The Last of Chornobyl Polischuky

Released in 2019, HBO’s miniseries “Chernobyl” vividly demonstrated just how limited the average foreigner’s knowledge of the Chornobyl disaster is. It’s not entirely your fault; the Soviet empire did its best to minimize your understanding of its nuclear failure. Upon reflection, you realize there was always something between Chornobyl and the outside world. Initially, it was the Iron Curtain; later, it was the significant liability issue arising from the accident’s aftermath. These factors contributed to the poor acquaintance of an average foreigner with the catastrophe. Three decades later, for many people in the West, the Chornobyl story remains as shown by the Soviets—one-sided. But what is there on the other side of the coin?

The Forgotten Polischuky Ethnographic Group

A good illustration of this imbalance is the example of the Polischuky ethnographic group, whose land, Polissya, hosted the colossal machine and the disaster caused by it in 1986. The Chornobyl region lies in the heartland of Polissya, a natural and historical region shared by Ukraine and Belarus. You’ve likely heard plenty about the dramatic Pryp’iat exodus and the rapid, well-organized evacuation of 45,000 residents of the elite town built exclusively for Soviet atomic industry employees. But you probably haven’t heard much about the evacuation of the other victims. Yet, in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic alone, there were more than 90,000 evacuees—twice as many. Who were they?

The Evacuation of Polischuky Villagers

They were Polischuky villagers from an area of about 2,000 km² surrounding the new atomic town. Polissya is home to one of the two progenitors of Ukrainian national identity—the forester. The other progenitor inhabited the middle reaches of the Dnipro—the steppe. It is at the intersection of these two lifestyles that the Ukrainian nation was born centuries ago.

At GAMMA, we want to enable you to explore the other side of the coin, the whole story, to provide you with a wider humanitarian perspective and deeper historical context of the Chornobyl disaster.

Seeing Chornobyl Through Polischuky Eyes

What if we offer you the chance to see Chornobyl through the eyes of the Polischuky? Would you dare to? These true people of the Chornobyl region still live in their beloved woodland, in log cabins heated with firewood stoves, much as their ancient Slavic ancestors did and exactly as they did back in 1986. Old Polischuky songs, legends, recipes, and even some pre-Christian pagan rituals still form part of their lifestyle.

The Return of the Self-Settlers

Scattered by the blast, the Polischuky returned shortly after to resettle in their cabins. The Soviet state instantly labeled them “self-settlers,” like some aliens. Ironically, they are the salt of the earth—the last true Polischuky of Chornobyl Polissya, the true masters of the woodland.

They are few. Their hair is grey. Their years are old. Their numbers are ever shrinking. Their dialect fades out in the villages adjacent to the Zone. And yet, the first thing that strikes you about them is their optimism—equally sheer and contagious. At GAMMA, we keep in touch with all the self-settlers. We support them and will welcome or even encourage you to do the same should you decide to meet one of these aborigines on your tour. A self-settler normally lives many miles away from any store or pharmacy, so they are always grateful for support. Normally, we liaise on your behalf with a self-settler prior to a visit to learn their current needs. We never come empty-hearted. You’d be surprised by the number of things in common you'll find between strangers from the non-Soviet world like yourself and these radioactive land hermits. Talking to Polischuky in their cabins, time flies, but you can always count on our guides. Not only will they serve as ethically aware interpreters, but they will also keep track of your visit and politely let you know when it's time to leave. After all, self-settlers are 70-90+ years old and get exhausted quickly, so it is important to stay modest and end the visit at the right time.

Meet the Last of the Polischuky

We know all of them. Please find a list of some we can introduce you to, as well as those whom you are forever too late to meet:

Ivan Ivanovych Semeniuk

The Southern Trace, Paryshev Village

Ivan Ivanovych Semeniuk lived in the village of Paryshev. After the accident, he was evacuated to the Borodyanka region. Galvanized by Chornobyl radiophobia, locals did not accept Ivan’s family. After the commissioning of the so-called “Sarcophagus,” Ivan and his wife Maria returned to their native village. He got employed as a security guard in Chornobyl. Later, he retired. Maria passed away several years ago. Ivan passed away in 2020.

Hanna Zavorotnia

Hanna Zavorotnia lives in the village of Kupovate. She was evacuated to Kopyliv and returned illegally to her house shortly after the evacuation. She was married and had a child. Her child passed away at the age of 2, and her husband passed away a long time ago.

Baba Maria

Baba Maria lives in Kupovate. She is a cousin of Hanna and Sonia. She has children and grandchildren who live in Kyiv and visit her often. Her husband has passed away.

Baba Julia

Baba Julia lives in the village of Kupovate and looks after her son. They were evacuated to Kopyliv and returned to their village shortly after the evacuation because they didn’t have a good place to live and people were not kind to them.

Yevgen Fedorovich

Yevgen Fedorovich lives in Chornobyl town with his wife. He used to be a labor teacher in a Chornobyl school. He was evacuated to Kyiv and still owns an apartment there. However, he doesn’t like living in the city, which is why he returned a few years after the evacuation. He has children and grandchildren.