Ghosts Of The Heartland

The village of Nikolskoye isn't easy to find. Its nearest neighbors will tell you to turn right at the forest edge, follow the trees that ring a large field and hope for the best. If you do find the village, you'll see about two dozen houses, a pond and perhaps one of the three remaining villagers. One of them is Nadia Shipitsina, 63, who survives on a pension and guides visitors past abandoned houses of friends who have moved away. "That was Raya's house," she says, pointing to a boarded-up hut that she sees as an omen for her own. "The grass is starting to grow over my path. Once the path is gone, that's it. There aren't enough people here to start a new one."

Nikolskoye is 300 kilometers south of Moscow in once-thriving farm country. Now, on the local highway, a group of 8-year-old hitchhikers explain that their school has closed ("not enough kids") and there is no money for a school bus. While cash pours into Moscow, the fabled Russian heartland is emptying out. According to preliminary results of the first national Census since 1989, more than half of Russia's 155,290 villages are abandoned or populated by 50 or fewer stragglers.

The decline is most dramatic in far northern regions, such as Chukotka, where the population has shrunk to one third of 1989 figures, or Magadan, where it has dropped by half. Meanwhile, Moscow's population has grown by 16 percent. Zhana Zaionchkovskaya of the Institute for Economic Forecasting in Moscow says Russia is now undergoing the urbanization that Western Europe experienced after World War II. "In some ways this makes sense. There are no countries in the world, not even Canada, where 7 percent of the population lives in these faraway extremes."

The Soviet system of housing perks, discounts and high wages once made the far north livable. Huge factories, academic mini-cities and defense-industry plants were built in remote areas to keep scientists and laborers focused and, often, to keep their work cloaked in cold-war secrecy. But once the system collapsed, so did support for these villages, as well as the collective farms that were the centerpiece of Soviet agriculture. In some regions, farm production has fallen by half. The three villagers left in Nikolskoye say people started leaving when the nearby collective farm fell into disarray in the late 1980s and broke up soon after.

The exodus has created a host of political problems. Russian officials have begun discussing ways to lure people back to the hinterland, particularly the border areas near China, hoping to counter a surge of Chinese labor migration. Russia temporarily closed the border due to SARS, a move that had the added political benefit of slowing the Chinese influx.

It's not only the villages that are dying. President Vladimir Putin has lamented the "sad" decline in the Russian population, which is expected to fall from 145 million to as little as 102 million by 2050, as birth rates and life spans drop due in part to AIDS and alcoholism. The fall is most precipitous in rural areas, where health care is most backward. Death rates from alcoholism are 15 to 20 times higher among "northern" nationalities than among other groups. Pyotr Bochkaryev, a Moscow gym trainer, sums up the divide: "If you drive 100 kilometers outside of Moscow people won't even know what the word 'fitness' means. Young people are sitting around and drinking."

Unless the economic logic changes, many more hamlets are doomed. Not far from Nikolskoye, Aleksandr Sergeev is the director of a small farm that was once part of a bustling collective. Most young people have left because wages have fallen to $17 per month. "The only people making any money are in Moscow," says Sergeev, who says he has missed his chance to flee. He is 29, but fatalism strikes early in a dying village.

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