Death throes of Russia’s iconic countryside

Rapid urbanisation and industrial farming has led to a catastrophic situation in Russia’s poverty-stricken hinterlands.

Antonina Nikolaeva, 75, has lived in Zharki, 600km from Moscow, all her life [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Zharki village, Russia – Antonina Nikolaeva thinks her village needs no public school or even a store. 

“Only old people are left here. And what do we, old people, do? We die,” the grey-eyed, portly 75-year-old widow said, standing in the doorway of her unpainted wooden house made of entire logs.

The home was built years before Nikolaeva’s birth, when dozens of collective farmers populated this village in the Pskov region, which lies 600km west of Moscow.  

These days only eight people live in Zharki, one of Russia’s dying villages that have become painfully ubiquitous throughout Russia. While President Vladimir Putin flexes the Kremlin’s military and political muscles in Syria and Ukraine, his own nation’s countryside – a backbone of Russia’s national identity, culture, and demographics for centuries – is dying, slowly and inevitably. 

Although rapid urbanisation and industrial farming depopulate rural areas from China to Canada, the situation in Russia is especially catastrophic. Almost 36,000 villages, or one in four, have 10 residents or fewer. Another 20,000 are abandoned, according to Russia’s latest nationwide census conducted in 2010.

Fewer than a quarter of Russians live in rural areas these days – three times fewer than 120 years ago, according to the only tsarist-era census done in 1897.

READ MORE: Russia’s resurgent love for Josef Stalin

Unforgiving environment

Nowhere in Russia is the situation as bad as in the Pskov region, which lies on the European Union’s doorstep bordering Latvia and Estonia. Because of the rugged terrain, with countless swamps and lakes, villages around patches of arable land here have traditionally been small.

Today, out of 13,000 villages, 3,000 stand abandoned and 5,000 have a population of 10 people or fewer, Lev Shlosberg, a Pskov politician with the opposition Yabloko party, told Ekho Moskvy radio in September.

Fallow land and nascent forests close in on each dying or dead village as winter cold, rain, and fire annihilate the abandoned log houses. Zharki mostly consists of such houses – stretched across the main drag still named after communist ideologue Karl Marx – with wooden planks and asbestos boards nailed across their blind, glassless windows.

The nearest functioning shop is 2km away and offers an astonishing selection of alcohol, although bread is the best-selling item. But the puffy, crunchy snow that coated Zharki in mid-January made potholed roads slightly more passable and there is a “mobile shop”, a truck with cheap foodstuffs that comes here three times a week.

“It stops right by my window. When it comes, you can buy whatever you want,” Nikolaeva said.

Her closest neighbour is a blind and nearly deaf 91-year-old woman who can barely maintain a fire in a massive stove whose warmth separates her from death by winter.

Only one household in Zharki has a child, a six-month-old toddler, and the highest-paying job around is on a potato farm where one receives 500 roubles ($8) a day – plus a bucket of spuds. 

Thanks to the lifting of rigid Soviet-era registration rules, Pskov youngsters are free to leave for big cities. Nikolaeva’s daughter lives in Porkhov, a town 13km from her home village, and her son is in St Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city another 250km away.

Because of the fleeing young people, birthrates in the Pskov region are Russia’s lowest – 10 per 14 deaths in cities and 27 in the countryside, according to government statistics.

While Russia’s population of 143 million has shown slight growth in recent years, the region of 646,000 has lost almost 200,000 residents since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 2009, the number of abortions in the area nearly coincided with the number of births, something regional health official Tatyana Shirshova reportedly called a “reason of hope and optimism” – previously there had been more abortions.

OPINION: Russia’s Eurasian identity as part of its strategy

Only eight people live in Zharki, one of Russia's dying villages which have become painfully ubiquitous throughout the country [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera] 
Only eight people live in Zharki, one of Russia’s dying villages which have become painfully ubiquitous throughout the country [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera] 

Russia’s backbone

The Russian word for village – derevnya – derives from derevo, or wood.

