Spring in new Vilcha
<img class="imgr" alt="Head of the Vilcha settlement council Nikolay Lirsky" src="http://www.belarus-magazine.by/belen/data/upimages/2009/0001-009-371.jpg">[b]After the catastrophe at Chernobyl nuclear power station, thousands of people resettled from the dangerous territories. How did they endure that trouble and how do our fellow citizens, and those who arrived from outside Belarus, live today? [/b]<br /> Near Volchansk town, which is located in the Kharkov Region, at the end of 80s, in the open fields where wheat had been recently reaped, they started rapid construction of the Vilcha settlement. This was for the people of Chernobyl. But who are they? Where are they from? Journalistic curiosity led us there, when we had learnt that the Chernobyl wind had brought dozens of Belarusian families from the south of Ukraine.
Near Volchansk town, which is located in the Kharkov Region, at the end of 80s, in the open fields where wheat had been recently reaped, they started rapid construction of the Vilcha settlement. This was for the people of Chernobyl. But who are they? Where are they from? Journalistic curiosity led us there, when we had learnt that the Chernobyl wind had brought dozens of Belarusian families from the south of Ukraine.
During our last year’s trip to our brotherly country there were no flaming tyres on the Maidan, there was no bloodshed, and military hardware did not travel towards the Russian border. The spring blossomed, tractors worked in the fields. We travelled by car, without any hindrances, blockades or checkpoints from Kiev to Kharkov and beyond, visiting our relatives. Further along our way, towards the Russian city of Belgorod and to Volchansk in the area called Slobozhanshchina by those who live there. The Ambassador of Belarus, Valentin Velichko reminded us of that during a conversation in Kiev. 70 kilometres from Kharkov, we found the right turn to Vilcha.
[b]Rublevka near Volchansk[/b]
A strong concrete road leads to the settlement with beautiful cottages and wide lawns along the streets. Near each house is a front garden, part of the 20 hundred square metre plots. Cherries, apricots and plums blossom... It is real heavenly spot, if you don’t consider the problems of the settlement and its residents. Not casually someone placed on the Internet a picture where the signboard at the entrance to Vilcha is covered by an inscription: ‘Rublevka’. If someone sells a house in Vilcha, he or she writes in the advertisement: cottage settlement.
We drove up to the local administration building. At the entrance there is a monument ‘Chernobyl Ringing’ — as if this mention of a ‘reference point’ for the settlement acted as a sign of pain in destinies of all of Vilcha’s residents. In the hall are stands with photos of veterans of the war, Afghan war veterans, firemen and liquidators of the consequences of Chernobyl nuclear power station catastrophe — among them, the Hero of Ukraine, Nikolay Titenok. Vilcha residents can courageously and heroically carry out a civic duty when it is necessary. While the former great power under the name of USSR did not have time to put in order everything that was promised to settlers — Chernobyl people moved to in Moscow, Kiev and Kharkov. With collapse of the USSR they cancelled such exotic projects as the trolleybus (or tram — now it is not important...) line from Vilcha to Kharkov. The main problem is that in a settlement of 800 houses, there is no manufacture and few workplaces.
[b]About ‘those Vilcha’ and ‘those days’[/b]
Firstly, Vilcha is a city type settlement surrounded by forest and pines, with a railway station, big school, kindergartens and manufactures in Polesie district of the Kiev region, 40 kilometres from Chernobyl. And it was close to Belarus. Then, there were not any borders between republics and Ukrainians studied, worked, lived in Belarusian villages and cities, and vice versa. The head of the Vilcha settlement council, Nikolay Lirsky, remembers how he arrived to ‘those Vilcha’ after finishing at forestry engineering college in April 1978. He worked in Polesie’s state forestry enterprise as a foreman and then occupied other posts. He married and graduated from forestry engineering institute. “I remember how during, Saturday night in April of 1986, someone saw a glow, and rumours reached us of a reactor, catastrophe...,” Nikolay Ivanovich recollects. “From Vilcha to Pripyat is a distance of nearly 40 kilometres: military black helicopters flew there and back. It meant something serious, but at first it was not declared. Then, the former chairman of the settlement council gathered us and confirmed that trouble happened there. Empty passenger trains were already going through Vilcha towards Chernobyl, with their curtains all closed, in order to evacuate people.”
Women with children were taken out to rest houses and spent nearly three months there, while the men lived and worked in Vilcha despite the radiation. A great quantity of radioactive ash fell on the settlement; people washed and replaced roofs, carried out deactivation, removed the upper layer of soil. A lot of different machinery was brought to help. And manufacture continued. From 1989 till 1994, Lirsky was the director of woodworking plant which produced parquet and furniture.
“And when the whole settlement moved to the Kharkov Region, he also moved with fellow countrymen. Now ‘those Vilcha’ is empty, becomes ruins and is overgrown with forest and grass. “All is neglected, now it is a closed zone with admittance to pass-holders only,” Nikolay Ivanovich states. “Though I didn’t live there long, I got accustomed to that land. I travel there almost each year, and my wife also comes from here. My mother-in-law is buried there, while parents, from other district, live in the Ternopol Region.”
[b]Ashes of Chernobyl[/b]
One of the streets in new Vilcha is named in honour of the Hero of Ukraine, Nikolay Titenok. “Nikolay Ivanovich, my namesake, worked, before the accident as a machine-tool operator in our forestry enterprise shop,” recollects Lirsky. “He was a diligent guy, was born in Vilcha, to a large family. Then Nikolay was drafted into the army, appeared in Chernobyl, served as a fireman and just in the night from 25 to 26th April took over duty. The senior sergeant of internal service, Nikolay Titenok went to the fire, extinguished the reactor of the fourth power generating unit among the first liquidators. Practically all of them received deadly doses of radiation. He was 23 years old when he died in Moscow hospital, less than a month after the accident and was buried in the Mitinskoye cemetery in Moscow. At first he was awarded posthumously with the order of the Red Banner, then the Ukrainian cross ‘For courage’. In 2006, Nikolay Titenok was given the rank of the Hero of Ukraine ‘for heroic feat for the sake of life of present and future generations, personal courage and selflessness, shown during the liquidation of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station’.”
Do the ashes of Chernobyl beat in their hearts? “Of course. This tragedy affected all of us,” Nikolay Lirsky answers. “Almost all here have problems with their health. Imagine: It was only in 1992 that people from Vilcha began to settle here. Before that they lived and worked there for 4-5 years. Usually before the anniversary of the catastrophe people remember about us. Doctors from Kharkov come and examine and check us free of charge. We have a lot of Chernobyl invalids as well as participants of the Great Patriotic War and 121 liquidators of the Chernobyl disaster from Vilcha, among which were Belarusians.”
The talker did not focus on the fact that settlers from around Chernobyl have a lot of questions for the authorities, or on how we can help them? However, from the Internet it is obvious to see — they are ill. In particular, there is a publication about a meeting of Vilcha residents with the former deputy of the district, Stepan Gavrish. Once he helped settlers to grow roots in the new place. At the meeting there was mention of plans to construct 1,200 houses (currently 800) and a socially-cultural complex (still not present), to provide people with work. And Stepan Gavrish, the president of charitable foundation ‘Bank of Hope’, ascertained that two-thirds of able-bodied Vilcha residents do not have any work and live at the expense of reduced social assistance. He cited the calculations — Vilcha residents live on less than for $100 a month, Chernobyl people cannot even afford medicine. “While the sickness rate of thyroid carcinoma in Vilcha is 12 times higher than in the whole region,” noted Gavrish. And he said that the government’s attempt to cancel benefits is a crime. He reminded that the fund gives Vilcha hospital necessary medicines and wants to achieve continuation of works on the frozen construction sites and to create workplaces in the settlement. However, in connection with the latest developments in Ukraine, it is hard to believe that it will be possible.
[b]From Polesie’s Vilcha — to Sloboda’s Volchia[/b]
However, why were Vilcha residents were taken out so far — from Polesie’s forests to the Sloboda steppe? There exists one possible version. The city of Volchansk, as it is known, stands on the river Volchia. Perhaps accord of Vilcha with Volchia attracted the attention of those who searched for a cheap work force from the near-Chernobyl regions? “At the end of the 1980s the delegation from the Kharkov Region pushed for resettlement,” recollects Lirsky. “And our settlement delegation was in this place. Vilcha residents say that together, with the local people they chose this place, and saw even a design. And it was beautiful place! All agreed. People constructed the new Vilcha quickly because of huge financing — the Union was still alive. They built 800 houses, a school and a kindergarten and by 1992 our people started to settle and in 1993 they moved in large quantities.”
As Nikolay Lirsky said, there are 1,832 people living in the town, of which about one thousand are settlers. Not many for 800 houses, though ‘Polesie’s spirit’ is still alive there, despite the after-Chernobyl distortions. Houses are sold and bought. Kharkov residents move to Vilcha on their pension — selling their apartments and buying cottages. In Vilcha there are few children, and the big building of kindergarten operates a regional home for old people — old and young under one roof. Georgy Razum heads an asylum for old people, he was the first head of the settlement council and he helped people move and grow food. Georgy Nikolaevich also joined our conversation, and, in his opinions about the future of the settlement, there was no great optimism.
“In general, we believe that hundreds of Vilcha residents, if they had the possibility, would exchange their cottages for Polesie’s — not such comfortable houses, in the pure, before-Chernobyl Vilcha. Chernobyl, and resettlement have broken a lot of destinies and families, and it is impossible to return the past. Vilcha residents accustomed to the new place. The climate was different, nature too steppe instead of forest. The soil is different — black soil has a special character. Vilcha residents were used to sandy soils and at the beginning, ploughed black soil layers cracked and the people did not know what to do. They broke it with cudgels, had a lot of trouble until they mastered new the agricultural equipment. It happened because food grown on homestead land, for many people, is still the only stable source of income.”
But why? In Vilcha they had no time during Soviet days to create any manufacture. Vilcha residents resettled, and became unemployed in large numbers. All was broken at that time, and even local people did not have enough jobs. Some people got a job in a local collective farm — Octyabr, but it was divided into shares. Someone was needed in Volchansk located 6 kilometres away. Belarusian, Valery Semenchuk from the village Lina of Narovlya District, with whose family we later stayed and warmly talked at the Easter table, worked earlier as a mechanic on the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. He worked on the well-known 4th power generating unit. In Vilcha, he finished a three-month course and became a gasman. He works in the field of gas supply systems and he has enough work. All the Vilcha homes are supplied with gas. There is a pipeline, gas boilers for heating of premises, water heaters, sewerage — city comforts. Valery and Tamara Semenchuk have a cosy, well-groomed cottage, as pretty as a picture. We will detail on the pages of Belarus Magazine about this Belarusian-Ukrainian family where both daughters became doctors and work in Kharkov.
It came as a surprise for the Polesie’s residents that, in order to water their kitchen gardens, it was necessary, because of utility meters, to pay for water in this new place. Centralised garbage disposal, gas and electricity were also according to city tariffs. At first it was considered that the Volchansk transport plant would move to Vilcha, but it was not possible to make that happen. There was a planned brewery, a sausage shop, a big poultry house — the equipment was bought in Germany — but things have not moved forward one inch. “On our estate there is no land even to graze cows: only a residential sector,” said Lirsky. “Perhaps some people would like to have a cow, but there is no place to graze it. The problem is that the land around is not ours, and it is like we are on an island.” However, community facilities are huge: 270 hectares, 40 kilometres of roads, 5 artesian wells, 30 streets. Unfortunately, there are no streets with a ‘Belarusian’ name and we have asked Nikolay Lirsky to submit such an offer for consideration to the public.
Why we do not single out our Belarusians from Vilcha residents? As it seemed to us, it will be an artificial activity. “We do not have distinctions: Belarusians, Ukrainians...,” said Nikolay Lirsky who speaks Russian and Ukrainian perfectly. “Our families are on friendly terms, as it was in Vilcha. There is no difference. In general I will say your compatriots are very good people. They are friendly and hospitable. Our head-mistress is Belarusian, the head of the kindergarten too. There will be the possibility to get acquainted with the Semenchuk family; Yurkovsky Valentin and Yevgeny Kurako are also Belarusians. In general, there are about 30 Belarusian or Belarusian-Ukrainian families in Vilcha. Children study at a Ukrainian school, and use the Belarus language, perhaps, only in Belarus when speaking with natives. We do not have groups studying the Belarusian language, or disputes on nationality basis. After all, all of us are Vilcha and Chernobyl people, irrespective of our nationality.”
[b]Critical weight of trouble[/b]
Did you pay attention to those words? ‘All of us are christened by that trouble.’ And to these: ‘All of us are Vilcha and Chernobyl people, irrespective of our nationality’. Christening, as we know, is a cardinal change of consciousness, with reappraisal of values. The experience of veterans of the Great Patriotic War testifies how the consciousness of people changes during common ordeals. As a matter of fact, all who passed through that slaughterhouse and lost friends and relatives, was within an ace of death. And consequently the veterans, who saw the ‘fruits’ of Nazi ideology, painfully perceive any attempts to divide people into the best and the worst according to their nationality, beliefs and language.
The father of one of the authors of these lines, Mikhail Cherkashin, was a military musician at the front. Not everyone knows this, but musicians sometimes worked as the ‘funeral’ team, when nurses and hospital attendants took out soldiers from the battlefield. They saw a lot of blood and deaths and played funeral marches. In 1944, an aerial bomb fell on the staff of division. Dozens of people, including female radio operators died at that time. Mikhail Cherkashin, regained consciousness, being seriously injured and contused. While he — the Ukrainian — was rescued by his friend, the Jewish man, Mikhail Cherpakov. He saw a felt boot which jutted out of the rubble and recognised Cherkashin’s ‘hand’ in the way the felt boot was sewn. He, along with the Armenian and the Russian, dug out their friend together. Then, during his whole life, Mikhail Stepanovich was on friendly terms with people of different nationalities. After all, people christened by war knew that, as well as blood relationship, there is also front brotherhood. Later, there was Afghani brotherhood, and now Vilcha residents already have a Chernobyl brotherhood. As it is known, various metals can be alloyed in the fire into a single whole...
Being a human first of all is perhaps the most important thing when ordeals occur. We have heard about it many times in Vilcha. The example of friendship, good neighbourhood for settlers is ‘that Vilcha’. “Our history is interesting to all of us,” says Ivan Ilnitsky, the director of the cultural centre from the former settlement. “Therefore, we placed materials on the Internet: old photos and video-clips which can be found by searching for the words ‘native land’. We are brothers with the Belarusians. For example after the catastrophe my parents and other relatives lived for some time with relatives’ in Mozyr. My cousin lives in Gomel. Ukrainians and Belarusians are a single whole.”
While leading us around the town, Nikolay Lirsky showed us his cottage and treated us to his birch kvass and even gave us some to take away. He mentioned with some dismay about how many birches there were in Polesie! The habit of drinking it during the spring remained in Kharkov Region, though there are many less birches here. The good things are long remembered.
While writing these notes, we hope that our brotherly Ukraine will be able to find among the dozens languages of its own citizens the main one — the language of consent. And that ‘christened by Chernobyl’ Vilcha residents, as well as thousands of other settlers will do everything possible, in order that the contradictions in society would not reach a critical mass of national trouble.
By Ivan and Valentina [b]Zhdanovich[/b]