Norman Davies

"CHERNOBYL, see CZARNOBYL. A small town on the River Pripet in Ukraine, 20 versts from the confluence of the Dnieper, and 120 from Kiev. Inhabitants 6483 - Orthodox 2160; Old Believers 566; Catholics 84; 'Israelites' 3683. The castle of the estate, which is the property of Count Wladyslaw Chodkiewicz, is charmingly set on a hill overlooking three rivers. The town lives from the river-trade, from fishing, and from growing onions."1

The Polish Geographical Dictionary, from which the above extract is taken, was published in 1880 with a misleading title designed to beat the Tsarist Censorship. It contains an entry on every town and village that had ever belonged to the Polish Commonwealth. Chernobyl was a typical town of those vast territories which had once been part of Poland, which were later part of the Russian Empire and of the Soviet Union. Its Jewish inhabitants would have called it their 'shtetl'. The Polish landowners, the Jewish townsfolk, and the Ruthenian peasantry had lived there side by side for centuries.

Chernobyl first appeared in a charter of 1193 described as a hunting-lodge of the Ruthenian Prince Rostislavitch. Some time later it was taken into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, where it became a crown village. The castle was built for defence against marauding Tartars. In 1566, three years before the Grand Duchy's Ukrainian provinces were transferred to the Kingdom of Poland, Chernobyl was granted in perpetuity to a Captain of the royal cavalry, Filon Kmita, who thereafter styled himself 'Kmita Czarnobylski'. In due course, it passed by marriage to the Sapiehas, and in 1703 to the Chodkiewicz family. It was annexed by the Russian Empire after the Second Partition of Poland in 1793.

Chernobyl had a very rich religious history. The Jewish community, which formed an absolute majority, would probably have been imported by Filon Kmita as agents and arendators during the Polish campaign of colonisation. Later on, they would have included Chassidim as well as Orthodox Jews. The Ruthenian peasantry of the district would have largely turned to the Greek Catholic (Uniate) religion after 1596, only to be forcibly converted to Russian Orthodoxy by the Tsars. The Dominican Church and monastery was founded in 1626 by Lukasz Sapieha, at the height of the Counter-reformation. In those days, Chernobyl was clearly a haven of toleration. There was a group of Old Catholics, who opposed the decrees of the Council of Trent, just as the seventeenth century saw the arrival of a group of Raskolniki or Old Believers from Russia. They all escaped the worst horrors of Khmyel'nytsky's Rising of 1648-54, and that of 1768-9, when one of the rebel leaders, Bondarenko, was caught and brutally executed by Chodkiewicz's hussars. The Dominican monastery was sequestrated in 1832, the church of the Raskolniki in 1852. Since 1880, Chernobyl has seen many changes of fortune. In 1915, it was occupied by the Germans, and in the ensuing Civil War was fought over by Bolsheviks, Whites, and Ukrainians. In the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-20, it was taken first by the Polish Army and then by the Red Cavalry. From 1921, it was incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR, and experienced the mass killings of Stalin's collectivisation campaign and Terror-Famine. The Polish population was deported during the Frontier Clearances of 1936. The Jewish community was killed by the Nazis during the German Occupation of 1941-44. Twenty years later, it was chosen as the site of one of the first Soviet nuclear power stations. From 199l, it was joined to the Republic of Ukraine.

THE GREAT SOVIET ENCYCLOPAEDIA mentions none of these facts. A six-line entry talks only of a regional city of the Ukrainian SSR, which possesses an iron foundry, a cheese plant, a ship-repair yard, an artistic workshop, and a medical school.2

As it happens, the name of Chernobyl/Czarnobyl is taken from one of the Slavonic words for the wormwood plant (artemisia), which flourishes in the surrounding marshes. In the Bible, wormwood is used as a synonym for bitterness, and hence the wrath of God:

"And there fell a great star from Heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters. And the name of the star is called Wormwood....And many men died of the waters because they were made bitter." (Revelation, viii, 10, 11)

For anyone who takes his/her New Testament literally, the explosion at Chernobyl on 26 April 1986 was surely caused by the wrath of God.

1. 'Czarnobyl,' Slownik geograficzny Krolewstwa Polskiego i innych krajow slowianskich (A Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and of Other Slavonic Countries), edited by F. Sulimierski, B. Chlebowski, and W. Walewski, Warsaw 1880, Vol. I, p. 750-754.
2. THE GREAT SOVIET ENCYCLOPAEDIA (Third Edition), Moscow 1978, vol. 29, 'Chernobyl.'

Norman Davies, author of God's Playground: A History of Poland [1984], is at work on the History of Europe incorporating eastern and western Europe. "The Family Donhoff" and "Chernobyl" are excerpts from this forthcoming History.

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