When—in the deep twilight—we have already got almost to the middle of the forest, which has grown in abundance on the remains of the former Lel¸v village in Pripyat’ district, we heard a loud grunting sound in the bushes in front of us. We could make out a tinkered black, humpbacked silhouette of a considerable size. The village has been mostly demolished after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. So, rich jungles have been formed among the remaining houses and the skeletons of armored vehicles, taken into parts by metalworkers.
Why, in this green, there should be living someone! With the heart in our throat, we were waiting, apparently alarmed by the impact of previous experience of similar meetings.
Dosimeter expert, Maxim, anxiously continued to stroll a few steps in front of me, frantically trying to relate a painted by the old-timers scheme, to the actual difficulties of this spot. "Wait, there's a wild boar there!"—I hissed. As soon as the first syllables of the word "boar" were pronounced, Max made a rapid U-turn over his left shoulder and outlined a desire to escape quickly. "Stop, do not run!" – I snapped through the teeth, and spit out my favorite proverb about the guests who were shouting "Really??!! Amazing!" For some reason, my hand felt for the knife at the belt, which, given the circumstances, was not enough to save us all the same.
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At this point, I pulled myself together, and I loudly sang the song to the boar about the same guests, about the video camera that I always take with me, and applauded my own artistic presentation. While I was making these heartbreaking sounds, Dima caught up with us and stared at me suspiciously. Obviously, he was thinking of something bad. For example, that under the influence of the residual gamma radiation I went crazy—with all the consequences. Having learnt, that we were facing only a fight with a wild boar of two hundred and fifty kilos of weight, Dima nodded stolidly, and we moved on. Still slightly trembling, I asked Maxim whether he really did not hear grunting. "It seemed as if somebody had thundered ",—said the dosimetrist and giggled nervously.
By the way, we have not found the road and had to return to the car in an almost complete darkness.
Thus, it can be said that the completion of the first stage of the expedition of the project "Electronic Book of Memory of Ukraine" in the villages of the Chernobyl exclusion zone turned out to be quite nice and memorable.
The country of wild horses
The idea to bypass the dead villages of the Northern Polissya was born from a long-standing promise. A few years ago, when I brought the remains of a soldier who died in the Chernihiv region, for burial at home in the premises of Moscow, a woman came up to me after the memorial meeting. Her father, an ordinary Semen Perevesentsev, died in 1943 and, according to the military office enlistment notice was buried "on the x. Greblya, Chernobyl district, Kyiv region. " Valentina Semenovna asked to find the place and to check whether there is his name on the plate, because of the fact that many notifications arrived to her, but each of them was with a different address.
It is shameful, but keeping the promise was delayed all the time, but the situation happened to the better. Small business in the end coincided with the great project. Finally, we decided to create not only an electronic data base of the Ukrainians perished in the Great Patriotic War, but to develop a national register of the war graves wherever it was possible. The data about mass graves in the Zone is the information which has never been processed. Nobody was really thinking about it in 1986, it was the last and the least of the then concerns.
This is how the two men happened to be in a jeep in the chilly weather at the checkpoint "Dityatki".
As if all ill luck would have it: the warm golden autumn gave way to rain and icy wind right on the eve of our departure. But it was too late for retreating—the expedition was coordinated with the Ministry of Emergency Situations, we had been promised every assistance in "Chernobylinterinform" agency, state-owned enterprise, which is engaged in informing the world community and support of delegations. We couldn’t let all these people down.
But as soon as we drove a few kilometers from Dityatki, the wind immediately died down, with every hour that passed, the weather began to build, and in the evening it finally cleared up. In Kiev it was raining cats and dogs. But over the Pripyat forests and marshes the bright sun was shining, as if approving our determination.
The first thing that deeply surprised me (Dima visited the Zone several times and almost nothing could surprise him any more) was a state of the roads. Obviously, the Soviet government was good at constructing the roads in a diligent way. If everywhere in Ukraine there were the roads like these, we could be proud of our country. At the time, the roads’ net was established even in the most remote villages in the marshes, where one could rarely see a stone house – Polessie architecture was focused on wood. Moreover, all the sideway roads from the fields and forests had carefully placed signs "Give way".
Of course, nature triumphs over civilization. The grass finds cracks in the pavement and throws out green bunches looking like arrogant porcupines. The moss draws the roadway, leaving a narrow strip of pure asphalt in the center. The trees on both sides are pulling the hands toward each other, so sometimes you have to go out and cut the road through. But all the same, almost everywhere we went without using all-wheel drive. You can even easily ride a passenger car. That, of course, cannot be said about the former rural lanes, sometimes overgrown up to the waist. In some places, houses are almost invisible because of the lush undergrowth of wild grapes and shrubs. But everywhere looters and wandering thrill lovers carefully shattered windows and inside everything is reversed. We saw one—almost untouched—village, but I am not going to tell you the name. Because then they will arrive and devastate it.
The search sometimes turns into a long walk between the dead houses. Sometimes the stone soldiers do not stand in the center of the village (though now it is difficult to understand where is the center), but on the churchyard, which is hidden in the woods. Constantly I wanted to ask for directions. At first, it was not even clear for me, that there is no one to ask. It seems that you are about to see a granny sitting near the hut. But near the huts one can spot only empty benches or chairs, which were brought out and remained at the gate.
Only once the men, exporting some iron trash on the huge KrAZes with the sign “Radiation” to the former station Yanov at Chernobyl, indicated the road for us. They looked at us as complete fools and waved at the direction of the huge pine trees. Under it we discovered a large memorial, entirely covered with twigs of young poplars. Two Heroes of the Soviet Union, three plates with the names which are almost cancelled by time. And there were three barking semi-wild dog, which jumped out of the bushes.
Getting around the Zone and meeting wild beasts is a usual event in these places and it must constantly be kept in mind. But if the feral cats or rabbits, running inside the former village school are funny, then a chocolate, white-chest, smooth elk, running without much fear from the rural outskirts of the woods, is astounding.
Wandering in the premises of the village Zamoshnya where a conditional mark was put not over the fraternal mass grave, but over the remains of the women’s convent, we scared two deer. A dozen of was circling above the marshes on the left bank of Pripyat. I had seen them only once, in Karelia. And on yet another road our car’s engine frightened and interrupted the dinner of the goshawk. Slim robber fluttered from branch, pulling his lunch in the clutches far away, to the bushes.
We have repeatedly talked about the Przewalski horses, which have taken root in the Zone and commit reprisals against wolves. They say, one of the herds is constantly wandering in the vicinity of the village Korogod. But I would have preferred watch them staying far away as much as possible. These are red rocket, seen by us in Askania Nova (they were brought from that place), they demonstrate extremely aggressive tendencies and show amazing muscle strength. According to the eyewitnesses, they are able to tear the wolves apart, like Tarzan tore apart his sweatshirt. They play rugby with furry corpses until the complete dismemberment. In the past the forests swarmed with former domestic horses and cows. We can only guess about their fate.
By the way, one should be careful with the beasts. Our good, but alert dosimetrist decisively thwarted an attempt to grab a harmless elk horn, lying on the roadside. We were allowed to take an interesting object in the hands only after careful poking it in the dosimeter. While, foolishly smiling, we were taking photographs of each other with horns, Maxim explained that these bony appendages could be terribly radioactive. More precisely, they often emit 5-7 thousand beta particles per minute through every square centimeter. "It is because the animals go and run everywhere",—explained the harmful features of the local fauna Max, the man of difficult profession.
Perhaps only the beta particles in the ungulates and radionuclides in fish seriously keep the citizens from the usual development of their native spaces – with shooting in all living things, with nets and electric rods, bound mountains of left plastic and packaging, fireplaces and other features of brainless urban civilization. Well, there is still security in the Zone. But still, the Zone is scaring because according to our discreet dosimetrist, inside it is "a little bit radioactive". So people refuse to go to the Zone, remembering the lead pant (preventing intimate body parts form the effect of radiation), and on return, joking, they definitely ask about the grown tail. But it's good for them.
In thirty years of existence without human beings, the nature swiftly regained its boundaries, and deserted, deepest Pripyat rolls its waters in remote antiquity. The roar of the engines does not bother it. And so it should remain. And the rich and famous should be mercilessly punished for violation of protected regime.
But with all this, the Zone has become not just huge, the largest reserve in Europe. Here time has stopped for the ancient people of Polissya. People went away, leaving their history, their roots in the middle of a huge wild world. Only here – not in front of computer screen – one can understand the meaning of the expression "without the past there is no future."
(To be continued)Dmitry Zaborin
Translated by Maria Kryzhanovska