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But our correspondent did, after all, get to Russian soil in… Byelorussia

It was still in the Soviet era when I made an interesting discovery: on a map of the Byelorussian SSR, I found a minuscule territory, having an entirely different colour than Byelorussia, which was made subordinate to the administrative structure of the RSFSR by an indicative arrow. Russian soil in Byelorussia?

I asked the executive committee in Gomel for explanation… that very same enclave was in the Gomel region, after all. Yes, they answered me, the villages Medvezhe and Sankovo were part of Bryansk province, Russian Federation.

That very day I took off on a search in the Polesian woods and marshes for this Russian territory. And I found it! This is the history of the enclave. In ancient times, some enterprising farmers lived in the Brjansk village of Dobrodeyevka, but land poorer than theirs (sand and marshland) apparently was not found in the entire district. The farmers took a decision and went to make their living as far away as in North America, working in the coal mines of the Indian Company in Pennsylvania. For three years, they bent their backs below the ground. They returned home before the First World War and bought land from the Byelorussian landowner Shvedov. They moved to the Medvezhe dubrava (=Bears oak wood) and Sanina polyana (=Sanya’s clearing) and built their houses there. They ploughed a bumpy, uneasy piece of land. They got to catch fish in the little river Iput. And the woods were nearby, just behind the gardens. And they started to make a living there. In this way, behind the border, these Russian hamlets (both with ten to fifteen farms) Medvezhe and Sankovo came into existence. One spring, the newcomers hoisted an old wagon wheel on to the top of the highest birch tree, secured it to the top with some string, so that it wouldn’t be blown off, and waited for the storks to come. And the storks came.

“Your storks come from our nest”, said the Byelorussians of the neighbouring village with the name Khatki. “That means that your brides should now live with us in our nest”. The potential grooms from Khatki didn’t leave the others wait for them. So, in the midst of the woods and the marshes of Polesia, the Russians lived amidst the Byelorussians. They didn’t quarrel, didn’t bargain, but married and became kinsfolk.

In 1926, all problems linked to administrative boundaries were decided on the spot by a joint committee, set up by the Central Executive Committee and made up of representatives of each of the union republics. Taking into account the will of the inhabitants of these villages, the committee left Medvezhe and Sankovo under Russian rule.

During the war, the Russians gladly helped the Byelorussian partisans and fought in their ranks. When the fascists burned down Khatki, the refugees found harbour in Sankovo and Medvezhe. Khata Korzhova, living in the one-but-last house of Sankovo, still being a child herself, took in the Berchenko family, five members in all. The Belopukhovs found harbour in Medvezhe. In this village, at Stepan Pesenko’s place, Pyotr Tarayev, with wife and three children, was housed. The Gorevs stayed at Filipp Molchanov. In Medvezhe there was also place for the Yurchenko’s, the Makushchenko’s, the Borisenko’s…

But the bitter cup didn’t go past the Russians either: at the end of the summer of forty three, the fascists burned down Medvezhe and Sankovo, and the red village head Sevostyan Spravtsev and his wife Yevdokia were shot for having links with the partisans.

After the war, Medvezhe and Sankovo were raised from the ashes. Khatki as well. After that, the farmers joined efforts in draining the marshes, and enjoyed big harvests. On my (first) visit to Medvezhe I saw a prosperous village: streetlights were shining bright from the lamp posts, and TV screens shimmered from behind the windows. Who could imagine back then that this land, where everything breathed prosperity and where one could live, as it were, forever, could, from one moment to another, turn into a (I dread to say this!) zone of death, where it is forbidden to be or enter.

It is like the cry of a guard, that what you encounter on the edge of Medvezhe, this sign saying “Stop!”, together with a sign indicating radiation danger. A terrible sight! Empty, abandoned settlements. A fence made out of heating tubes. A broken-off winch of a well. The weeds are more than man-high everywhere. You’re standing there for a while, paralysed, hoping to catch an albeit faint sound of life, but to no avail. Not the cutting of the axe, not the sound of the bucket in the well, not the familiar cry of the cock. Just that silence that freezes your soul, all around!

Medvezhe and Sankovo can only still be found on old maps; the villages don’t exist anymore as settlements. The people left their native soil, saving themselves from the Chernobyl clouds. Only the storks stayed behind. Also Khatki, as well as other surrounding villages, have vanished from the face of the earth. All were swept away by a black wind. The lands, killed by radiation, are now overgrown with thistles and shrubs.

Lately, I went to these sad places, together with my old good acquaintance, the former local kolkhoz chairman Vasili Lukich Pesenko, to say goodbye for a last time to Medvezhe and Sankovo, and we immediately felt like being outsiders already. Entering and being there is, like the sign warns you at the village entry, prohibited.

The shattered Vasili Lukich stands in front of his house, or rather, what is left of it: ruins and a pole of the garden gate, on which a forgotten and abandoned veteran star is getting wet in the rain. He is silent, but I know, that he can’t come to terms with everything that has happened.  

Anatoli Vorobyov

Translated by Mr. Peter Smaardijk from © 2002 Russian weekly Rossija