For centuries, Russians chopped down endless birch and pine forests to build log houses and clear land for fields and pastures. Crop failure, famine, wildfires and war ravaged and decimated their villages, but high birthrates made up for the losses.

Overpopulated and dirt-poor, the countryside made tsarist Russia the world’s largest exporter of wheat and served as a seemingly endless source for the workforce and military, as well as nostalgic inspiration for Westernised aristocrats and artists. 

But revolutionaries had a different view.

“There’s nothing but yoke, endless poverty, devastation and stagnation,” Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin wrote in 1910, seven years before the Bolshevik revolution overthrew the tsar and lured disenfranchised villagers with a promise of free land and utopian equality. 

But Stalinist collectivisation and purges of wealthy peasants made Soviet agriculture devastatingly ineffective. The USSR relied on exported North American grain, while plummeting birthrates and a perennial exodus of youngsters to cities made rural populations smaller and older.

The 1991 Soviet collapse put an end to state-funded collective farms, while a more recent “optimisation” of rural administration drastically reduced the number of rural hospitals and schools. 

Even the revival of Russia’s agricultural sector could not stop the depopulation of the countryside. Last year, Russia became the world’s largest exporter of wheat while also being a major producer of buckwheat, sunflower oil, sugar beet, and oilseed rape.

But the boom is a reflection of a switch to industrial farming, which is heavily mechanised and requires significantly less manpower than the traditional production circle that kept Russian villages alive.

“The rural population has no future because agriculture does not require much manpower,” Anatoly Vishnevsky, director of the Demographics Institute under the Higher School of Economics, a university in Moscow, told Al Jazeera.

READ MORE: Illegally mining Russia’s ‘Baltic gold’

While the countryside is beset with problems, many villagers are quite content with their lives – and the Kremlin’s political agenda. 

“We have everything, got nothing to worry about,” Nikolaeva said while knitting in her two-bedroom house. Her favourite Russian soap opera had just begun on TV, and cheerful theme music drowned out the clucking from an indoor henhouse right next to her living room.

She has never been outside the former Soviet Union and has no access to the internet, or any news sources that contradict pro-Kremlin media. She is also a fierce Putin loyalist.

“He cares about the Russian people, helps everyone,” she said, proudly adding she would receive a 5,000-rouble [$85] bonus to her January pension of a bit more than $100. The one-time bonus replaced an adjustment to inflation the Kremlin can no longer afford because of the ongoing economic crisis caused by low oil prices and Western sanctions over the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Politically villagers are part of “the traditionalist and very inert rural heartland of most of Russia’s regions”, geographer and sociologist Natalia Zubarevich wrote in Putin’s Russia: How it Rose, How It Is Maintained, And How It Might End, a 2015 book of essays.

“The periphery is apolitical and always votes for the incumbent authorities,” it noted.

READ MORE: Russia’s booming ‘Trumpomania’

Backwater anti-Americanism?

Thanks to pervasive propaganda on pro-Kremlin media, some villagers also believe that Americans are to blame for their troubles, because they allegedly masterminded the dissolution of the USSR and collective farms, and are now trying to choke Russia with sanctions. 

“[US President Barack] Obama wanted us to starve,” said Ivan Pavlov, an 84-year-old pensioner who wears valenki, traditional felt boots, and a warm vest indoors and speaks with a deep rural accent. 

“But we survived and now are feeding half the world,” he said, referring to record wheat exports that Russian media lauded as yet another triumph of Putin’s rule.

A small TV set and a weekly tabloid are the only sources of information for Pavlov and his wife, Anna – the last residents of the village of Sazhino that lies 20km east of Zharki.

Anna’s opinion about the future of Pskov’s countryside was far less optimistic than her husband’s.

“The only help we can get is from a coffin lid,” the 89-year-old said.

Anna and Ivan Pavlov are the last residents of the village of Sazhino [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
Anna and Ivan Pavlov are the last residents of the village of Sazhino [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera