Faith & Revelation

A journey to origins

— Oh God, give me strength — says our driver while the guard opens a side-way gate at the Paryshiv-2 checkpoint, a creaky-sounding barrier to the North-East Chernobyl Zone.

The road ahead, probably, was not repaired for at least last five decades. It has imprinted into its surface the ages of Zone, autumn rains, icy winters, clanging sounds of heavy machinery and exhaust of UAZ vans that drive here time to time, bringing dosimetrists squads to check automatic monitoring equipment. It goes more than 20 kilometers there — to origins, serving as a natural barrier to filter out strangers.

These places, located on the left bank of Pripyat river, are quite special. Being clamped between rivers, endless swamps and dense forests, for centuries they were a site for ancient neighborhoods. As physical access here was obstructed, a traditional, pretty archaic way of life continued here, making these lands an epitome of Chernobyl Polissya culture, still in the focus of interest of ethnographists and adventure seekers.

Shortly after the checkpoint, the road heads to forest, and one would notice small sheds with hay that appear time to time aside — a common sign that you came to wild places, where human is more guest. That’s true — there is a chance to encounter here anything from bunnies to elks; author once met here one straight on an abandoned street. Scientists deployed in Chernobyl told that using motion sensor cameras (“phototraps”) they registered even a bear.

Koshivka village

After half an hour of driving, you arrive to Koshivka. A vegetation that sprawled over it in few decades gives an illusion of tiny neighborhood surrounding small farm. In fact it is much larger, though its streets is pretty hard to navigate. 

A peaceful landscape should not distract the viewer; the North-East received the first impact of fallout in 1986, forming so-called northern track, so all the lands northern from Koshivka were added to 10-kilometer Zone. Same year, a fence was set up around, decades after it became unnecessary, leaving fallen poles with straight lines of rusty barbed wires in the fields, and this rusty gates.

Shortly after, over a hill stands a monitoring outpost of ASKRO — automatic system of control of radiation levels. As it happens quite common in the Zone, an acronym from Ukrainian already became a separated word — a part of local grotesque dictionary. These structures house a lot of scientific equipment, from gamma-tracers and rainwater analyzers to aspiration systems — a blower that can detect aerosols and heavy particles straight in the air. As more far one goes from the core of the Zone, as more often they will meet these things.

Starosillya village

A little more attention and you will notice you stay not on a hill, but hydrotechnical dam — these were erected across the region in variety, in order to protect lands from flooding by Pripyat river. So few dozens meters of walking by the dam, and you will spot ancient bee-houses on a tree — borti. These did not change for centuries — they were made from a solid piece of wood, preferably thickest part of a tree and hanged somewhere high. To get a honey, a honey maker had to kill the bees. Nearly a thousand years ago this method was quite common across all the Europe, but survived to present days only here. The disaster made its job, so today to find skilled bortnik is way harder than a skilled manager.

Behind the dam starts Starosilla, a village which name could be translated as an “Old neighborhood”. Although its founding date is not precisely known (normally it considered to be something like 1778), it looks like it had much behind it. In a spring season sprawling bushes of lilac gently hug old houses, turning former streets to blossoming labyrinths — one could easily get lost here, either by quite chaotic layout of houses, or by exploring it all. 

This village, probably, is the direct explanation why historically in Chernobyl region there were not so many people — it stands straight on sands that covered with just few centimeters of poor soil. On a hill of the local cemetery (traditionally, locals preferred to place them on elevated spots), erosion washes the sand away, emerging twisted roots of old pine tress. A pine looks as the only plant that feels good in this natural survival challenge, so you can find them virtually anywhere in the Zone; here is their kingdom.

We continue driving. Here it often comes to our minds, how this "small", isolated life used to look like years before the NPP was built, before new people came — people, who often considered these imprinted centuries of history an useless heritage, that should be wiped and replaced in favor of new, technological future.

As a reference for these thoughts the landscape suddenly changes — one turn more, and we see the Grid, exactly like this, with a capital ‘G’. These working power lines, 750 MV and 330 MV each, came here straight from the Power Plant, through inaccessible swamps and Pripyat river — and a careful observer will notice a silhouette of giant nuclear facility over the horizon, same time so close, but so far to this world, like from another galaxy.

