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Russia’s Villages, and Their Way of Life, Are ‘Melting Away’

There is a pronounced gap, however, between the positive terms in which Mr. 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 to 2015, extremely modest natural growth peaked in 2015 with just 32,038 more births than deaths. By comparison, Mexico, with a population approximately 10 percent smaller, recorded some 1.7 million more births than deaths in 2015.

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An abandoned house in the village, which has 160 year-round residents. Credit James Hill for The New York Times

“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,” Mr. 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.

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The only gathering spot remaining for Baruta’s residents is a small general store. Credit James Hill for The New York Times

“Just as fish seek deeper water, so people seek better places to live,” said Mr. 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.

These sorts of demographic catastrophes return to stunt population growth two decades after they happen, as the number of women of reaching their childbearing years drops. Russia is entering one of those periods now, recording 83,300 fewer births in the first five months of 2017 than a year ago.

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.”

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The current state of a soccer field in Baruta, whose decline began when the Soviet Union collapsed and the young, freed from strict residency rules, fled to cities. Credit James Hill for The New York Times

In Baruta, Dmitri 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, Ms. 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.

Her own daughter and grown grandchildren no longer visit. “She is very well educated. She does not need a village,” Ms. Levedova said of her daughter. “She prefers to travel abroad.”

The Pskov region has four maternity hospitals, down from 26 a decade ago, with the wealthy now usually giving birth in specialized, Russian-speaking clinics across the border in Estonia, Mr. Shlosberg said. Closing hospitals pushes people to leave even faster than closing schools, he said, adding, “We understand that the Pskov region is melting away.”

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.

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Alexander Fyodorov, 59, is one of just 17 men left a once-thriving collective of some 500 farmers in Baruta. Credit James Hill for The New York Times

“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 Professor Manakov at Pskov State. “That is why the authorities want the birthrate to increase.”

Aside from fewer births, problems at the other end of life also hold down the population. Mortality rates in Russia have improved markedly in the last decade, yet remain stubbornly higher than in most Western countries. Average life expectancy just reached 72, a record for Russia, yet in the developed world it is often about 76 for men and 85 or higher for women.

High vodka consumption and uneven health care still cut life short. Alexander N. Tkachev, the agriculture minister, caused a stir this summer by saying that the trend toward drinking more wine and less vodka would improve the demographic situation.

The government created various incentives to have more children, in particular a one-time payment of about $7,500 for a second child. It also established a medal, the Order of Parental Glory, for seven or more children, which Mr. Putin awards to parents at a nationally televised Kremlin ceremony. But such measures have not spurred sufficient change.

The Pskov region has the worst ratio of births to deaths in the nation, Professor Manakov said, with 18 people per 1,000 dying every year and just 11 per 1,000 being born.

Another demographer, Sergei V. Zakharov of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, said the military adventures and economic problems of the last two years undermined the confidence people need to reproduce, similar to what happened in the 1990s.

“Life is unpredictable, so people have fewer children,” Mr. Zakharov said.

While birthrates are declining in much of the developed world, most Western states replenish their populations with immigration. But even many of the most liberal Russians balk at welcoming immigrants from beyond the former Soviet states.

Some Russians lament that something deeper, an essential part of Russian culture, will ebb along with the rural population.

Baruta sits close to the string of rural estates where Alexander Pushkin, the author credited with inventing the modern Russian language, wrote some of his most famous works.

Mr. Kurbatov, the specialist in village writing, said he mourned the demise of rural Russia as the very death of the roots of the language and the unique Russian soul.

“Russia herself is a village from birth,” he said. “Everything that was best — the national way of thinking, the national economy — everything was rooted in our existence on the land.”

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Source: New York Times

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