For years I have been fascinated by the story of an extraordinary pine tree appearing on some historical photographs from the Chernobyl Zone. Shaped like a trident, or a cross, depending how we want to interpret it, the tree stood between the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and Pripyat, only 1600 metres from the reactor 4 building. This large, old pine tree predates both CHNPP and Pripyat quite significantly, it was fully mature before the Second World War and according to some historical sources, it was used by invading Nazi army to hang Russian soldiers and partisans, hence it’s also known as The Partisan’s Tree. So what makes it so special in relation to the Chernobyl Disaster?
First clue can be seen in the St. Elijah’s Church in Chernobyl – the only one working in the town. Among many paintings decorating its walls we can find the Chernobyl Savior icon, depicting Jesus Christ with his arm raised in blessing, Virgin Mary, and Archangel Michael surrounding a large pine tree. The tree is in shape of a cross, the symbol of Christianity, but also of a trident – the coat of arms of Ukraine. Jesus is holding a scroll from the book of Revelations with the Wormwood prophecy written on it:
And the name of the star is called Wormwood:
and the third part of the waters became wormwood;
and many men died of the waters,
because they were made bitter.
The star can be seen falling from the sky, over the cross pine tree. On the left there are souls of the dead, on the right the survivors of the Chernobyl Disaster. Ground in the distance is dead while that directly beneath the survivors is still green, as if it was protected by its blessing. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant stands in the distance.
The icon was ordered by Yuriy Borisovich Andreev, who worked as a power systems engineer in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Although he wasn’t on duty during night shift on the 26th of April 1986, he rushed to work on the night of the accident as plant managers called for additional resources. Yuryi’s group was tasked with safe shut down of the Reactor 2 following the accident in the Reactor 4 building. He worked as a liquidator and was involved in researching decontamination techniques and worked in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone until 1989.
After receiving a high dose of radiation Yuryi nearly died from the radiation illness. During his hospitalisation an image of the Chernobyl pine tree appeared several times to him in his dreams. Believing that it is a sign from God, he ordered the Chernobyl Savior icon to be painted, which was consecrated in 2003 and hung on a wall in the St. Elijah’s Church. According to some witnesses, during the revealing of the icon, a dove flew right above and climbed quickly it into the sky, where a rainbow arch appeared, as if heavens confirmed that the icon is now indeed holy.
Another legend surrounding, the Partisan’s Tree dates back to the day of the accident. The Soviet Union was a officially a secular state, and even though personal beliefs weren’t officially banned the government in the 1980s, there was a significant social pressure and stigma surrounding religion in the society. It comes to no surprise that most Pripyat residents considered themselves as non-believers. Despite that, many witnesses from Pripyat claim that they saw the radioactive cloud split in half as it reached the cross pine tree, and thus avoiding the city of Pripyat.
A monument commemorating the Chernobyl pine tree was erected in its original position, but until recently the current location of it remained unknown to most people. It has been discovered hidden under a layer of roof tiles in a small village nearby, laying silent and forgotten for the last 30 years among overgrown grass and bushes.
Sadly the Partisan’s Tree is now in a very poor shape, slowly rotting away. The woods around it were cut down and buried to contain the radioactive fallout shortly after the Chernobyl Disaster. Exposed to wind and other elements and deprived of nutrients in the soil, the tree started slowly dying. It finally collapsed, or was cut down according to various sources, around 2005 and moved to a temporary location in a hastily built shed few kilometres away. The roof has since long collapsed and the broken remains of the asbestos tiles can be seen around the tree today.
I have heard rumours that a conservation plan for this undeniably important symbol of the Chernobyl Disaster is undergoing, but I have no solid evidence of any work being done.
I am honoured to share two photos of the tree when it was still growing near the Power Plant. Both were taken by Vladimir Tokarenko, a liquidator who risked his health and life to save millios of people from the consequences of Chernobyl. Vladimir participated in the sand and boron mixture drops from the helicopters in the weeks following the accident. As someone who worked on construction of the reactor and knew the exact layout of the building, he would guide the pilots flying over the burning reactor to maximise the efficiency of the drops.
Vladimir Tokarenko passed away recently. His daughter, Nastya, agreed to share photos from their family archive to commemorate her father. I think we all owe Vladimir and his fellow liquidators an impossible to pay debt. Preserving their memories is the least we can do.