Rus­sia’s vil­lages, and their cul­ture, are ‘melt­ing away’

Prog­no­sis poor as num­ber of deaths ex­ceed­ing births.

Austin American-Statesman - - MORE OF TODAY’S TOP NEWS - Neil MacFar­quhar ©2017 The New York Times

With its wind­ing dirt lanes framed by lilacs, quaint wooden houses and grace­ful onion-domed church, the tiny farm­ing ham­let of Baruta was once a ver­i­ta­ble post­card of Rus­sian bu­colic bliss.

No longer. More peo­ple lie in the tightly packed church ceme­tery than in­habit the vil­lage. Agri­cul­ture is slowly with­er­ing, too — the roofs of hand­some stone barns have col­lapsed, while un­tamed forests in­vade the sur­round­ing fields.

With Rus­sia’s nat­u­ral pop­u­la­tion growth en­ter­ing an ex­tended pe­riod of de­cline, vil­lages like Baruta are dis­ap­pear­ing from across the coun­try’s con­ti­nen­tal ex­panse.

“We have not had a wed­ding or a bap­tism for quite some time — we mostly have fu­ner­als,” said a griz­zled res­i­dent, Alexan­der Fy­o­dorov, 59, one of just 17 men left in what was a thriv­ing col­lec­tive of some 500 farm­ers.

Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin fre­quently cites hardy pop­u­la­tion growth as a pil­lar of restor­ing Rus­sia’s place atop the global or­der.

“De­mog­ra­phy is a vi­tal is­sue that will in­flu­ence our coun­try’s de­vel­op­ment for decades to come,” he said at a re­cent eco­nomic con­fer­ence, also call­ing it an im­por­tant gauge of so­cial and eco­nomic well-be­ing.

There is a pro­nounced gap, how­ever, be­tween the pos­i­tive terms in which Putin and his ad­vis­ers ha­bit­u­ally dis­cuss de­mo­graphic trends and the re­al­ity of the num­bers.

Ba­si­cally, Rus­sians are dy­ing faster than they are be­ing born, de­mog­ra­phers said. Given the gen­eral hos­til­ity to­ward im­mi­gra­tion, the ques­tion is to what de­gree the pop­u­la­tion of 146 mil­lion, in­clud­ing an­nexed Crimea, might shrink.

The num­ber of deaths ex­ceeded the num­ber of births in 2016 by a few thou­sand, and the prog­no­sis for the years ahead is poor. From 2013-2015, ex­tremely mod­est nat­u­ral growth peaked in 2015 with just 32,038 more births than deaths.

“The sta­tis­tics and the pro­pa­ganda are very dif­fer­ent things,” said Natalya V. Zubare­vich, an ex­pert in so­cial and po­lit­i­cal ge­og­ra­phy at Moscow State Univer­sity.

On the world stage, Rus­sia is flex­ing its newly re­stored mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal might in places like Syria and Ukraine, and is us­ing cy­ber­war­fare to dis­tort pol­i­tics in the United States and Europe. But it of­ten seems far less ro­bust at home.

In par­tic­u­lar, its ru­ral ar­eas — long con­sid­ered the well­spring of Rus­sian cul­ture and iden­tity — are dy­ing.

Valentin Kur­ba­tov, a spe­cial­ist in vil­lage prose, moved to the Pskov re­gion in north­west Rus­sia in 1964. At that time, the en­tire re­gion was known for cul­ti­vat­ing flax, from which linen is made.

“Linen has this heav­enly blue color, and when I came here the skies were re­flected in the linen fields,” Kur­ba­tov said over a long dis­cus­sion that fi­nally ended be­cause he said it was too dis­tress­ing. “Now the brush and swamps have re­turned. Even when you ride the train to Moscow, all you see is this black for­est with noth­ing in it.”

Sim­i­lar to a tire with a slow leak, vil­lages like Baruta, 375 miles north­west of Moscow in Pskov, be­gan to de­flate after the end of the Soviet Union.

The Free­dom Col­lec­tive Farm, the glue that held the vil­lage to­gether, dis­banded. No longer bound by strict Soviet res­i­dency rules, the young fled to big cities with bet­ter prospects.

The school closed, and the church stopped hold­ing reg­u­lar ser­vices. The only gath­er­ing point left for the 160 year-round res­i­dents is a small gen­eral store that stocks plenty of vodka and a lit­tle bit of ev­ery­thing else.

