This Tuesday marks 25 years since the shock of the Chernobyl disaster, when Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine exploded, sending previously unseen quantities of nuclear contamination into the air. A radiation cloud spread over Russia and Central and Western Europe, with the first reading of the disaster registered more than 1,000 kilometres away in Sweden. To date Chernobyl is still considered the world’s worst nuclear accident, leaving whole villages and cities in the area abandoned. What is less known is that in the early 1990s almost 2,000 ethnic Czechs left their homes in Ukraine over health fears to be repatriated in Czechoslovakia.
Twenty-five years have passed since the disaster at Chernobyl, and 20 years since the first group of ethnic Czechs in Ukraine abandoned homes and property to return to Czechoslovakia. Representatives of the Czech minority in Ukraine handed an application for re-emigration to Czechoslovak president Václav Havel during his visit to Moscow in 1990. One of the main organisers involved in their eventual return was translator-turned-activist Věra Doušová. On Tuesday, in an interview for Radio Prague, she recalled how she became involved:
“In the 1980s I worked as a teacher and translator for a funfair because of the lack of employment opportunities, and consequently spent a lot of time in areas of the former Soviet Union. When the Velvet Revolution came I never expected to travel to the East again. But by chance - through a contact on the president’s trip to Moscow - I eventually became involved with Czech expatriates whose children were dying from leukaemia related to the Chernobyl accident. They had petitioned the president.”
Věra Doušová says at first the Ukrainian nationals’ chances of repatriation appeared slim, complicated by the fact that during the same period Czechoslovakia had been trying to negotiate the departure of the last Soviet troops from its territory: officials reportedly worried that the public, full of anti-Russian sentiment, would confuse both issues. It was after visiting Czech-Ukrainian villages like Malinovka or Mala Zubovshtina, Doušová became more active in pushing the expatriates’ cause:
“I was very pleasantly surprised by what I saw: small and beautiful villages. The people reminded me of my own grandparents, meeting on the square, speaking slightly archaic Czech, and I told myself I would help. I took part and for more than a year described the situation, including fears related to Chernobyl, to members of the Czech Parliament. I also wrote articles and spoke weekly on the radio, saying it was necessary for us to help now that we could.”
Czechoslovakia’s federal government approved a resolution on the return of the ethnic Czechs in October 1990 and eventually the expatriates saw relocation among some 70 municipalities, often in border areas. Not all welcomed the expatriates’ return but gradually 1,860 or so came back: Věra Doušová has kept ties with many of them to this day.
“Those interested in returning were able to choose what kind of areas they wanted to live in, whether in more or lesser populated places, but of course coming back wasn’t always easy. Some people here had prejudices towards the expatriates who they considered ‘Russians’. But I think on the whole, within a year or so, they won others over to their side. The Czechs from the Volhyň area in Ukraine were skilled, spoke good Czech, and I think integrated themselves well.”