Friday, October 15, 2010

Dead Lands of Belarus: Travels Along A Desolate Border by Ben R.

[To see the entire set of photographs accompanying this post, click here.]
The above is a map of Belarus. The areas in varying shades of red are those affected by radiation from Chernobyl, with the darkest shades of red being those most contaminated.

I'm fascinated by maps. I spend hours tracing my fingers over them, following winding tropical rivers, exploring distant mountain ranges, following the contours of jagged borders, imagining what those places are like. It was whilst exploring a Soviet road atlas that my finger was drawn over to Belarus, that unknown land of our great continent. As I traced my finger over the map, following roads and contours, I noticed that in the far east of the country stretching along the Belarus/Russian border were the names of villages with their names in brackets; it wasn't something I had seen before. Sometimes there were clusters of villages, their names enclosed in said punctuation marks, surrounding a village whose name was not shackled by the two curved lines of English grammar... and then in another place, the opposite: un-bracketed names surrounding one small village which had its name in brackets. There were tens of them stretching from north of Gomel all the way down to Komarin in the far south of the country. I investigated and discovered that these were the villages which had suffered the brunt of the Chernobyl accident lying as they were in the path of the prevailing winds on that April day in 1986. They were the places that had been deemed uninhabitable by the Soviet/Belarusian government and had therefore been evacuated and scrubbed from history. My Belarusian friends had never been to any of these villages or the area in general so were unable to offer any more info regarding what exactly was to be found there, were the places bulldozed and buried or were they just evacuated and left intact in the hope of re-populating them one day? I decided to visit one.

The above details the places mentioned below.

It took me 2 days to drive from England to Belarus. I entered Belarus at a quiet border post south of Brest on a summer's evening and immediately stepped backwards to a more tranquil time. There were no advertisements, no street lights or signs of modernism, it was as though I was driving through one of Constable's paintings. The road east followed the Pripyat river, from which the town near where the Chernobyl reactor is located took it's name. The problem with driving in a 19th century land is that there are no road signs indicating the speed limit; consequently, I was radar gunned within an hour and fined $20. I drove on more slowly and as the night's blackness closed in I found a small parking area in the woods and parked up for the night, hoping sleep would come quickly so as not to be unnerved by the total silence and blackness of the woods.

I awoke to a misty landscape and drove on through vistas of barren farmland and huge tracts of forest, forests that would once have hidden partisans, forests that would now be hiding something just as deadly. The road was mostly empty, but occasionally I drove through small villages that lined the highway, just 20 or so Izbas their fences painted in the colours of the Belarusian flag. As I neared the East of the country the verge of the roads by the forests occasionally had wooden signs painted with warnings not to pick mushrooms or berries,no doubt due to radiation levels, yet I often drove past Babushkas selling buckets filled to the brim with pine nuts and berries, products no doubt harvested from the same forests. I stopped to buy some honey from a babushka and she asked me where I had come from. When I said I had driven from London, she asked me how many villages away that was; life beyond the village seemed to have little meaning.

The above sign says that it is forbidden to pick mushrooms and berries as this is dangerous to your life.

At Mozir I turned right following the Pripyat south to Hoiniki, there was no traffic except the odd Lada or Soviet built motorcycles. In the distance of some fields stood factories and commercial buildings that seemed long since abandoned, windows missing, roofs with holes in, and their approach roads overtaken by nature. In the entire drive I did not see any wildlife except some crows in the fields, no rabbits or squirrels dashing across the road, no deer in a field. South of Hoiniki I started seeing signs forbidding entry into the forest, radiation symbols on posts, signs saying permit holders only, and 'Danger' written on trees. I had arrived at the zone.

My plan was never to go into the official de-markated ecological disaster zone, that would be for another time when I could arrange permits and local knowledge. Of course I could have just crossed in unofficially to look around, but the idea of hiking through areas of possible cancer inducing levels of radiation without so much as a pair of Wellington boots or a Geiger counter wasn't really an appealing one. The places I was going to go were dangerous enough, as people had constantly warned me. Instead I wanted to visit one of the abandoned villages and then some places that were still inhabited to see how life was progressing there.