The only bridge for people across Pripyat river was destroyed in WWII. Ironically, a new one was built only in 1989, already for the Zone’s needs. The Grid, however, serves as a strange bridge between, sort of philosophical one, as it continues its operation over the deserted villages.

We continue to the north, pass Kryva Hora and come to Zymovysche village. Shortly after the sign — one more ASKRO outpost, and here we enter the “hotter” part of Northern Contamination Track — it goes like an invisible frontier, and only dosimeter clicks faster. 2.3 uSv/h on a grass here.

Probably, it would be more correct to call Zymovysche a town, as its size is impressive. It was a center of a huge collective farm, and last years before disaster passed in active development — investments were massive, so huge structures, common more for industrial sites were built. One of such landmarks here is a service depot of agriculture machinery, that stands unfinished since then. Here a lot of tech scattered across the land, including iconic Soviet “Niva” harvesters — one would easily find them on pictures about happy life in a Soviet countryside.

Suddenly a loud noise of a train. Just few hundreds meters away from harvesters’ final resting place, is an operational railway crossing of the line connecting Semikhody and Slavutych. It takes more than a hour to get here by car from Chernobyl, but just 10 minutes by train. However, it long time does not stop here, and only thing passengers see in the village is graffiti “Welcome to Hell” on one of the neglected buildings…

Ten minutes forward, and we are on a crossroads. In front is a long road to Gorodchan — it goes stealthy, parallel to railway line, and passes tiny village of Kotsubynske — a tiny neighborhood, established by Soviets in 1930s, and nowadays completely disappeared. The Gorodchan, a village just few hundreds meters from Belarus, covered with wild grapes and rarely has visitors. It is famous for its lake systems, rich for birds, as there are many perfect places for nesting. Theoretically, behind Gorodchan is a road to Chapayivka village, however, to our mind one would need a BAT-2 engineering tank to pass there.

But that’s all is for another story. We go to other direction and turn left, passing on our way numerous watering channels — remains of enormous attempt of bringing more life to local sandy lands. Now most of them turned either to swamps or to very long lakes. 

Somewhere here is a turn to Usiv village — located in the core of Northern Contamination Track, it was heavily polluted. There is a joke in the Zone — if you’d like to find a way to Usiv, put a dosimeter into car’s window. Where it clicks — there you should drive.

Soviets came to Ukraine in 1921 — after numerous attempts to take over the Ukrainian republic, they did it with power, weapon and blood. They continued in that way, transforming the life to the forms they considered right according to newborn artificial ideology, with the methods far from volunteer ones, sometimes ruining that what was a fulcrum for people for centuries. In Chernobyl region these fulcrums were traditional farming and Christian religion; so after the first fell by enslaving in collective farms, the second came. Before the Soviets, on a territory that now enclosed with the Zone, there were 18 churches. Nowadays, only two remained — one in Chernobyl, another in Krasno — the St. Michael, built in 1800.

It was moved from Mashevo on that year, probably to make it more accessible. Over the centuries it came to us in good shape — just the copper domes became green due to oxidization. Inside it was decorated with the large paintings on canvas, placed all around the walls and ceiling. In the end of 80s it was looted. It is hard to imagine a logic of that person who did it, as paintings were cut with knife, often just partly. Since then, it is unknown where they are.

However, those rare visitors here try to keep it standing. There is something true here.

Our destination is Mashevo — a X-shaped village very close to Belarus. It welcomes us with 3 uSv/h gamma-radiation and wind in acacias, surrounding nearly all the former streets — pretty unusual comparing to all we saw on the way here. Is not advised to roam here very much, as here anybody is guest — these places are completely wild. Mashevo is famous for its legendary school. Decades after abandonment and rotting, not so many places remained in such state, as they were left behind. This is rare exception.

The way back somehow feels shorter, and somehow you wish to remain silent, just watching and perceiving the milestones around, listening to the wind and rumbling sound of blowers of ASKRO outposts. Two hours after, it ends at the familiar rusty gate, behind it — highway to Chernobyl and busy life of the central Zone.

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