“(Re)Claiming the Past: Cultural Rescue and Nationalism in Post-Chornobyl Ukraine” by Myron O.

Stachiw, Director, Fulbright Representative Office in Ukraine Fulbright Scholar, 2004-2005; 2005-2006 Revised August 2008 A paper presented at the Harvard University Ukrainian Summer Institute, Cambridge, MA, July 31, 2006 A similar version was presented at the International Congress for the Study of Central and Eastern Europe, Berlin, Germany, July 24, 2005; American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., July 10, 2005

This story is well known to most of you, I am sure. In the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, a poorly conceived and executed experiment in Reactor #4 of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Station in the Ukrainian SSR, went horribly wrong. With all of the safety mechanisms and backup systems manually disabled for the experiment, the reactor core began to dangerously overheat and began what every nuclear engineer has nightmares about - a meltdown of the core. The resultant explosions and fires sent more than fifty tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere – the equivalent of more than several hundred times the radiation from the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki - poisoning tens of thousands of square kilometers of heavily populated forest, farmland, and urban places in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia with radioactive fallout and changing the course of history. First detected by scientists in Sweden, and initially denied by Soviet authorities, the radioactive fallout spread across the earth, causing the slaughter of sheep herds as far away as Scotland and causing many women to abort their pregnancies in Greece. Many scholars believe that the stresses brought on by the Chornobyl disaster to the government and economy of the Soviet Union, and its loss of credibility on both international and domestic levels as a result of its handling of the crisis, were the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back” and contributed significantly to the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.

radioactive fallout from the damaged reactor contaminated 6.000 Ukrainians draw their drinking water. from which 32. from the reactor. More than 3 million residents (among them nearly 1 million children) in more than 2200 towns. Russia.5 million people still live on contaminated lands.000 square miles) of Ukraine’s fertile earth. . In the first several weeks after the accident more than 100.000 years. Mary Mycio in her book Wormwood Forest revealed that the soils in the agricultural lands of the southern half of the country that have drawn their irrigation water from the Dnipro River these past twenty years have radiation levels equal to or higher than much of the land within the designated contaminated zones outside of the exclusion zone. the plutonium ensured that it would be an inconceivably long time before this area could ever again be repopulated and used in any normal ways. Just as a comparison. the two most widely distributed radioactive contaminants. and particularly dangerous ones because of the way they insinuate themselves into plants and animals.000 square kilometers (nearly 20. and Ukraine all flow into the Dnipro River.000 people were relocated from the city of Prypiat.000.6% of Ukraine's territory over an area of more than 40. radius zone around the reactor. the combined area of Massachusetts. In one of the great crimes of humanity the Soviet authorities allowed the May Day parade to go off as planned in Kyiv despite the fact that radiation readings in the city from the fallout had reached levels as much as 3000 times the normal levels. and cities were exposed to radioactive fallout – and this excludes the 3 million residents of Kyiv. especially of the heavy elements of plutonium. and from more than 70 surrounding villages in a 30 km. An even more serious threat to the health of the entire nation of 47 million people is that streams and rivers that drain the contaminated territories of Belarus. Connecticut and Rhode Island is only 13. located just 80 km. With a half life of nearly 25. miles . Cesium and Strontium. To date more than 2. economics. villages. Standard calculations for the decay of radionuclides to “safe” levels at which low-risk reoccupation could occur are ten half-life cycles.In Ukraine alone. situated just a few kilometers from the reactor. where radiation was highest due to heaviest fallout.724 sq. and social order. which were excluded from the radiation maps and counts for reasons of convenience.