I studied my map and decided to head for the 'bracketed' village of Omelkovshina, just north of Hoiniki. I had decided to visit the villages north of Hoiniki as I presumed that as they were further from the reactor they might be somewhat safer radiation wise, I'll never know for sure. I followed the main road before finding the turning. At the crossroads was a small cluster of pretty Izbas and and a village shop outside of which sat some old men, as I turned and drove past them they all turned and stared at me, outsiders obviously didn't come here too often. The road passed through the small village of Dubrovitsa, in the middle of which stood a derelict building that looked like a bomb had exploded in it as rubble lay all around the building, I drove on past the village cemetery which was well tended to, the photos of the dead welded to the blue metal crosses as is the custom. Belarus was the most well kept country I had ever visited, people took pride in their houses and gardens and villages were all freshly painted in matching colours. As I came to the far end of the village the paved road ended and just a lonely rutted disused track led into the distance with the forest visible on the horizon. It was the road to Omelkovshina. I continued on, excited about what I would find. It felt like I was driving out of the known world into terra-incognita: 'Here be Dragons!'

Grave marker in the village of Dubrovitsa

I drove on following the road for about 6 or 7 miles entering the forest, civilization receding in my rear view mirror, there were no signs of life, no people, just dark woods enveloping me, and then, like in fairy tales, I entered a clearing and another world; I was inside the 'Brackets' for the first time. I'd reached Omelkovshina.

I got out of the car and stepped onto the old tarmac road of the village's main street and headed into 'town'. The village was dead, nobody lived here nor had done for a very, very long time, probably since April 1986, but I could see the signs of its previous inhabited self. There was the 'Dom Kulturi', its timbers intact, its wallpaper peeling but surviving Belarus's elements. There was the old village shop, overgrown and rotting, foxgloves now growing where once would have stood jars of essentials. Then there were houses, maybe 30 or 40, in different states of decay. Some were almost completely enveloped by nature, whilst others just needed a few minor repairs to be habitable again. Some houses had gardens that were so beautiful, filled as they were with stunning arrays of purple and red flowers and weeds that it looked as though they must have been tended by gardeners. Butterflies swirled about in the afternoon sunshine. As I entered houses, I found them to be full of swallows’ nests, baby chicks chirping their mouths open waiting for their parents to return with food. As I explored the undergrowth at the back of what seemed once to have been a government building of some sort I heard something large running through the bushes. I was gripped by a sudden fear; it was probably just a wild pig or a deer, but I suddenly felt vulnerable imagining escaped prisoners jumping out of the forest and attacking me with shanks. A body would never be found here.

Inside an abandoned home in Omelkovshina

I explored deeper, pushing open unlocked doors, finding signs of the village's previous inhabitants, a framed photo of a man in Soviet clothing, some Soviet banknotes, a rotten calender on a kitchen wall. I had stepped through a worm hole and entered The Soviet Republic of Belarus, circa the 1980s. I sat down at a kitchen table and ate my bread and honey as the previous inhabitants no doubt did 25 years ago. I explored some more, looking in sheds, exploring back yards and empty houses. One thing was certain, the village had been totally left to die, there was no chance of restoring it in the future should the radiation level drop to normal levels. It would be too expensive, and besides, the old residents had probably settled in their new lives with little inclination to return to the forest.

I walked down the main street to the far end of the village where a track led to another bracketed village that was marked on my map but the path was undriveable and I didn't feel like walking for miles through the forest exposing myself to even more radiation. I had read of huge packs of wolves inhabiting these places and other animals pushed to extinction in Europe re-building colonies here but I saw no evidence of this and presume that that is in the zone itself. I'd hoped to find an overgrown Lenin statue but it was a wooden village so my photo opportunity was not to be. It was unlike anywhere I had been on my travels before, streets of derelict buildings that within my life time had been full of life. I wanted to spend a long as possible there as there was always one more door to open, another window to peer inside, like finding an old chest in an attic and wanting to explore all its contents in the hope of finding some vital piece of information… but as evening approached I had to leave the village, I headed back to the main road, and back to life.

This part of Belarus had been hit hard by Chernobyl; abandonment and desolation was everywhere. Apartment buildings abandoned and uncompleted, warehouses being broken apart by nature’s instinct to replicate, roots cracking concrete, and the elements helping a hand. These rotting concrete structures affected me more then the village I had visited, the wooden village had returned to nature which seemed a natural course of events but concrete and steel are altogether different, thought of as impregnable and ever lasting - yet not here in the dead zone. And people were living here amongst it. A disused shop sat next to a village house with a well tended garden, life and death had become blurred.

I reached the city of Gomel at nightfall and checked into the old soviet monolith in the centre of town. Gomel was full of life, university students promenaded along the river bank in the summer evening, bottles of Baltika in hand. It seemed strange to be amongst such energy and life after a couple of days spent in rural Belarus. Yet Gomel was surrounded by contaminated land. The fear in 86 was that this city would need evacuating which would no doubt have made Gomel the largest ghost town on the planet but, the radiation mostly passed it by, the theory being that the heat given off by the city had pushed the clouds on to other areas. I explored the city which was built entirely in the Socialist Realist style, Corinthian columns with wheat sheaf motifs. I had an evening clubbing and getting drunk with Gomel's hip young things, who all seemed perplexed by my choice of holiday location. Discussion of Chernobyl stirred strong emotions amongst them, many angry at the then Soviet government's decision to seed the clouds to ensure that the radiation was dumped mainly on the rural backwaters along the Rus/Belarus border.

In the morning I stocked up on food for my journey to the border and in light drizzle I drove East, I didn't have long to see the first signs of abandonment. Gomel's outskirts were an array of abandoned factories, houses, and overgrown wasteland. Just past the town of Dobrush I headed south through empty fields towards the village of Korma. Rusted signs for long defunct state farms marked my way, rotting combines lay outside derelict chicken sheds, the dark brooding skies signifying impending storms. I drove into a small village not marked on my map, Horoshovka, situated just a mile from the fenceless border with Russia. It was an inhabited village, yet abandonment was everywhere. I parked and explored a derelict school, its climbing frames now covered in vines, textbooks littering the floor. I found an abandoned apartment building 2 stories high, I explored the ground floor apartments which were filthy and covered in dog shit; the rooms stank. On the balcony lay the rotten carcass of a dead cat, it's odour long since dissipated into the ether. I climbed the stairs and was looking around another empty apartment when I heard people coming up the stairs. Not sure of the reaction I would receive, being a foreigner photographing the village's squalor, I stood still hoping they would not hear me. I needn't have worried as they knocked on an apartment door and were let in. I couldn't believe that people were still living in the building which to all intents and purposes looked ready for demolition. It was hard to believe I was in Europe and not some war zone. The village reminded me of images I had seen of war torn Bosnia.
Inside an abandoned school in Horoshovka

I drove along the Russian border stopping to photograph and explore villages and buildings. There were no other cars on the roads, even in the villages I rarely saw anybody just the occasional hunched figures escaping the drizzle under bus shelters and shop doorways,a drunk knocking on someone's door to ask for money. I couldn't imagine what work people had here, there was no apparent industry, few shops, most were probably employed by the local state farm, the ones which had survived. I drove back up to Horoshovka, past caved in government buildings, an old stolovaya, its kitchen cupboards left where they had always stood, weeds growing to the height of the lintels.

My Belarusian road atlas showed a track leading across the border from Horoshovka to the Russian village of Lisiye but when I asked in the local shop where to find the path nobody could tell me, it did not seem as though there was any coss border traffic or contact. I eventually found an old man who directed me down a path, I drove down past abandoned houses, the same chirping of swallows audible through the glassless window frames. I parked up and continued on foot towards the Russian border, its boundary being marked by a thin line of trees in a field. I didn't have a Russian visa, and being caught would most likely have blacklisted me from ever receiving one, so I walked fast hoping nobody was watching, but as there was nobody in sight between me and the half a kilometer to the village so I walked on. I crossed into Russia and briskly followed the dirt track, avoiding the large puddles that had formed from the rain.

As I entered Lisiye I could tell I had left Belarus behind. Gone were the prettily painted picket fences and neat and orderly homes, instead were sagging wooden houses with broken machines parked in yards, a broken well, and a distinct feeling of neglect. I heard someone working on the other side of a fence so I popped my head over. The man working introduced himself as Stepan and he invited me in for tea nonchalantly as though foreigners were always coming into his village asking questions. I quizzed him about abandoned villages on this side of the border but the combination of my not so perfect Russian and his severe stutter made communication stilted and difficult, he said that there was an abandoned place a few miles away but I wasn't sure if he meant a building or village and not wanting to push my luck too far I decided not to find out and headed back into Belarus instead, relieved to have mde it without any problems.

