The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant,the world's worst-ever civil nuclear incident, occurred on 26 April 1986. Around five million people are estimated to have suffered as a result of the disaster and its consequences. As a result of the accident, almost a quarter of Belarus was contaminated with cesium-137.But thanks to the people who refused to leave their hometowns, thanks to the colossal efforts of the state, these territories are not just returning to normal life today. They are becoming an example for other regions of the country. In this episode, we will tell you how the fate of Belarusians is intertwined with the Chernobyl tragedy, why Aleksandr Lukashenko needed the "Chernobyl route" in the early 2000s and whether the affected territories have a future. Spoiler:they do, and a good one.| AFTER THE FACT: LUKASHENKO'S DECISIONS
How has Belarus been dealing with the Chernobyl impact
The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant happened 37 years ago. When we remember this catastrophe, we usually talk, and this is quite justified, about its irreversible consequences, the tragic fate of the clean-up workers and residents of nearby villages. But maybe it's time to turn the page and look to the future? There are the facts that allow us to do this. Since the accident, the territory of Belarus contaminated with cesium-137 has almost halved: from 23% to 12.3% of the entire territory of the country.
Belarus has lived through four major stages in the Chernobyl mitigation and relief effort. The first, "hot" stage occurred in the Soviet years. The other day we visited Chechersk. After the accident, the fate of the entire district, whose population was reduced by half, hang in the balance. However, despite the gloomy forecasts, people did not abandon their hometown. Today the living standards here are no worse than in other places.
"When the Chernobyl accident happened, I was very young, just 11. You take everything easier somehow when you are young. We, teenagers and children, were immediately taken to sanatoriums and camps for the whole summer. There was some kind of anxiety over the unknown. But at the same time, the evacuation proceeded in a calm efficient manner. But the anxiety was, of course, palpable. We survived this. Of course, not without the help of the state. Colossal investments, colossal care. Back in the days and now, we feel it, both in terms of medical examination, rehabilitation and also social support,” said Svetlana Chernova, a methodologist with the Chechersk district education and methodology office.
Anna Maloletnikova, Deputy Director of the Chechersk District Library, is also from Chechersk District. After school, she went to study in Minsk and returned to her hometown to work as a coach in the sports school. Anna will probably never forget 26 April 1986.
"Life was going as usual. It was spring and the day was very warm, people were planting their vegetable gardens. We, the staff of the sports school, were preparing for the 1 May festive events. And then we noticed that there was a lot of pollen in the streets, at least that's what everyone said. The festive events were held as scheduled. Only at the beginning of May we learned of the accident and that it was very dangerous,” the woman recalled. “An executive order was issued, and we were sent together with children to Krasnodar Territory. When I remember that day, you know, it's like watching movies about the outbreak of the war. The children were crying, the parents were crying. Literally everyone was evacuated."
The second stage was the protective measures. In certain areas, they continue to this day. The next stage is the rehabilitation of contaminated areas. The fourth stage, namely the revival of the affected regions, has been going on over the past 15 years.
“The state is doing a lot in these territories. Since the accident, the state has invested heavily, mainly into four areas: social protection, socio-economic development, and protective measures. These are, first of all, the measures to ensure the production of normatively clean products in these territories. A small percentage, but still it is quite significant, goes into scientific work and raising the awareness of population,” chief of the Nuclear and Radiation Safety Department at the Belarusian Emergencies Ministry (Gosatomnadzor) Olga Lugovskaya said.
Why Belarusians refused to leave their hometowns after the Chernobyl accident
Since the Chernobyl disaster, 265,000 hectares of agricultural land have been withdrawn from economic use. In the 1990s, farming began to gradually resume in these territories. Over the past years, about 20,000 hectares of farmland have been returned to economic use.
"I remember that day clearly. It was very hot, windy. On that day we sorted potatoes on the farm. Later on I got a call from the district administration about the Chernobyl accident. I was instructed to oversee the resettlement effort. My heart still hurts when I recall it,” said Valentina Kovaleva, former chairperson of the Lenin Rural Council of Chechersk District.
