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Ivan Ivanovich Semeniuk, aged 80, has returned to live in the house he built in 1958, in the village of Paryshev, about 20 km from the Chernobyl nuclear power station.
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Ivan Ivanovich Semeniuk: a returnee to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone speaks

David Moon & Anna Olenenko

28th April 2017

The world remembers Chernobyl every April, especially on big anniversaries, but for some people the disaster and its aftermath remain a part of their everyday lives, write David Moon & Anna Olenenko. In this special interview for the 31st anniversary of the catastrophe, one of the last returnees explains what it was like to leave after the disaster, and to come back to an environment transformed in surprising and unwelcome ways.

It suddenly feels dry in your mouth. You can't see the radiation, but it is a sort of wave and beats your bones, 'knock-knock-knock-knock'. You need to get away, because it can grab you.

Last year the mainstream media, including The Ecologist (links below), was full of reports recalling the events of 26th April 1986 thirty years before: the delayed evacuation of the population, the struggle to contain the consequences, the ongoing and politically charged debates over the impact on human health and the environment.

Last summer we interviewed one of the few inhabitants of the 'exclusion zone'. Ivan Ivanovich Semeniuk, aged 80, lives in the house he built in 1958, in the village of Paryshev, about 20 km from the nuclear power station.

He seems fit for his age, manages with help from one of his sons who was visiting when we met with him, was quite lucid and spoke with Anna for around an hour in the local Surzhyk dialect.

Looking back to 26th April 1986, Iavn recalled that they were ploughing and sowing and "no one knew anything". The authorities said there was "nothing to worry about". But, after six days the village was evacuated.

Ivan and his family took little with them - five kiilos of potatoes - as they were told they would be returning after three days. Their livestock was taken away, killed, and buried. The school children, including Ivan's youngest son, were given potassium iodide and taken to a holiday camp in the Crimea for a month.

Living under the shadow

Ivan and his family were in evacuation for about a year and half. He recalled that they "wandered about", living in two different places. He was not happy, not well, (either because of the "unsuitable climate" or the radiation) and was very happy to return home. In his account, he was fortunate.

The village had been sealed up, guarded, and not looted. Soldiers 'cleansed' the gardens, fields, and streets; returning settlers cleansed their own houses and yards. Explaining his decision to return, Ivan told us: "But what else can you do? I built a house here and live here."

He returned to work as a guard at the nuclear power station and surrounding area, retiring aged around 55 in the early 1990s. He had worked at the power plant before the accident and before  that had worked on a state farm. Since his retirement, Ivan and his wife, who died earlier this year, lived off their land.

Ivan still grows cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, potatoes and beans on his allotment. He gathers mushrooms, berries and medicinal herbs in the forest. A mobile shop, which is supposed to visit every Friday, brings food, household chemicals and basic necessities, which he can buy with his pension which is delivered to him and other elderly inhabitants of the zone. Ivan has mains electricity, and recalls that they did not have to pay for it for two years after he returned.

He draws water from his own well on his land. He has a mobile phone, television and radio, and keeps in touch with the outside world between visits from his son.

The Ukrainian authorities tolerate the residence of the elderly samosely - returning settlers - in the zone, although it is illegal and provides them with some social support, but they have ordered younger inhabitants to leave.

Before, and after

When Anna asked Ivan to compare life before and after the accident, at first he started talking about the changes brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He complained that in independent Ukraine, hospitals were no longer free and everything was very expensive, but then focused his ire on the high salaries paid to deputies in the Ukrainian parliament.

His misunderstanding reminded us that the disaster was just one of the events that have radically affected peoples' lives in this part of the world.

More to the point, he described how the banks of the nearby river have become overgrown and how the river has turned into a swamp from neglect. Lots of animals appeared in the aftermath of the accident and evacuation of the population: deer, wild boar and bears. Wild animals destroy vegetables growing in the gardens.

But Ivan was most exercised by the large packs of wolves, which killed and ate many of the other wild animals, leaving the forest floor littered with animal bones, before the authorities permitted shooting wolves. The previous week, six dogs were taken by wolves.

What of the radiation? Ivan explained how men with dosimeters check levels in the well and the land. He stated that there was now no radiation in the village. He is not afraid to eat vegetables from his allotment just as he did before the accident. (Visitors are warned not to eat anything in the zone.) But, he is not indifferent to the dangers.

'A wave that beats your bones'

He knows there are places with high radiation and claims that he could feel it: "It suddenly feels dry in your mouth. You can't see the radiation, but it is a sort of wave and beats your bones, 'knock-knock-knock-knock'. You need to get away, because it can grab you."

Our radiation specialist, Dr Ian Haslam of the University of Manchester, took a number of readings, which confirmed that levels in the village are now no higher than natural background radiation. He added that the feelings Ivan described resemble those for high dose fields and may have been memories from his experience of hot spots after the accident.

Around 117,000 people were evacuated from the 'exclusion zone' in the spring of 1986. About 2,000, mostly middle-aged and older people, returned after 1988 of and of those whom an estimated 200 people, elderly like Ivan, still live there. Only one other person, an elderly woman, still lives in Paryshev.

And as the world marks future anniversaries, there will be fewer and fewer people like Ivan left in the zone.

 


 

David Moon is anniversary professor in history at the University of York. He is a specialist in the rural life of the Russian Empire from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.

Anna Olenenko is a Lecturer in history at the Khortytsya National Academy, Zaporizhia, Ukraine.

This interview was part of a wider environmental history project supported by The Leverhulme Trust and the Georgetown Environment Initiative.

Also on The Ecologist


Further information:
For fuller summaries (in English and Russian) and a transcript (in Surzhyk) of the interview, see here.

 

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