“Just as fish seek deeper wa­ter, so peo­ple seek bet­ter places to live,” said Fy­o­dorov, the farmer, show­ing the pithy ru­ral wis­dom that Rus­sians hold dear.

Rus­sia’s de­mo­graphic prob­lem dates back at least 100 years, to the up­heaval of the 1917 rev­o­lu­tion, fol­lowed by Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. Both events curbed pop­u­la­tion growth, fore­shad­ow­ing the dev­as­tat­ing im­pact of World War II, when Rus­sia lost some 20 mil­lion peo­ple. More re­cently, birthrates plunged in the years after the chaotic 1991 col­lapse of the Soviet Union.

In terms of pop­u­la­tion loss, Pskov, which borders Latvia and parts of Es­to­nia, is among the worst hit re­gions in Rus­sia. The pop­u­la­tion peaked at around 1.8 mil­lion in the 1920s, said An­drei Manakov, a de­mog­ra­pher at Pskov State Univer­sity. It is down to 642,000, and pro­jected to drop to about 513,000 by 2033.

Re­searchers es­ti­mate that out of 8,300 area vil­lages in 1910, 2,000 no longer have per­ma­nent res­i­dents.

The re­gion’s de­fense in­dus­try fac­to­ries closed in the 1990s, but res­i­dents an­tic­i­pated the area would be­come a gate­way to Europe as the newly in­de­pen­dent Baltic States next door joined the Euro­pean Union.

The re­gion failed to be­come a hub, how­ever, and then came the 2014 cri­sis over Ukraine, which brought tense re­la­tions and in­ter­rupted trade.

“The bor­der has be­come very un­friendly,” said Lev M. Shlos­berg, an op­po­si­tion politi­cian in the lo­cal legislature. “Be­cause of the pol­i­tics, the re­gion is turn­ing into the boon­docks.”

In Baruta, Dmitry Mikhailov, 40, is among the youngest full-time res­i­dents. Asked what life was like, he said, “Bread, but no but­ter,” adding, “It is not com­pletely aw­ful, and there is not much good.”

A few well-main­tained wooden houses dot the vil­lage, painted bright col­ors and sur­rounded by small or­chards. These be­long to dachniki, de­scen­dants of vil­lage in­hab­i­tants who moved to St. Peters­burg or Moscow and turned their fam­ily homes into sum­mer homes, or dachas. They keep count­less vil­lages on life sup­port.

Some of Baruta’s satel­lite ham­lets are de­serted, or al­most. Trees grow up through the old roads, ren­der­ing them im­pass­able. Even lo­cal taxi drivers have trou­ble nav­i­gat­ing, and mo­bile phone sig­nals fade.

In the ceme­tery of Baruta’s 18th-cen­tury church, head­stones are heaped with mostly faded plas­tic flow­ers. An­to­nia M. Leve­dova, 73, worked sur­rounded by a cloud of mosquitoes, sweep­ing a win­ter’s worth of ac­cu­mu­lated de­bris off the graves of her hus­band, grand­mother, aunt and sis­ter.

Of 50 houses in the neigh­bor­ing vil­lage of Selet­skoe, where she was born, Leve­dova said, just three are in­hab­ited all year, and a few more in the sum­mer. It will soon dis­ap­pear, she pre­dicted.

“The young left, and the old die,” she said, shrug­ging with res­ig­na­tion.

The Pskov re­gion has four ma­ter­nity hospi­tals, down from 26 a decade ago.

“We un­der­stand that the Pskov re­gion is melt­ing away,” Shlos­berg said.

The trend is sim­i­lar across Rus­sia. Un­der the most op­ti­mistic pro­jec­tions by de­mog­ra­phers, the pop­u­la­tion by 2050 will stay the same, about 146 mil­lion, if im­mi­gra­tion from Cen­tral Asia — which has also been drop­ping — bal­ances out low birthrates. Less op­ti­mistic fig­ures put the pop­u­la­tion around 130 mil­lion by 2050, and the most pes­simistic say fewer than 100 mil­lion.

“We un­der­stand that if the pop­u­la­tion is go­ing to be small, Rus­sia will not be able to play a role in world pol­i­tics, in the econ­omy,” said Manakov at Pskov State. “That is why the author­i­ties want the birthrate to in­crease.”

JAMES HILL / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Cus­tomers shop in the lone store of the vil­lage of Baruta, Rus­sia. Con­trary to Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s claims of pop­u­la­tion growth, ru­ral ar­eas long con­sid­ered the well­spring of Rus­sian cul­ture and iden­tity are dy­ing.

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