Kupovatoe: the roots of the uncertainty of the Chernobyl settlers
Kupovatoe: the roots of the uncertainty of the Chernobyl settlers

This material is the result of a study of the social memory of the residents of the village of Kupovatoe, which is part of the Chernobyl zone. The study contains deep observations carried out over the village’s self-settlers over the past few years, as well as frank interviews with immigrants from this village living today in the Kiev region.

From the very beginning of the Chernobyl accident, the policy of total secrecy of real facts that led to the tragedy at the nuclear power plant, conducted by the Soviet government, determined its perception by people who were supposed to be resettled from the Chernobyl zone.

Referring to the declassified documents on the Chernobyl accident, we can say in the affirmative today that the Politburo has increased the norms of the maximum permissible doses of radiation in the human body by several times with the goal of “normalizing” the sharp increase in patients with radiation exposure in hospitals. Therefore, many people were denied hospitalization when they sought help.

The lack of true information and the denial of medical care provoked the development of uncertainty for their well-being among the residents of the village of Kupovatoe. The villagers quickly learned about the nuclear nature of the accident at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant, but could not predict its impact on their lives.

This put their lives in danger. Residents of Kupovatoe stayed home and worked in the fields for a week after the accident, until buses arrived to pick them up to the places of resettlement. 91-year-old Praskovya Evseevna Galchenko, described the reaction of fellow countrymen to relocation:

“… There was an accident, so many of those buses arrived in a week. People were shouting and screaming, women clutch their heads. Some began to take axes and hammers to build huts in the nearby forest … The men got drunk and were lying. And the women laid their hands behind their heads and were wailing. They went crazy – no one wanted to leave for three days … “

First, the residents of Kupovatoe were resettled within the Kiev region, among the local residents of the village of Kopylov. Meanwhile, they have already begun to build houses for them. In the memory of the settlers, this time was marked by gratitude to the people who gave them a temporary shelter. During an interview conducted for this study, they were reluctant to recall incidents of local hostility towards them.

We managed to find out something over time. Some assured that none of the Chernobyl victims faced discrimination. When they were asked to remember exactly how the locals treated them at the very beginning of their acquaintance, such memories began to emerge:

“..People accepted in different ways: some with sympathy, and others … When the chairman of the village council brought the Chernobyl victims to a resettlement, some said they would accept. And as soon as the chairman left, their things began to be thrown away … ”

The concealment of information about the radiation exposure and the ambiguous attitude of the locals formed a steady feeling of uncertainty in the future among the immigrants from Kupovatoe, which complicated their adaptation to a new place.

Challenges of a new life

When the houses for the immigrants were ready, residents of Kupovatoe moved to the village of Gruzskoye, which is 70 km from Kiev. The quality of the new premises left much to be desired: they were built in haste. After the first winter, many immigrants were forced to rebuild new homes on their own – it was uncomfortable to live there.

One of these lucky ones recalls that he was inspired to receive a new home: he just got married and had to provide for his family. Nevertheless, he described the condition of the new house without any idealizations:

“… They brought us to Gluzskoye. The houses were damp, the doors were not fixed, they fell out, we ourselves were building up. We made an extension. But still, thanks to those who built it at least like that, the whole of Western Ukraine built it …”

Most of the new homes were in poor condition. Some, mainly those of small sizes, were of higher quality and also furnished with money collected by builders. However, the destruction of poorly built houses during the first winter in a new location was the main factor in the return of some immigrants back to the Zone.

It is important to understand that the native village was an established form of life for the majority, in which family, neighborly, interpersonal relations and group identity were maintained. Despite the fact that the villagers were most often resettled together and got houses nearby, they could not restore their old relations in the new social environment.

This was another factor in the return of some back to the Chernobyl zone, where the interaction space was familiar to many. Those who stayed in a new place dreamed of returning home all their lives, here is how Tamara Grishina tells about it:

“… Most of all I was sick of lies, most of us had a psychological trauma, because we were lied to all that time. If people had known the truth in time, they would probably have resigned themselves. In old age, many people are “obsessed” with this. As for the returning self-settlers, not a single one of cancer has died, everyone has died by age. The psychological factor, the perception that you do not live at home, that they constantly point at you with a finger, is humiliating.

Communicating with the settlers, it is revealed that the merchants share a common belief in the safety of the Chernobyl zone for life, since, in their opinion, none of the villagers who returned there and live do not die from radiation. Along with this, there are no official medical statistics on the causes of death in the Zone. However, the fact that the homeowners have been living there for a long time without any particular health problems has a scientific explanation.

Scientists believe that among the population that lives in the tight control zone and has been exposed to daily radiation exposure since the Chernobyl accident, fewer deaths from cancer caused by it were recorded than among the population living in other territories. Scientists are convinced that the long-term receipt of a small dose of radiation is less harmful to health than a single exposure.

It can be assumed that the self-settlers, who have been living in the Zone for years, are accustomed to such small doses. However, the lack of information about the effect of radiation on the human body contributes to the emergence among Chernobyl people of unfounded beliefs about its safety along with the feeling that their resettlement was unfair, unjustified, and generally unnecessary.

Stigmatization and social labeling also made adaptation difficult. At the beginning of the conversation, migrants usually recall a good attitude towards them in a new place. But then, in a burst of candor, they talk about numerous cases of stigmatization: public hostility in a store or at the post office, groundless attribution of responsibility for all negative events in the village, refusal to accept resettled children to kindergarten or school. Here is how the settlers themselves describe their experience:

“… They said at the post office and in other public places that we delivered a lot of radiation. They said that they had a headache from communicating with us – they immediately disliked us … “

Resettlement marked migrants from the Chernobyl zone as people with a marginal worldview – they lost a certain, habitual place assigned to them. Since the locals could not determine their status, they treated them as defenseless deprived people with sympathy, or, as a dangerous group – with prejudice. This indicates that the discrimination of the Chernobyl immigrants was, above all, of a symbolic nature, because radiation is not transmitted from person to person. When the settlers began to get to know the locals more closely, they recognized each other more, they were no longer afraid and perceived as strangers. Cases of discrimination were transformed into jokes that immigrants and locals laugh at even today, 30 years after the Chernobyl accident.

There was native countryside ….

Differences in landscape became another significant challenge for the adaptation of Chernobyl immigrants to a new place. Exploring the issue of relocation, some scholars have noted that external landscapes usually form part of the culture of a particular community.

The habitual landscape forms for the Kupovatoe residents disappeared after the resettlement. The resettled children quickly took on new panoramic forms and quickly got used to them. This was much more difficult for the older generation, because the main period of their socialization took place in Kupovatoe. Here is how the representative of the older generation of immigrants described such differences:

“There were rivers and beautiful nature in our native village, but all this disappeared after the resettlement. We lived near the water at home, it was considered soft. The trees were different. We were sick less there. There is a lot of salt in the water. The kettle was boiled, and it’s full of scale, we didn’t have this. In a word, even nature was ours and original at home.”

The unsatisfactory state of new housing, differences in landscape, partial social and cultural discrimination became the main challenges for the adaptation of Kupovatoe residents after their resettlement from the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

Difficulties in adaptation contributed to the development of painful nostalgia, which lasted for many years, and which some, like phantom pain, continue to feel today.