and International Atomic Energy Agency that only about 4000 people will die as result of the radiation resulting from the accident. 6769 children have died from a variety of cancers directly related to the accident and its aftermath. Many scholars and political pundits have attributed this absurdly conservative estimate of the impact of the Chornobyl disaster on human life as nothing more than a cover by these agencies for the efforts to revive the nuclear power industry as the answer to the world’s energy needs within a context of growing international conflict between energy producing and energy consuming countries that has deep and irreconcilable differences in ideology. Jim Riccio of Greenpeace estimates that 250.000 Ukrainian liquidators – people sent into the Zone to carry out the clean-up . provided the following statistics in his testimony: one-half million Ukrainians died from various illnesses as a result Chornobyl accident between 1987 and 2004. contaminated equipment used in the cleanup. In addition.have already died. and nearly 2700 settled points – villages. with about 100. tens of thousand of square kilometers of Ukrainian territory have been irradiated. and at least 100. World Health Organization. religion.000 cancer illnesses will result from the accident. These estimates stand in stark contrast to the recent report issued by the United Nations. and cities – have been affected by the irradiation. Ukrainian Ambassador to the US Oleh Shamshur. 35. speaking at a Congressional hearing on the impacts of the Chornobyl disaster this past April. Some contemporary estimates put the number of people who have been dislocated through obligatory or voluntary relocation at more than 1million.have a half life of approximately thirty years. and by extension the other nations in the former USSR impacted by the Chornobyl disaster as well.000 people were evacuated and relocated throughout the country. and world view. huge quantities of radioactive waste. towns.000 of those fatal. Groups such as the Children of Chornobyl Relief and Development Fund and Greenpeace have severely criticized the report as incomplete and inadequate. Ukrainian sociologist Yurij Sayenko identified three terrible catastrophes that the people and nation of Ukraine have suffered. Over the next several years at least another 100. The first was the Chornobyl . based on flawed and incomplete data.000 left the region voluntarily. and debris gathered during the cleanup were deposited in more than 800 burial sites located within the Exclusion Zone.

hundreds and hundreds of hours audio and video recordings collected. then they could draw direct lines of connection from the newly independent Ukrainian nation back to the earliest origins of all Slavic culture. document. Only the Ukrainian government has continued to sustain the efforts of its ethnographers. Ukrainian scholars have undertaken a sustained effort to record. albeit at levels that were barely adequate to continue the work during the past five years or so. historians. and the destruction of the habitual social and political reality of the world. I thought that these actions were the result of complex national motivations by Ukrainian leaders to take the initiative in recording and documenting the traditional culture of this region as part of larger geo-political/geo-cultural contest among former Soviet republics. Over the past several decades. linguists. decorative arts scholars. Why were these efforts undertaken and sustained longer in Ukraine than in Belarus and Russia? When I began this research and prepared the abstract for this paper. its consequences seriously harmed the environment and people of Ukraine and covered the Earth with radioactive rain. resulting in a sharp impoverishment of the Ukrainian state and population and inability to deal effectively with the monumental scale of the issues addressing the nation in the aftermath of the Chornobyl disaster. thousands of pages of written reports. anthropologists. The situation of a “stable protected prison was changed for an unclear and frightening freedom”. and archaeologists to the present. and preserve the traditional culture of the contaminated territories of Ukraine.disaster itself. folklorists. ethnomusicologists. Similar efforts were mounted by scholars in Belarus and Russia. even further back than to the usurped history of Kyivan Rus’. architectural historians. and specifically between Ukraine and its long-time political and cultural dominatrix. even more thousands of photographs. If Ukrainian scholars could succeed in recovering the traditional culture of the Polissia Region as a distinctly Ukrainian cultural heritage. let alone process the warehouses full of artifacts collected. The third was a deep post-totalitarian political and economic crisis during the 1990s. These three catastrophes have been superimposed each on the other and have strengthened each other. Western as well as Ukrainian historians have generally . The second was the breakdown of the USSR. but these were relatively short-lived and quite limited in scope and scale. Russia. Within this context.

