in these lands.

But by the end of World War II (the Soviet Union’s ‘Great Patriotic War’), the country’s Jewish community had been virtually wiped out as part of Nazi Germany’s ‘final solution’.

Yet today, small communities that refused to die are beginning to grow and re-establish connections to a heritage and identity that was all but lost. Yiddish can be heard on the streets once more. And all over the country, locals and tourists alike are at last able to visit significant sites that are being actively promoted.

Minsk: re-birth from the ghetto

Between 1941 and 1943, the Minsk Ghetto was one of the largest in occupied Europe. More than 100,000 Jews lived within its confines in the most inhumane of circumstances. Today the Zaslaŭski Memorial marks the spot where, on a single day in March 1942, the Nazis murdered 5,000.

Around 500 of the bodies were dumped in the pit that was dug here, an act of barbarity commemorated by the bleak and doleful sculpture of a line of terrified men, women and children descending into the very pit itself. It never fails to profoundly move anyone who visits.

Frieda Wulfovna witnessed life in the ghetto at first hand. An escapee who lived to eventually tell her story, I interviewed her on a grey and snowy morning at the pit of death. Here is what she told me.

At the Holocaust Museum and Research Studio nearby, on the site of the old Jewish Quarter, Frieda and the handful of other survivors have made it their life’s work to educate and never to forget.

Located in a Jewish house over a hundred years old and opposite the site of a former cemetery, each room houses exhibits that include displays on the lives of individual families, a German military map of the city marking the ghetto boundaries, photographs of the Maly Trascianiec concentration camp on the eastern edge of the city and a memorial to the 33,000 Jews transported here by the Nazis from all over Europe.

Minsk also has a Museum of Jewish History and Culture situated on the Minsk Jewish Campus, where more than 10,000 artefacts have been collected for display.

At long last, the state appears to be acknowledging the significance of its Jewish heritage, though a cynic would say this has more to do with the exploitation of an opportunity to promote tourism abroad. Either way, plans are afoot to develop the memorial complex on the site of the former concentration camp at Maly Trostenyets, with government funds apparently committed to the project. The sculpture ‘Memory Gate’ on the site is both harrowing and deeply moving.

Brest: a race against time

In 1921 a relief programme initiated by American philanthropist Felix Warburg financed the construction of a new Brest suburb to accommodate homeless Jewish war veterans, their families and orphaned children following the privations of World War I, adjoining a Jewish cemetery established in the 1830s.

By the end of the Nazi occupation in 1944 only 19 Jews remained out of a pre-war community of around 26,000. First the Nazis then the Communists desecrated the cemetery, the gravestones either destroyed or used as hardcore in construction.

During significant building works in recent times, the remaining Warburg houses have been bulldozed one by one. Less than a handful remain. Meanwhile, the digging of foundations for a new supermarket has unearthed hundreds of gravestones.

The small Jewish community here is working tirelessly to preserve all that remains, but the clock is ticking. In Israel, urgent discussions have been held in the Knesset itself. And at present, over 1,200 headstones have been recovered from the building site and are presently stored for safe-keeping under the arches of Brest hero-fortress.

The city’s tiny but informative Holocaust Museum displays a model of the original Warburg suburb. Nearby stands the bust of Menachem Begin, the sixth prime minister of Israel, who was born in Brest in 1913.

Unexpectedly, one of the most poignant of the Jewish sites here lies within the curtilage of the Belarus cinema in the city centre, the location of the foundation stones of Brest’s original synagogue. The theatre was actually constructed around it, the shape of the original walls being clearly visible to this day. No plaque acknowledges the significance of the stones, but row upon row of them can still be inspected in the basement of the cinema.

Viciebsk: a favourite son

This charming and elegant city, renowned for its artistic heritage, has a special claim to fame, for ‘brilliant dreamer’ and surrealist painter Marc Chagall lived here for many years. The house of his birth (an archetypical eastern European red-brick Jewish home from the late 19th century) has been turned into a delightful museum, packed with artefacts telling the story of the artist’s life and of the community into which he was born.

Nearby stands the Chagall monument in the old market square of the Jewish quarter, while elsewhere in the city, the splendid Marc Chagall Museum and Art Centre hosts an impressive collection of 300 original works of art.

Provincial Jewish Belarus: ghosts and voices from the past

All over Belarus traces of Jewish heritage stand ready to be re-claimed, many in ordinary and forgotten locations.

While visiting the outstanding fortress in Mir, do not overlook the Jewish quarter behind the modest town square. Only part of the 19th century synagogue remains, though a new one is in the course of construction on an adjacent site. The nearby small but charming museum dedicated to the Jewish history of the town easily repays a visit.

The forests around Navagradak formed the backdrop to the heroic activities of partisans during World War II (notably the Bielski Brothers, whose exploits are well documented in film and literature). The museum in the town houses informative and moving exhibits relating to the fate of the Jewish community during the war and the engagements led by the partisans, which made a huge contribution to the Soviet war effort.

Vetka, a small and sleepy town just 22 kilometres from the country’s second city Gomel, hides dark secrets. Behind the locked gates of a farm enterprise on the edge of town stands the privately commissioned memorial to the Jewish dead of the district, 200 of whom were murdered in this very location. A mass grave was only discovered during works of excavation at the farm.

Even now, old wounds are being reopened in Vetka. Last year the local newspaper published the names of collaborators who it alleges were involved in the murders. And only recently, building works in the town uncovered the bodies of German soldiers killed in action and buried unacknowledged where they fell.

Behind a petrol station across town stands the overgrown and unkempt site of the old Jewish cemetery. Formerly the location of over a thousand graves, only a few broken stones and some rusted railings remain. School Number One has a superb museum devoted to the town’s Jewish community and its history.

