Pripyat Marsh Culture (a half century before Chernobyl)

1934 Photographs by American geographic explorer Louise A. Boyd

Fans of the recent 2019 miniseries Chernobyl, and anyone interested in marshes, peasant cultures, Eastern Europe, etc., may be intrigued by these photographs taken by the American explorer Louise A. Boyd, documenting the unique interior-marshland culture which existed in the Pripyat region around Chernobyl in 1934—a half century before the notorious nuclear disaster. Boyd’s geographic expertise was Greenland, but in 1934 she traveled to Warsaw to attend the International Geographical Congress. She decided to set aside time to visit the vast, unusual marshy region which at that time fell partially within Poland’s eastern border (the other half of the swamp was in Soviet territory). Over two hundred miles across, the marshes were the largest wetland district in Europe.

(essay continues at bottom of page, after Boyd’s photographs)

1890 German map showing position and rough extent of the large marsh region, here marked “Rokitno Sümpfe” (center) or Rokitno Marsh, an alternate name for the wetland. The Chernobyl power plant would later be built where the word “Sümpfe” crosses the Pripet River.

Approximate extent of marshland in 1930s, set against modern borders.

“House of rough-hewn logs with reed thatch roof. Flax, stacked upright, is drying against the walls.”

Pinsk market. Man on left is carrying garlic.

Pinsk market. Man on left is carrying mushrooms on strings, and a willow basket.

Research about the marsh region, especially its social and environmental history, can tricky for a variety of reasons—not least of which is the absence of a consistent toponym (place name) to look up in archives. Boyd calls the swamp the “Marshes of Pinsk,” after the main market town in the western part of the swamp. Other people and sources call the marshes Pripyat (or Pripet, or Pripec, after the main river which winds through the area); the Rokitno marsh (after a local village); the marshes of Minsk (the Belarussian city, some hundred miles away); and the marshes of Polesia. All of these names have several different spellings in English, Polish, Russian, German, Yiddish, Ukrainian, Belarussian, and so forth. The marshland has also changed hands frequently: part of Poland-Lithuania in the 18th century, the Russian Empire in the 19th century, split between Poland and the USSR during the 1920s and early 1930s, occupied by Germany during both World Wars, entirely within Soviet territory from 1945 until the breakup of the USSR, and today split between Belarus and Ukraine. No one seems to have been in control of the area for long enough to assert one name for the marsh as the international standard.

For such an inconsistently (and, in turn, obscurely) named feature, the marshlands are immense in scale—even more so in Boyd’s day. In the 1930s, the marsh zone, broadly defined to include its corridors of farmland and villages, was as large as present-day Hungary: a labyrinth of braided channels, seasonal lakes, shifting sands, and muddy islets. In one sense, life in the marshes was characterized by fluidity and movement, but the marsh could also present a formidable geographic barrier. Many waterways in the marsh were too shallow for passage by heavy craft. Some writers in the 19th century, like Theodor Poesche, said that the region was really most permeable during the dead of winter, when the waterways froze and could be traversed on foot or sleigh.

Winston Churchill wrote of the swamp in his book The World Crisis, in 1923:

“East of Warsaw, an invader is confronted with the 300-mile barrier of the Pripyat Marshes. Here is a region as large as Scotland of primeval bog and forest. The roads, few and far between, are causeways, and villages rise as separate islands amid bottomless, impassable swamps. The Pripyat Marshes, the cradle of the Slav race, the last sanctuary of the aurochs, have now in the orientalization of Russia become the dividing gulf between Europe and Asia.” (Vol. 5)

The marsh drains via the Pripyat River into the Dnieper basin and Black Sea. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Polish and Russian magistrates had canals dug linking the swamp waterways to the Vistula and Nieman Rivers, which flow northward to the Prussian Baltic ports of Danzig and Königsberg. The canals, as well as some later rail projects, allowed the swamp to become an exporter in timber and tar.

Boyd says that the swamp’s western market town of Pinsk was economically lively, a "kaleidoscopic scene," when she visited in 1934, full of a diverse array of groups including Poles, Jews, Ukrainians (Ruthenians), Belarussians, as well as many of the local “Polesian peasantry” from the town’s marshy hinterlands. Boyd notes the importance of Jewish people within Pinsk’s commercial life. First arriving during the Jewish new year, she found that virtually all the shops in the town were closed. Boyd experienced this social world just a few years before it met violent destruction during the 1941-1944 Nazi invasion and occupation of the region (with 30,000 Pinsk Jews murdered during this period, and other groups, such as the local Belarussian and Polish populations, targeted as well).

During her stay, Boyd spent much of her time in Pinsk, and also in various fishing and farming villages a day’s trip by boat from the town, deeper into the marsh. Life on the marsh's lakelets, and the rough-hewn construction of marsh locals' homes, especially caught her eye. Pinsk is on the other side of the swamp region from Chernobyl, where construction on the ill-fated nuclear power plant began in 1972.

Today the Pripyat Marshes are much smaller and more broken up than in Boyd’s day, having undergone major drainage projects during the post-WW2 period (though the region is still among the largest forested or marshy zones in Europe). From an environmental point of view, these drainage projects did far more damage to the Pripyat Marshes than did the meltdown of 1986, whose own destructive impact was profound. The Soviet state was responsible for the ecological loss, but the drive to fill in and diminish swampland also characterized much Western European and North American thinking during the 20th century. Boyd herself wrote that filling in the Pripyat Marsh would be necessary for the further development of the town of Pinsk, pointing to the infill of the Zuider Zee in the Netherlands and the Pontine Marshes in Italy as models.

-- Jacob Shell

Louise A. Boyd (1936), “The Marshes of Pinsk,” Geographical Review 26 (3), 376-395.

Ivan Shishkin’s 1890 painting “Polesian Marsh.”

1898 Russian topographic map of marsh region, with outline of Massachusetts for comparative scale.