and recording of music and song. In addition. waiting to be cleaned of radiation and forming a significant collection that some dream will one day be the basis of a museum dedicated to the traditional culture of Polissia. all with the goal of recording.by the hundreds of scholars who volunteered to work in the contaminated zones.000 documents salvaged from municipal offices. and is believed to form a direct link back to early Slavic culture. more than 10. documenting. as well as more than a dozen independent trips. I have come to the conclusion that the motivation for these efforts at cultural rescue efforts that can only be called heroic at the personal level .was not a calculated gambit in cultural geo-politics by the authorities of the newly independent Ukraine. This culture still retains elements of pre-Christian beliefs and practices. .000 photographs. more than 10.agreed that the very cradle of all Slavic culture more than 1500 years ago was located in the borderlands between Ukraine. In total the archive currently housed in the Center for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage within the Ministry of Emergency Situations contains more than 40. and to the newly created homes and villages of relocated former residents to conduct fieldwork in a number of disciplines.000 objects of traditional material culture have been collected and placed in storage in Chornobyl and Ivankiw. which retains the most distinct and archaic traditional culture of all Ukraine. While this body of information represents a truly remarkable accomplishment in the face of tremendous adversity – dangers of radiation. measured drawings. To date nearly 300 villages were visited by the expeditions and subjected to some level of fieldwork – interviews. Exclusion Zone. archives. Belarus. and hundreds of measured drawings of buildings and landscapes.that covers nearly 15 years and includes dozens of expeditions into the irradiated territories. and private homes. photographs. participation in two expeditions into the irradiated territories. the 30 km. and Russia – essentially the territory of Polissia. video filming. more than 200 video tapes. but an effort of love of nation and culture – as well as economic and scholarly opportunism . The result was a sustained effort – albeit an erratically sustained effort . interviews with participants in the expeditions and key people in the planning of the cultural rescue efforts. After nearly two years of research. and preserving the traditional spiritual and material folk culture of the Polissia region. several hundred hours of audio tapes.

to the lack of political and financial support from a corrupt. the governments of Presidents Kravchuk and Kuchma have repeatedly shown their disdain for the heritage of Ukraine. Russia-oriented government that. continue to work and organize expeditions into the Exclusion Zone to document the abandoned villages and to collect objects of traditional material culture. Yet few if any acknowledge that there are . lack of appropriate technology. often two or three per day by the field teams. if they can ever get access to them. and substantive cultural programming. analyzing. to the practices of scholars who hoard and protect the results of their fieldwork. From the beginning it was a race against time. that the reports of their field work (if they even submitted them as required) are ensconced on the shelves of the archives for future generations of scholars to study – maybe. had little need of celebrating and reinforcing the cultural heritage of Ukraine. the image we receive of the traditional culture of Polissia is largely impressionistic.truly primitive working conditions. and publishing the results of the past fifteen years of work. based on many small and highly idiosyncratic encounters between researchers and subjects. and. The process has fallen victim to the ubiquitous professional jealousies and conflicts within scholarly communities in former Soviet states. like its Soviet predecessor. A group of enthusiasts. scholarly institutes engaged in historical and cultural studies. and often was based on the old Soviet practices of quantity not quality – to visit more villages during the two week expeditions. until recently. led by Rostyslav Omeljashko. preferring to recreate showy Disney-like historical monuments and tourist attractions while cutting funds for museums. curator at the Center for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at the Ministry of Emergency Situations. Among the scholarly community. Throughout their 13 year reign. Most scholars now loudly lament the loss of this unique traditional culture of Polissia and are content to know that they did their part in collecting and preserving elements of this culture. inadequate and evershrinking budgets – it unfortunately falls short of a truly systematic and comprehensive survey and analysis of the culture of Polissia. it is now generally felt that most of the important fieldwork has been completed and little interest remains in continuing the difficult work of cataloguing. Omeljashko was one of a small group of scholars who first pushed for action to be taken as early as 1989. As a result.