Footnote

To arrange tours, visits to museums or memorial sites with an English-speaking guide and to meet community members themselves, contact British charity The Together Plan, working with Belarusian NGO Dialog. Elsewhere, the objects of London-based foundation The Belarus Holocaust Memorials Project are dedicated to establishing memorials at each of the 400 known sites of Nazi massacres.

Nigel Roberts

Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK.




Eastern Belarus: What To See And Do

The capital city Minsk generally marks the limit of ambition for many first-time visitors to Belarus. Last month, however, we took a glimpse at some of the delights awaiting discovery in Western Belarus beyond the boundaries of the M9, the Minsk orbital motorway.

This article, the second of a two-parter, introduces the visitor to the Eastern half of the country. Here stand the cities of Homieĺ (Gomel)​ and Viciebsk (Vitebsk), famed for the richness of its arts and culture heritage.

Elsewhere lie the historic settlements of Polack (Polotsk, the oldest town in Belarus and one of the oldest in all of Eastern Europe) and Turaŭ (Turov, spiritual heart of the Paliessie), as well as the small town of Vetka with its superb Folk Arts Museum.

Cities: the arts, parks, rivers and vistas

With a population close on 500,000, Homieĺ can justly claim to be the second city of Belarus. 300 kilometres from Minsk and close to the borders with Russia and Ukraine down in the south-eastern corner of the country, its location high above the western bank of the Sož river gave the city significant importance during the Great Patriotic War. Today, all is hustle and bustle as befits its status.

Yet oases of calm do exist, chief among them being the lovely Rumiancaŭ-Paškievič Park, behind the statue of Lenin at the top of Savieckaja Street. Whatever the season, the opportunity to promenade here should not be missed.

The sumptuous 18th century palace designed by Count Rumyantsev stands in 25 hectares of beautiful parkland, from which extensive elevated views east over the river afford a fine panorama. Within the park also look to find the early 19th century Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and nearby the Rumiancaŭ mausoleum, an excellent photo opportunity.

270 kilometres north-east of Minsk on the banks of the Western Dzvina river stands the elegant city of Viciebsk, birthplace and long the home of artist Marc Chagall. The excellent museum devoted to his works holds a lofty position on the river’s eastern bank, just across a pretty square from the 18th century Russian Governor’s Palace.

A few moments’ walk south brings the visitor to the magnificent Uspenski Cathedral of the Assumption, one of the city’s highlights. The view from the balustrade takes in the whole of the lower city, including the site of old Jewish Viciebsk.

Little of the original architecture survived the horrors of the Nazi occupation, though one notable building that remains is the House of Marc Chagall, now a lovely museum telling the story of the artist’s life. Just a few hundred metres along Pakroŭskaja Street from here stands the Chagall monument in the old market square.

The popular and much-loved Slavianski (Slavic) Bazaar, an international song and culture festival that takes place annually in the open air in late July and early August, beautifully articulates the city’s relationship with the arts. For one glorious week in high summer, the city morphs into a gigantic street party, with 5,000 artists performing at the purpose-built domed amphitheatre on Frunze Street, as well as (seemingly) on every street corner.

‘The city of all Belarusian cities’: walking in the footsteps of history

No visit to Vitebsk should pass without an excursion to Polack, the oldest and one of the most attractive towns in the entire country. Only 105 kilometres to the north-west and birthplace of famed poet and teacher Simeon of Polack, as well as the great humanist and translator of the Bible Francysk Skaryna, a single walking tour presents the visitor with an opportunity to explore the town’s riches on foot. One such tour is described in the third edition of my Bradt Travel guide to Belarus

However you do it, be sure not to miss the stunning Cathedral of St Sophia, first built in the 11th century, the magnificent Convent of St Euphrosyne, with its cathedral and two churches, and finally the statuary and monuments to be found the length of Francysk Skaryna Avenue. Bring your walking shoes and luxuriate in a slow meander through this beautiful town.

Icons, manuscripts and rušniki

At first sight, the small town of Vetka appears unremarkable. Founded in 1685 by “Old Believers’ (the religious group disenfranchised and persecuted by Catherine the Great and others for failure to accept significant reforms within the Russian Orthodox Church), it stands on the eastern bank of the Sož river, just 22 kilometres north-east of Homieĺ ​.

But this sleepy provincial town is home to the splendid Folk Arts Museum, where exhibits of the highest quality recount the story of the unique culture and history of the region. Ancient artefacts, icons, manuscripts, traditional costumes and woven ‘rušniki’ (embroidered towels with deep ritualistic and ceremonial significance) fill each room.

Old Believers crafted many of the icons in the 17th century, while the rushkini come from the villages of the region. At the school in the nearby village of Niehliubka, pupils still learn to weave on wooden looms made to the exact design of those dating from the 1600s. The headteacher is always glad to welcome visitors.

‘The land of fogs and bogs’

The area to the south of the M10 motorway linking the cities of Homieĺ​ and Brest (the mysterious, mystical and fabled Paliessie) holds considerable appeal to lovers of nature and the great outdoors. Known colloquially as ‘the land of fogs and bogs’, the fragile balance of the eco-system of the marshy lowlands here has been difficult to maintain over the centuries, but work now undertaken at Prypiacki National Park helps to maintain its unique biological diversity.

Do visit Turaŭ, the main town and spiritual heart of the Paliessie​. First mentioned in chronicles in 980, some historians place its importance in Old Russia second only to Kiev. The fine nature museum here explains all the visitor needs to know about the history and ecology of the Paliessie​.

Visitors from outside the country will always find that the attractions of the capital city Minsk are many and varied. But as with Western Belarus, those with an instinct for discovery who venture East beyond the boundary of the Minsk orbital road will uncover many treasures. Be bold and inquisitive. You will not be disappointed.

Nigel Roberts

Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK.