Russia Vanishes

Tony Wood writes about the country’s demographic crisis

A huddle of elderly people trudge through ankle-deep snow, pushing a wooden freight car along a barely visible set of tracks. The women are wrapped in headscarves, the men wear fur hats and thick gloves. These are the last remaining inhabitants of Workers’ Settlement No. 3, and the subjects of Sergei Dvortsevoy’s remarkable 1998 documentary Bread Day; the freight car is bringing the weekly delivery that helps them survive. The village itself consists of little more than wooden sheds or barracks, interspersed with small garden plots. Many of the buildings have collapsed into themselves; others have been taken over by goats or stray dogs.

One might expect the village to be in some distant corner of Russia, perhaps several days’ journey into the Siberian taiga. But it is only eighty kilometres from St Petersburg, one of a cluster of settlements established in the early 1930s by a peat-extracting concern with links to the US. The Cold War put paid to the peat-export business, and the settlements entered a long decline, so that by the time Dvortsevoy visited there were only a few elderly residents left. Ten years later, in 2008, a Russian TV crew found all five settlements empty and the railway line overgrown with weeds. In the few wooden barracks still standing, photographs, papers and odd items of clothing lay scattered, as if the inhabitants had been rushed out of the place by a sudden turn of events.

But the vanishing of Workers’ Settlement No. 3 is part of a process of depopulation taking place across rural Russia. The 2002 national census gave a figure of just over 13,000 villages ‘with no population’; by the time of the next census, in 2010, the figure had risen to 19,416. Many more are on the brink: the 2010 census found that 36,225 villages had fewer than ten inhabitants. The geographical distribution of this wave of oblivion might seem counterintuitive, since it is not the far corners of Russia’s territory that are emptying most rapidly, but its historical core. In Pskov oblast’, on the border with Belarus and Latvia, and Tverskaia oblast’, halfway between Moscow and St Petersburg, empty villages account for more than a fifth of all rural settlements. In Yaroslavl and Vologda oblasti, to the north-east of Moscow, 26 per cent of all villages have zero population, while in Kostroma oblast’, also to the capital’s north-east, a third of all villages are empty.

Russia’s demographic crisis became apparent the year after the dissolution of the USSR. In 1992, for the first time since the Second World War, deaths exceeded births, by a margin of 220,000, although an influx of tens of thousands of migrants – many of them ethnic Russians from other former Soviet republics – temporarily offset the impact of what demographers call ‘negative natural increase’. Since 1992, according to data from Rosstat, the state statistical agency, deaths have exceeded births by a cumulative total of 13 million, a figure far exceeding the numbers of immigrants. Russia’s population declined by an estimated 6.4 million between 1991 and 2009, an annual average drop of 337,000.

Russia is still the ninth most populous country in the world, with 142.9 million inhabitants at the time of the 2010 census. But its demographic contraction is set to continue relentlessly: the UN Population Division envisages a drop to 136 million by 2030, and to 126 million by 2050; by the start of the next century it could be as low as 111 million. This decline – equivalent, by 2100, to more than a fifth of the current population – will push Russia down the global demographic hierarchy: the fourth most populous state in the world in 1950, by 2050 it will have dropped to 18th place, overtaken by Pakistan, Ethiopia and Egypt.

All this has long alarmed Russia’s policymakers. The government’s Concept for Demographic Development in 2001 mentioned ‘negative phenomena’ that demanded ‘stabilisation’; a document in 2006 spoke openly of ‘demographic crisis’ and discussed measures to try to encourage Russians to reproduce; in May 2006 Putin announced increased benefits, longer maternity leave and cash payments of 250,000 roubles (then around $9000) to mothers if they had a second child. Adverts on the Moscow Metro in 2007 showed a cluster of matryoshki beside the legend: ‘Love for the motherland begins with the family – F. Bacon.’ (Never mind that what Francis Bacon actually said was ‘Charity to the commonwealth begins with private families,’ and only as part of a list of rhetorical commonplaces.)

Cash inducements may have had some effect – though until the onset of the economic crisis in 2008 rising incomes were probably a more significant influence. In any event, the gap between births and deaths has narrowed, from a high of 958,532 in 2000 to 129,100 in 2011. In September of that year, Putin even told the United Russia party conference that the demographic crisis had been ‘forced to retreat’. But a few months later he was sounding the alarm again: ‘Without implementing a large-scale, long-term project of demographic development,’ he wrote in February this year, in one of a series of lengthy articles laying out his presidential plans, ‘we risk turning into an “empty space”, whose destiny will be decided by others.’ He had just such a project up his sleeve, of course, though it seemed to consist of nothing more than a few extra natalist gestures: promises to create more kindergarten places and somehow to reduce the cost of real estate, cash for families who have a third child, increased student scholarships. These measures would, he claimed, be enough not only to stabilise Russia’s population but even to allow it to grow to 154 million by 2050 – a full nine million more than the UN Population Division’s most optimistic scenario.

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