She clearly remembers the resettlement of the village of Sebrovichi. In the early 1990s, 128 families were evacuated from the village to clean regions.”The farm was one of the most advanced in the district, known for magnificent gardens, strawberry plantations, aqua farming. And I had to oversee the resettlement. The young people did not anguish as badly as elder people. There were a lot of tears,” Valetina Kovaleva recalled.
Almost $ 20 billion has been invested in state programs to mitigate the impact of the Chernobyl disaster. In terms of social and economic development of the affected regions, the emphasis is made on the construction of the necessary facilities. The goal was to increase jobs, to improve working conditions. New apartment blocks are built, gas supply extended to houses. Much attention is paid to the construction of agricultural facilities: dairy farms, grain drying complexes. More than 20 healthcare institutions have been reconstructed or built.
"People who live here have felt the support of the state. Life is gradually getting better here. After all, a lot of money has been spent to ensure that people who decided to stay here have everything they need. It was the support for both agriculture and healthcare. A lot has been done in the district. Today we have a wonderful clinic, a nice school with great teachers,” Anna Maloletnikova said. “It is heartening that our children have already begun to return to the district to work here.”
Chechersk is a really well-maintained, clean and beautiful town. All this, as the locals emphasize, is thanks to those people who stayed and who came. “Being someone who was born in Chechersk District and who has lived here for many years, I see the positive changes that have taken place here. A lot has been done. A lot."
“Now, you can see that our city is alive. Our city is developing. It is beautiful and landscaped. As for thoughts of leaving it... No, I had no such thoughts either in those times or when I grew up. Because life is good here. At least for me. I like this quiet and cozy town, the people, whom you know well, and who are kind-hearted and friendly. I like how our district is developing now,” Svetlana Chernova said.
She pointed to the large development at the entrance to the town from the side of Gomel. “There are a lot of young women with baby prams. This means children are born and life goes on. We continue to live. The head of state said that he has always supported and will support our district. We feel it,” she said.
Galina Dorofeeva could not stay long away from the hometown of Chechersk. Now she leads the Vertbitsa folk song group and in the 1980s she worked as the director of a kindergarten. At the time of the accident, she already had two children: the youngest son was two, the eldest was four and a half.
“On that day we were returning home from the countryside. The day was super windy. The wind was blowing so hard that when we came home our clothes were all covered in sand. We didn't know what had happened yet. We were preparing for 1 May celebrations at the kindergarten.We were rehearsing on the town square all day long. We learned of the accident on 1 May. At that time they said that all the clouds that were gathering over Chernobyl were coming our way. I went to live with my sister in Ukraine. We stayed there for eight months, and then returned home. You cannot imagine how anxious I was to go back home. We were optimists. We knew that life must go on no matter what,” Galina recalled those years.
Why Lukashenko is grateful to local residents
Visiting the Chernobyl-affected regions the president always says thank you to local residents for not abandoning their towns. “Thank you! For believing in your town. For not abandoning your city. Let's think about what we can do for you, how we can organize life here if you decide to stay. Well, since you are going to live here, let's think about how we organize life here,” he said during one of his such trips in the 2000s
Indeed. Just imagine: if people had left, if the state provided no support, then we would have a huge part of the country in desolation and depression today. This is why when coming to the affected regions every year, Aleksandr Lukashenko thanks the locals for not giving in to panic and fear.
“We will prioritize the revitalization of these districts and this region. We will do our best to make sure people have jobs, get good salaries. I mean not only the current generation, but the future one, as well. If you lack something, especially in terms of business, new jobs, do not hesitate to speak up. This year we are beginning to revive these lands. We will be doing it very quickly and effectively,” the head of state said in 2009.
More than 1 years later Aleksandr Lukashenko said that Belarusians punched hard the consequences of the Chernboyl catastrophe.
“I am very grateful that back then you listened to me when I said that we would not give up on these lands. We would keep these lands alive. We will do everything so that our people could live and work here. The most important thing that we learned is that we should never give up, we should fight to the last, and the victory will come. I would not say that we ‘beat' Chernobyl, but we punched it really hard. We have found the solution to this problem,” the president said during his visit to Chechersk in 2022.
Why Lukashenko regularly visits Chernobyl-affected regions
Aleksandr Lukashenko has been paying attention to the Chernobyl-affected areas since the very beginning of his presidency. Every year he travels to the most affected areas to mark the anniversary of the Chernobyl accident. In April 2004, his working trip to the affected regions lasted for ten days. The head of state visited Brest Oblast, Gomel Oblast, Minsk Oblast, and Mogilev Oblast. Aleksandr Lukashenko visited agricultural and industrial enterprises, talked to locals and got familiar with the organization of medical and rehabilitation services. He took stock of the progress made in the housing construction and the work done to preserve the historical and cultural heritage as well as to develop a cultural and tourist zone. The press service called this visit the president's “Chernobyl Route”.
“He puts forward demands and rightly so! Sometimes, people need to be kept on their toes to feel motivated to do their best! There are many slackers who want to have something, but do not give anything in return: they do not work, do not give back. In this regard, I am in favor of even more stringent policies. I was a demanding person too. We organized people and did a lot, and we were always first. Those who work have good salaries. Both mechanics and milkmaids. We made village life work again!” Valentina Kovaleva said.
There was another “Chernobyl Route” in the history of Belarus. It was organized by the Belarusian opposition to allegedly mark the anniversary of the Chernobyl accident. The first such rally was held in 1989. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a struggle for power was on in earnest in Belarus. The Chernobyl disaster was not so much in focus of the opposition. Such rallies resumed only in 1996, when it became clear that Belarusian nationalists would not gain popular support. However, those rallies were not so much about the affected regions, but about threats and political demands. They would always end in clashes with police.
The Chernobyl accident changed the fates of millions of Belarusians. For our people it became a national environmental, economic and social disaster. More than a third of radioactive fallout landed on the quarter of the Belarusian forestry reserves, more than 100 deposits of raw materials and minerals, 265,000 hectares of fertile lands and 340 industrial enterprises. The overall damage made up almost 33 budgets of the republic of the year 1985. Life stopped in almost 500 communities, more than 300,000 people lost their homes.
Back then foreign experts advised Belarus to shut down the Chernobyl-affected part of the country. But the Chernobyl tragedy, on the contrary, united Belarusians in their desire to preserve this land, made them stronger. As the president said: We sought guidance from our ancestors who never gave up and always stood tall. Therefore, the president travels to these territories every spring.
“The Chernobyl catastrophe had a strong impact on my life and on the lives of people who have gathered here for this commemorative meeting. Back then you were worried about your lives, your future; and I had to think about you, about the country, about the huge territory. The most difficult thing for me was to make a decision that we will keep these territories alive and usable. I was doing my best, as a person and as president, to convince you that we cannot give up on these beautiful lands. We made the right decision not to give up on these lands. And today I am happy to see the people whom I met 25 years ago (back then they were young people, now some of them are over 80). I am happy that they are alive. It shows that the decision of yours and of your president was right,” the head of state said as he met with the residents of Bragin District.
Do the Chernobyl-affected regions have a future?
A list of communities located in radioactive contamination zones is revised every five years. Last time the list was updated in 2021 and included more than 2,000 communities. These communities are home to 945,000 people. Compared to the 2016 list, the number of towns and villages in the ‘dirty zone' decreased significantly.
“For each community in the radioactive contamination zone, we calculated the year when it would move from the higher (contamination) zone to the lower one and when it would finally leave the radioactive contamination zone. As far as I remember, the farthest time benchmark is 2090 for one of the communities. There are very few such communities, a few dozen. Most of them will get back to normal in 2030 or 2040,” said Maria Germenchuk, Deputy Director for Scientific Work of the International Sakharov State Environmental Institute.
According to her, today it is necessary to talk not only about the mitigation of the radio-ecological consequences, but about the development of the Chernobyl-affected regions. “We need to learn to benefit from the situation we have found ourselves in. I mean we live in a situation of existing irradiation. We cannot run from it. We must keep on going. We cannot live in a state of doom and gloom. We cannot live like that. Such situation is absolutely unacceptable for our Belarusian mentality. We survive under any conditions and always find some option, an acceptable way, sometimes unexpected, how to provide for ourselves, our family and our community,” she said.
Of course, these lands will not become completely clean in a year or even in 10 years. But one thing is clear: these areas have a future. It is thanks, as the president said, to the joint decisions of the state and the people.