Resettled Belarusians and Ukrainians live in peace and friendship in Vilcha, in the Kharkov Region, but never forget their motherland

‘Return to parental home...’

Last year, in the 4th issue of our magazine, we wrote about the resettlement of residents from Polesie area of Kiev Region between 1992 and 1994. Moved to Kharkov Region of Ukraine following the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986, their new town of Vilcha was built quickly in an open area, 6km from the district centre of Volchansk. Among those settled were people of Belarus, who could move freely in Soviet times, to study or work in the neighbouring republic.

Tatiana and Valery Semenchuk  in front  of  their beehives

In those years, thousands of Belarusian-Ukrainian families merged. Of course, recently, tens of thousands of Ukrainians from the conflict zone have moved to Belarus: as of February 2014, more than 50,000 people. Those choosing Belarus often have relatives here; some with long held family ties.

Vilcha and Volcha

Let`s return to Kharkov Region’s Vilcha, built for settlers from Chernobyl. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, 800 cottages had been planned, but only 400 had been built before all work came to a halt. Vilcha and Volcha are so closely located that people sometimes call the city of Volchansk, located on the river of the same name, Volcha.

Valentina Cherkashina went to school there but later came to Minsk, where she married. The Head of Vilcha Council, Nikolay Lirsky, tell us that most of those who moved to Vilcha came from places polluted by Chernobyl radioactivity: almost 1,000 of the current 1,800 residents. More recently, some have moved from Kharkov, purchasing homes in nearby Rublevka.

If the USSR had not collapsed, then the district would have been eventually named Vilcha District (instead of Volcha District). “These days, ‘Old Vilcha’ is neglected, with entry restricted," explains Nikolay Ivanovich, from Ternopol Region. After graduation, he was sent to work in a Polesie timber enterprise and met his wife there. He returns every year to the beautiful forest location, with his wife, where they visit the burial site of her mother.

Mr. Lirsky notes that Belarusians and Ukrainians live utterly amicably in the new town, as they did in ‘Old Vilcha’. As he says, ‘everyone is friendly, hardworking and hospitable’, caring for those worst affected by the Chernobyl tragedy: more than 120 people, who helped in cleaning up the catastrophe at the nuclear power station (among them some Belarusians).

About 30 Belarusian and Belarusian-Ukrainian families live in Vilcha, including those of Valentin Yurkovsky and Valery Semenchuk (married to Ukrainian Tatiana). The two are very active in the community. Every year, on Radonitsa Day, they travel from Kharkov Region by bus or car to visit the graves of those who remain in their heart, in ‘Old Vilcha’. There, they recall happy memories, and share their recollections of April 1986, and the days that followed, after the power station exploded. As poet Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote, their thirst for their old home is evidence of the land’s power over us.

Senior Vilcha resident Ivan Ilnitsky shows me the ‘Native Place’ clip online. It features shots of the recreation centre and railway station, the town’s monuments (which gather Pioneers and veterans) its streets and the beautiful nearby forest pines, which embrace the edges of the town. These create a touching melody of the past. Mr. Ilnitsky is now retired but used to be the director of the recreation centre. He notes that the video clip encapsulates all that local people love about their home. He explains, “I’ve lived here since May 9th, 1993. After the Chernobyl catastrophe, people were moved to Belarusian Mozyr for two weeks, to stay with the relatives: my parents were with their daughter and nephew. I have a cousin in Gomel too and view myself as being closely tied with Belarus.”

One online social network page is run by a group of Vilcha inhabitants: ‘devoted to the settlement of Vilcha in Volchansk District of Kharkov Region’. The name of Vilcha arouses so many emotions and not everyone understands the history of the settlement. Those who run the site declare that they view their home with pride, praising its beauty and convenience. It has all the necessary civilised features: water, gas, electricity, green streets, and tidy estates, which please the eye. Since its foundation, Vilcha has seen many babies born, although not all youngsters choose to remain. Many move away but some also decide to return, feeling nostalgic for their native streets and the feeling of inner calm that comes with ‘belonging’.

Working happiness of Semenchuk family

Sisters Yelena and Yekaterina Semenchuk, from Vilcha, feel this sense of tranquillity each time they visit their parents. Qualified doctors, they now live in Kharkov, nearly 60km distant. In fact, it’s only 15km from Vilcha to Belgorod Region, over the border, in Russia. Mr. Lirsky takes me to visit the girls’ parents: Tatiana and Valery Semenchuk, who live at number 9, Proreznaya Street. Interestingly, Mr. Lirsky calls one of Vilcha’s streets Belaruskaya (Belarusian).

The Semenchuks run a 2,000 plot, keeping bees. They offer me pink polendvitsa pork and soft smoked ham, carved from their own pigs. They create a wonderful impression on me as ‘model’ Belarusians. Over the Easter holidays, Tatiana’s sister Valentina came to stay: a native of Budovarovichi, near Vilcha, bringing her own daughter, Alena Sikorskaya (in Ukranian, Olena Sikorska). Now resident in Kiev, Yelena is an actress, and was on friendly terms with well-known actor Bogdan Stupka; she now works as a playwright.
Lately, we’ve found a review about her performance on the Internet: ‘The performance is a tragi-comedy which holds a mirror to life, allowing us to feel the catharsis of laughter and tears. It’s truthful and sad, but beautiful and worthy’. Entitled Amarcord: I Remember, the play was staged at Franko’s Kiev Theatre. Her husband and she also owned their own theatre. She also appeared in films and attended the Listapad Festival in Minsk. Her links with Belarus are numerous.

A young builder in a  newspaper  photo reportage of 1992  is he, Valery Semenchuk
A young builder in a  newspaper  photo reportage of 1992  is he, Valery Semenchuk

After taking a few photos of Tatiana and Valery in front of their beehives, we begin our interview.

Valery, from where do you originate?

I’m from Gomel Region’s village of Linov, in Narovlya District, under Golovchitsy village council. We used to have a strong collective farm, called Sovetskaya Belarus, and attended a school in Dobryn, just 5km away.

We’ve visited these places! In 1996, when we walked around Belarus’ state border, we hiked from Yelsk to Narovlya.

You know, those places also suffered from radiation. In 1986, my wife and I lived near the nuclear power station, in Pripyat. On leaving school, I worked as a tractor driver, before serving as a tankman with the army. Then I moved closer to home, taking a job as a mechanic on Chernobyl’s fourth reactor, returning to Pripyat, with my wife.

Where did you meet?

In Vilcha, while I was visiting my sister; I saw this beautiful lady (he smiles, pointing at Tatiana) and fell in love. She comes from Vilcha, and was visiting her parents, although her work as a confectioner was in Kirovograd. I took her to Pripyat after we married and we lived there until 1986. Of course, the catastrophe happened inside the fourth reactor. We were evacuated to Kiev, with Tatiana pregnant at that time, and were offered various places to live, including the ones near Minsk, where I have relatives. My wife was keen to try this option so we travelled to the Belarusian settlement of Druzhny. The block was huge, with 28 entrances, but we only lived there a week before being given an apartment, in August. On September 21st, our oldest daughter, Alena, was born, in Minsk. She now works as a neuropathologist in Kharkov.
Your Alena was born in Minsk. Does she know the Belarusian language?

Certainly. Twice a year, we visit relatives in Belarus so we have a chance for language practice. We speak Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian, having relatives and friends in and around Narovlya and in Mozyr, as well as Minsk. We go to Linov for Radonitsa, as my parents are buried there, and my uncles and aunts live in Narovlya. One brother lives in Yelsk District, while another is in Loev District, both in Gomel Region. In Minsk, we have friends and relatives who work for the law enforcement agencies, and we visit them. We’re friendly with people in Druzhny too, including Alena Budkovskaya, who works as a teacher at a boarding school. She also helps people from Chernobyl, who have various problems, and has been doing so since 1986, through a fund supported by Germans. It provided humanitarian aid after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when we all suffered, suddenly being without the medicines previously sent to children to improve their health.

Valery, how did you come to move from Druzhny in Minsk Region to the new town of Vilcha?
We lived in Druzhny for 8 years before moving to Vilcha, in 1993. Independent Ukraine proclaimed its readiness to allow those who’d left Pripyat, following the tragedy, to return. My wife’s parents, from Vilcha, were resettled in Volchansk District and were promised a great deal, including jobs at new factories, homes and a new trolley bus or tram service to Kharkov. I could see that my wife missed her parents greatly, especially her mother, so we decided to move.

So, Tatiana inspired the move, to be closer to her relatives, but her heart remembered her life in Minsk Region fondly.

Tatiana, what were your first impressions of new Vilcha?

Quite gloomy; I had tears in my eyes when we arrived, as all I could see was an empty field. Everywhere was covered with dirt and clay, as construction continued. Even today, I still dream about old Vilcha. However, our children have grown up here: it is their native land. Valery, thank God, found employment after retraining as a gas fitter. He works for Gorgaz [a gas enterprise], around Vilcha and district-wide. Before the Chernobyl catastrophe, he was a professional tinman, having trained in Leningrad, at Priboi Plant.

Valery, who taught you the art of beekeeping? Someone from Linov?

Yes, my uncle worked with bees, and shared his knowledge. We only acquired our hives three years ago. Our neighbour in Linov, an old man called Garas (known as Leglik) was a good beekeeper; he is the grandfather of my old school friend, Alexey Ivanovich Yeroshenko, who now lives in Minsk.

Do you usually travel to Belarus for Radonitsa?

Yes, and in the summer, to my parents’ house. It’s pleasant to relax there, where it’s always clean and immaculate: the village and the cottage. Some homes fell into ruin and were demolished. By the way, my wife is a district council deputy and is always impressed by local rural budgets in Belarus funding the painting of fences, and keeping all in order. Unfortunately, Ukraine has some way to go in this matter.
Linov residents respect their native land and their parents’ heritage. Even if a home is empty, the site is kept tidy, as a point of honour; you care not only for your parents’ graves but for their former home and estate. By keeping things tidy, you are showing that their life wasn’t lived ‘in vain’: they raised attentive children.
We also like Belarusian roads, which are a real pleasure to drive on. It’s 800 km from our house to that of my parents.

‘I am a native!’

Time passes quickly while chatting with interesting people and when seating at a table of tasty food. Valery’s meat, brought in on a spit, as from the smoking shed, is utterly delicious. He left the room only for a minute before returning.

In  this  issue of the magazine it was written about him
In  this  issue of the magazine it was written about him

He shows me his edition of Belarus magazine from April 1992, which features major photographic coverage of Vladimir Batskalevich and Victor Zhilin, from the village of Zapolie, in Cherven District. Entitled ‘Who Are We? Where Are We From?’ It details the life of those who were obliged to resettle in Belarus after the Chernobyl tragedy. There’s Valery, standing with drainpipes under his arm! At that time, he worked for the Chernobylbud Trust, helping raise homes for settlers. The article includes his recollections of April 1986. The edition additionally mentions Victor Lazarevich, who is no longer alive. Valery also keeps a press cutting from the local district newspaper, which has his picture. No doubt, the Semenchuk family will keep this issue too, knowing that they’re being featured.

Last time we visited, in May 2013, Yekaterina was sitting her exams at the Kharkov Medical University, almost ready to begin her career. She admits that, although she understands Belarusian language, she is not fluent enough to speak. “Once, I asked my cousin to lend me a Belarusian book, to see if I could read it, but it was too difficult. When my grandfather and grandmother were alive, we visited them for a week or two at a time, so I was able to learn some words. I studied at a Ukrainian school,” she tells us.

Her brothers all live in Belarus, based in Gomel and Narovlya. Laughing, she recollects how confused she used to be by the use of ‘ё’ (meaning ‘is’ in this region). Her brothers call her khokhlushka (Ukrainian woman) although she responds that she’s a native too!

She gives us a tour of her parents’ home, which is very modern. Katya`s room is situated cosily on the second floor, under the eaves of the roof. The heating comes from the central boiler-house, as it does for all the houses in the settlement: there is gas, water and centralised sewerage. Hot water is available at day and night — which is not always the case in Volchansk, with its tower blocks.

Interestingly, on moving to their new home, Vilcha residents often chose to live close to former neighbours; the Semenyuk family neighbours Nikolay Sushitsky. Naturally, they are surrounded by relatives and friends, including the Belarusian Yurkovsky brothers, and Yevgeny Kurako, from Narovlya (like Valery). Each time someone travels to Belarus, they take with them a message or gift for others’ relatives. “So, maybe you will become relatives with someone?” we asked, looking at their daughter. However, Tatiana smiled and answered, “God willing!”

Valery speaks warmly of his father, Ivan Grigorievich, and mother, Nadezhda Semenovna, showing their photos. His mother was able to translate German when she heard it on television, having learnt during the war, when the fascists took her to Germany to work. Americans liberated the territory in which she was living.

Valery watches satellite TV and Belarus’ 24th Channel, to ensure he’s well informed about Belarusian news. With so much to look after in the garden, including the bees, it’s hard to imagine he has much time for television. Meanwhile, Tatiana must be busy in her role as a district council deputy: she plays a leading role in the Chernobyl Union organisation too, which supports more than 2,000 people who have problems with their health, or in claiming pensions or finding employment. She also makes confectionery at home, as she used to do in Minsk, before her move to Pripyat.

Dear Vilcha residents, thank you for your warm-heartedness! We hope that our Belarusian-Ukrainian friendship will continue.

Ivan and Valentina Zhdanovich

Minsk — Kharkov — Vilcha — Minsk
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