livestock husbandry. Initially people were moved wherever there was room. traditional songs and dances. from community to community that had existed prior to the Chornobyl disaster in many of the region’s towns and villages. most never were allowed to return to their homes and belongings. One very serious impact of the disaster and the government’s largely unavoidable strategy of relocation from the most heavily contaminated territories was the total disruption of the process of cultural regeneration and transmission from generation to generation. Many of these people also suffered depression in their new and sometimes strange environments among people who frequently resented their presence and the . prayers. An integrated and sensitive heritage reeducation program can help to reestablish and heal the temporarily severed links of these residents of shattered communities to their cultural heritage and to their past communities. hunting and gathering. folktales. many suffer from depression and alchoholism. Those evacuated over the months and years following were allowed to take many of their belongings. and thus packed only overnight bags. and rituals. The process of relocation did not help the situation either.still more than two million people living within the irradiated territories of Polissia. Few are ready and willing to take the logical next step – to take the raw materials they have collected during their fieldwork – stories. Most residents evacuated in the first weeks from the exclusion zone were told that they would be gone only a few days. medicine. later they were moved in clusters of several families or an entire neighborhood to the same village. and analyzing them and then generating popular texts and programs that will place this culture into a larger context and return this information to the still extant communities in the Polissia region . Numerous studies have shown that the psychological health of most current and former residents of the irradiated territories is very poor. fishing. but some were relocated into environments totally foreign – forest people to the open steppes for example – and into dwellings that were radically different from the one or two-room log buildings they were used to. from neighbor to neighbor. and that the culture need not die and disappear. and feel themselves to be helpless victims. the traditional practices of agriculture. and traditional craft practices. In addition to ill health. and many were scattered across Ukraine and even to other countries in the Soviet Union to widely differing communities.

When the orthodox uncle of a man who joined one of the newly formed evangelical protestant communities died. as he had been told that it was not a true church and its members not true believers. Organized agriculture largely ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of the collective farm. and often made fun of the odd traditions of the relocated Polissians. their investment and support is almost entirely in economic development. some NGOs. the member of the evangelical community refused to enter the orthodox church and participate in the funeral of his favorite uncle. as the members of these communities are encouraged to turn their backs on the past and their traditional ways and beliefs. and people have created new communities. and few if any new enterprises have emerged over the past decade. Organizations like the United Nations Development Program. . which also provided little or unreliable information to the residents about risks. Little help has come from the government. For example. and some religious sects are helping individual communities.government help they received. and corrupt officials sold off any remaining tractors and other technology so that people are forced to work small plots by hand or to resort to preindustrial methods employing horses and oxen and hand-threshing of grain. feared that radiation would be passed on to them. An example from one village will illustrate the problem. The economies of the irradiated regions have all but collapsed. in those communities where some religious sects have established congregations. Now however. Yet many scholars and community activists do not always assess these developments positively. and available relief programs. They break apart the traditional communities and create smaller splintered communities that consciously reject the old ways and no longer interact in any meaningful ways with the traditional communities. the material conditions of life have improved. following the recent UN report. the UNDP has set up a number of community centers and until the recent report issued by the UN had expressed interest in expanding its focus on health and economic issues to issues of cultural heritage education as a tool of psychological regeneration of the population. But ethnographers bemoan the establishment of these communities. safe methods.

It is the fate of the elderly residents that is of particular concern to scholars of traditional culture. with the Chornobyl disaster only the most recent. traditions and rituals. These include the Great Famine or Holodomor of the 1930s. the effects of collectivization and destruction of traditional agricultural practices. but not all. They may have been exposed to it in their homes. Stalinist repressions and deportations. Therefore. the Chornobyl disaster is not the major threat to disappearance of the traditional culture of Polissia – time is.those over 70 years of age – is the greatest threat. the destruction of the church and its very important ritual calendar. to remove grandchildren from grandparents. And it is essential that the emerging effort to transmit the rescued knowledge of this traditional culture be carried out if it is not to suffer the same . impossible. the efforts of Ukrainian scholars to record and document this now rapidly fading and stressed culture gained tremendous importance. As a result. Many. In my assessment. younger families with children have moved out of the zone seeking a healthier environment and better economic opportunities. and resulting in the death of at least seven million people across Ukraine. These people represent the last generation that participated in the traditional folk culture of the region before a long and tragic sequence of events that had serious impacts on this and other traditional folk cultures of Ukraine.Approximately 60-70% of the population of the irradiated territories are pensioners – people with few choices or ambitions other than to live out their remaining lives on their small plots of land. and seventy years of Soviet rule. World War II. the younger members of the population never really openly practiced the traditional culture. but most never openly practiced the customs of the traditional culture. to make traditional ways of life impractical and unnecessary. The primary impact of the Chornobyl disaster and the efforts undertaken to mitigate the disaster was to speed this process up – to break up communities and the possible lines of transmission of cultural information. heard stories and learned songs from parents and grandparents. to destroy whole communities and scatter their residents. intentionally created by Stalinist policies to break the back of the Ukrainian peasantry and force it onto collective farms. and in some cases. which saw successive and devastating occupations by Nazi and Soviet troops and tremendous destruction in the Polissia region as a result of being the center of the Belarus Front. The passing of the older members of the population of these territories .

stated For nearly one half year now we are building and renewing an independent sovereign Ukraine. O. They were especially troubled by the policy adopted within the exclusion zone of bulldozing and burying entire communities. scholars and advocates of expanded fieldwork stepped up their efforts. remembered only in musty texts on obscure archive shelves. but plundered . The rich. At a conference of scholars held in 1992 to plan the cultural rescue efforts. as a result of the policies of glasnost which finally allowed any open discussion of the realities of the Chornobyl disaster. architects and historians. Ukrainian scholars active in the preservation of historical and cultural monuments and heritage began to lament the impacts of the Chornobyl disaster and the steps taken (or lack of them) by the USSR to mitigate its impacts. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Ukraine’s assertion of independence.fate as countless plant and animal species and other traditional cultures have during the 20th century – total extinction. Four large villages were destroyed in this way before the practice was halted through their complaints that these villages have not been studied by ethnographers. H. In 1989. the Minister for Mitigating the Impacts of Chornobyl on the Ukrainian population. The Parliament of the Ukrainian SSR acted in 1990 according to safe and accepted Soviet practices to approve the creation of “an inventory and preservation of historical. its history.” A limited work plan within the 30 km. now openly claiming the need to preserve Ukraine’s cultural heritage as justification for more extensive efforts at the documentation and preservation of the traditional culture of Polissia. its culture. architectural. three years after the accident and two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hotovchytsya. They protested the heavy-handed and poorly planned relocations that did not take into account issues of cultural heritage and the need to minimize the stresses of moving as a result of the disaster. Limited work was approved for the period 1990-1992. and cultural monuments within the evacuated territories. held in the city of Rivne at the western edges of the irradiated territories. work zone was submitted to the Council of Ministers of the USSR and Academy of Sciences of the USSR in Moscow for review. This renewal of her independence begins with a spiritual reawakening of its people.

darkened by the shadow of Chornobyl – this is a unique region where archaic traditions have survived…The loss of the unique wooden architecture of Polissia. it is clear that for the majority of these scholars. the motivating factor for joining in these expeditions was the sense that a significant part of traditional Ukrainian culture was about to be lost forever. its traditions. It is not yet clear how the new government of President Yushchenko will address this issue. folklore. exclusion zone – the zone of obligatory relocation (Zone II) and the zone of voluntary relocation (Zone III) as well as the settlements into which people were relocated. slowed economic growth. In 1994 the first large-scale organized expeditions were launched. However. or for the meager pay. as other opportunities to conduct any type of field work were increasingly disappearing as the country sank further into post-Soviet corruption and economic turmoil. though the most concentrated activity occurred between 1995 and 1998. Their efforts must be remembered and celebrated. because their loss will be a loss not just for Ukraine. It remains essential for the Ukrainian government and international community to continue to remember and to study the enourmous scope of the disaster and its impacts and to seriously and responsibly assess their responses to a . This year marked the 22 year anniversary of the disaster. or for the chance to engage in fieldwork. and the fruits of their labor must not be shelved and forgotten but reinvigorated with an infusion of new energy and political and financial support from the new Ukrainian government and from the world cultural heritage community. Others refused to enter the irradiated territories for fear of the effects this would have on their health. Some of the scholars who were engaged in this work had conducted research there before the disaster at the power plant. Yet others joined the expeditions out of curiosity.Polissian countryside. crafts – this all demands our closest attention and preservation. over the next decade more than two dozen expeditions were carried out in these territories. with as many as four to six expeditions of up to thirty people mounted per year. but for all humanity… The work scope was subsequently expanded to include those territories beyond the 30 km. and a looming energy crisis have all diverted attention and resources from work that still needs to be done. While he has visited the Chorobyl Zone of Exclusion. the instability of the government situation.

and probably sooner than we all wish to admit. .disaster that will unfortunately occur again on this planet.

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