Whilst looking at the local war memorial in Horoshovka I was approached by a local woman who invited me for tea at her elderly mother's Izba. I spent the evening with her being taken from house to house visiting the village's residents and being fed huge quantities of food everywhere I went. I heard some incredible stories over cups of tea from women who were sent to Germany for forced labour in the war, of the partizans, of Stalin's time, and then of happy times in this sleepy backwater of the former USSR where nothing much seemed to happen. And then of course of the fear after the Chernobyl accident and the slow death of the villages in this area, and the slow death of some of the residents to the diseases it had induced.

From what I could gather the young families had been evacuated to apartments or purpose built townships on the outskirts of cities such as Minsk, Zhlobin, Svetlogorsk; others had been sent further away to the Baltics or Russia. And then the government had pulled out, abandoning schools and infrastructure. It must have been a massive logistical nightmare, one which would always mean that certain people had to be left behind, and I suppose the elderly were the ones to whom that fate would fall. I had noticed in my journey that there was a distinct lack of children despite it being the school holiday period, everyone I had met had been elderly. However the elderly that I met seemed to bare no bitterness at being left in these contaminated lands by their government. The only complaint I heard was the lack of medical care in the villages. Life here is hard, toilets are outside, most don't have piped water, there is no central heating and these elderly work their small plots and take care of their animals in Belarusian winters when temperatures drop to minus 30 centigrade at times. Hence high blood pressure and arthritis seem endemic here, I was constantly asked about medicines we had in the West for such ailments, a person with just a basic medical knowledge and a well stocked medicine cabinet could do an immense amount of good in these parts and bring real relief to a lot of needy people.

My time was up. As I drove West I was overcome by a distinct feeling of melancholy. This area of Belarus had suffered a terrible fate through no fault of it's own; it had been decided by nothing more then the wind direction on that April day. It was an area of higher then average birth defects, childhood cancer, and industrial and social collapse, yet the people I met remained stoic and at peace, it seemed like a metaphor for Belarus in general. But there is hope. The Belarusian government has a policy of re-populating areas where radiation levels have fallen to within safe levels, re-investment of infrastructure is mentioned but Belarus is not a rich country and hence it will probably take generations for tangible change to happen. I hope the future will be kinder than its past. Sometimes at the end of travel blogs the author writes something along the lines of "go see it before everybody discovers it" - no such words are needed for Belarus.

This article was written by Ben R, and all photographs were taken by Ben R, and may not be used without his permission. To see the full set of photographs accompanying this post, please click here.


  1. Looks like another pretty biased blog. A good rule of thumb is when in Rome, do as the Romans do. All vehicles in Belarus are equipped with speed meters and most drivers are literate enough to be able to read the Highway Code before stepping behind the wheel. Therefore, they don't need road signs every hundred yards to advise them of the universal speed limits. If you had bothered to keep within the speed limits set out in the UK Highway Code you wouldn't have been fined in Belarus. As far as the old ladies whose life you believe revolves around the village are concerned, you will be surprised to learn there are villages throughout Belarus named after famous world locations such as Paris. Someone must have failed Geography 101. Snap judgement often leads to regret. Thanks for sharing your opinion anyway.

    1. Strange comment. The writer sped, got a ticket, what are you blathering about bias for? What bone are you picking? What fictions are you weaving out of this narrative? I read the same article you did, and frankly, you sound at best like a grump, at worst, a psycho. Take your meds.

  2. hi! can you please provide me some coordinates for the visited places?
    would be very kind. you can send to:

  3. A few things from my side here in Belarus. Here we use hata, izba is a Russian term. The road speed outside cities is 90 kph, the limit recommended to observe, but the fines aren't bad. It appears the author spoke Russian enough to interact with the locals (Russian is spoken here daily).
    As a tour guide here in Minsk I would observe that the author drove into Belarus which means he was coming on a visa (I assume by grace of his local friends). Walking around Russian border and trespassing it could have harmed his hosts/friends who provided the invitation (if friends had been involved in the visa process).
    Lastly, there are loads of abandoned villages much closer here in Central Belarus, but if one wants to play with radiation, you are welcome)