Chernobyl's Polish Connection from Historical Perspective

In July article I wrote about Chernobyl (Polish: Czarnobyl) catastrophe and its impact on Poland: Twenty Years after Chernobyl Nuclear Accident - Its Effects in Poland. Read also the first article: Introduction to Chernobyl's Catastrophe. Now, let me talk a bit about Chernobyl's interesting history since it is already 25 years after the accident occured.

When Chernobyl accident happened (1986) Chernobyl was a part of Ukrainian Soviet Republic near the boarder with Belarus. Presently Chernobyl belongs to free Ukraine. Not too many people realize that Chernobyl was a part of Polish multi-ethnic kingdom for many centuries although Polish residents never became a majority among residents of Chernobyl.

"Chernobyl" (Czernobyl) word means literally the "black grass". Chernobyl became a part of Lithuania at the end of the Middle ages. It received town privileges (city rights) in XVI century. In 1569 it became a part of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Chernobyl was in Polish hands until the second partition of Poland in 1792. In spite of belonging for such a long time to Poland it was always considered a multi-ethnical, boarder-type of settlement with very colorful ethnic mosaic of ethnic and religious groups.

The last heir of Chernobyl from Czernobylski's family died in 1594. His sister Zofia converted to Catholicism and married Lukasz Sapiecha from famous Lithuanian-Rusyn family. Lukasz Sapiecha founded Dominican monastery there, but the Catholic influences in this area were never dominant and the monastery was closed in XIX century. There were at least four orthodox churches in the town since its first description in 1638. No wonder since in 1640 from 350 families in Chernobyl, 93% were of Rusyn origin, 4% Polish and 3% Jewish.

The middle of XVII century was not good for Chernobyl as well as for the rest of the Poland, especially Eastern Poland. Chernobyl was destroyed partly by Chmielnicki revolt and partly in the result of Polish-Russian-Swedish wars. The Golden epoch of Chernobyl as magnate residence was about 1760-1810. In that time Jan Mikolaj Chodkiewicz and his wife Maria Ludwika from Rzewuski's family, widowed in 1781, were residing in Chernobyl. Their son, Aleksander, although born in Chernobyl preferred to live in Warsaw. Their daughter, Rosalia mainly resided in Warsaw or Paris and was killed by guillotine in 1794 in Paris during French revolution. Chodkiewicz family kept a military unit with over a hundred of soldiers in Chernobyl. This was really an asset especially during the peasant revolt in 1768 and saved the lives of several nobles, Jews and priests that found a shelter in the town guarded by military unit. The residency of Chodkiewicz's family at the end of XVIII century consisted of a wooden one-story high large pavilion with over twenty rooms and the old castle. These buildings were isolated from the town by dikes.

During its highest development (in 1772) Chernobyl had one Catholic Church and a monastery, several orthodox churches, several hospitals among them Jewish one, Orthodox one and even a hospital for the poor. It had two Jewish schools and Jewish baths. Since it was situated near Prypec river it had three ferries, barges (ships for corn) and several mills.

Gradually the number of Jewish residents of Chernobyl increased, until 30-40% of the total population. Jewish residents monopolized the production and sale of alcohol there but not only. Jewish residents of Chernobyl were involved in the trade of salt, iron, tar, fish and agriculture products. Among Jewish population of Chernobyl we find also tailors, goldsmith, brazier, bookbinder etc. Chernobyl became one of important centers of chassidism.

Only Christian residents of Chernobyl were involved in agriculture, although not all of them. The Rusyn's population was the most numerous and it was generally the poorest, there were the least educated and the most illiterate. But not all, there were exceptions since the Rusyn's population included also people who escaped Russia since they deflected the official Orthodox Church. Old Believers and people of other sects lived predominantly in Polish borderland. The old believer were hard workers and they were known for their high ethics and discipline. Jan Chodkiewicz supported the settlement of Old Believers at the end of XVIII in Chernobyl, but many of them left after he died since they had a conflict with his widow Ludwika. There were more divisions among Rusyns. They were divided into these belonging to official Orthodox Church and the Uniates that belong to the Easter rite Catholic Church.

In 1792, one year before the second partition of Poland, Russian army invaded Chernobyl and took it under its control. Soon all Uniate churches became Orthodox. Russian language became more and more dominant in legal documents and in the court. Officially Chernobyl ceased to be under Polish control the year later. The end of the XVIII and XIX centuries brought also the financial catastrophe for Chodkiewicz family. They Chodkiewicz moved to Volhynia leaving the residency in heavy debts.

In 1880 over 6.5 thousands people lived in Chernobyl, among them 57% Jewish, 33% Orthodox, 9% Old Believers and only 1% of Catholics, mainly Poles but also some Germans. In the beginning of XX century the population of Chernobyl increased to over 14 thousands. There was a synagogue, three Orthodox churches, one old Believers church, and one Catholic Church. Besides Jewish schools there were two Orthodox schools and one small Catholic parish school, a hospital and a pharmacy. The main activities of the residents include working in water transport, fishery, gardening and a trade. In the beginning of the XX century three brick factories, sever lather factories and alcohol monopoly worked in Chernobyl.

But since this time Polish records of Chernobyl are difficult to find in Polish archives since Chernobyl being a part of Russia became rather of interest for Ukrainian or Russian historians rather than Polish therefore it is time to finish the historical overview of Chernobyl at least for now…

Reference: Waclaw Urban: "Chernobyl in times of Chodkiewicz (from the middle of XVIII until the end of XIX century)" [Czarnobyl za Chodkiewiczow (polowa XVIII – schylek XIX w.)], Historical Review (Przeglad Historyczny), vol. 81, 1990.

Copyrights Baba Jaga Corner
November 2006

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