Biden had it right: Rural Russia is dying of poverty, neglect

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 5, 2009 

KUVSHINOVO, Russia — The government administrator was bursting with optimism: More children are being born, many rubles will be invested in infrastructure and his region is weathering the global economic storm.

"The situation is so good," said Boris Zaitsev, a broad-shouldered man who spoke in a confident monotone.

Outside his office, some 170 miles northwest of Moscow, the front steps to the Soviet-era government building are falling into a pile of rubble. Deep, spine-rattling potholes that rival sections of Baghdad riddle the town's streets. The region's population has plummeted by more than a quarter.

Officials here like to point visitors to Kuvshinovo's new Russian Orthodox church, an elegant wooden structure. Work inside the church hasn't been finished, because the money ran out. Looters searching for icons and cash previously torched the office of another local church. Twice. A priest in a nearby village, who'd led an anti-alcoholism campaign, was burned to death with his family.

The area around this rural enclave is in steep decline; once-thriving fields are empty and the population is in free-fall. Along with many other towns and villages in vast rural Russia, it's a microcosm for a country that, according to recent studies, is withering away.

In Kuvshinovo and outlying hamlets, the population has dropped to 16,000 people from 22,000 in less than 20 years. Russia as a whole lost 12.3 million people from 1992 to 2008. An influx of immigrants, mainly from former Soviet territories, helped hide the extent of the problem. The population is now 142 million, but it would have been 136.3 million without that surge from outside.

The statistics help explain why Vice President Joe Biden struck such a sensitive nerve among Russia's ruling elite when he said recently that the country has "a shrinking population base; they have a withering economy," and added, "It's a very difficult thing to deal with, loss of empire."

Despite the Kremlin's posturing on the world stage and its hard line in what Russians call the "near abroad" — invading Georgia, shutting off natural gas to Ukraine, claiming a privileged sphere in other post-Soviet territories — the decay in the heartland suggests that Russia isn't a resurgent superpower so much as a nation that's trying not to come apart at the seams.

The mansions and gardens of old imperial Russia have faded or crumbled, as have many of the collective farms that fed communist Russia. Today, the hamlets dot a forsaken land of rampant poverty where men drink from morning to night. The interconnected crises of low fertility, high death rates and ragged infrastructure have left much of the nation barren.

Looking over the hayfields that lead to the onion dome and the glistening gold cross of a steeple a few miles outside Kuvshinovo, a Russian Orthodox priest mulled the question: What's happening to Russia?

"There are villages with only two people left, and others where nobody lives," Alexander Peshekhonov said, choosing his words carefully. Peshekhonov, his gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, added the obligatory caveat that, "Our country is great."

He then flicked a finger at his throat, a gesture meaning, "They drink."

When spring comes around, he said, the bodies of locals who fell drunkenly into the snowdrifts of winter are found in the pastures and roads. One man responsible for burning the church office in Kuvshinovo was caught in a market, selling icons and religious cassette tapes he'd swiped to raise money for vodka.

"If you read the newspapers and listen to our leaders' propaganda, you get the feeling that everything is OK," Peshekhonov said. "But I don't believe that."

Even darker times may lie ahead.

A major study that the United Nations released in April, authored by leading Russian experts, projected that Russia would lose at least 11 million more people by 2025. Another U.N.-sponsored report said last year that the population could fall to as low as 100 million in 2050.

That report cited a recent improvement in fertility but cautioned that, "while these favorable trends may last another five or six years, all recent forecasts . . . predict that Russia's population decline will only intensify."

"There's a risk that in the most negative situation, Russia will stop existing as a state," said Olga Isupova, a senior demographic researcher at the Higher School of Economics, a leading private Russian university in Moscow.

Asked whether that was really a possibility, Isupova told a reporter who was about to visit Kuvshinovo, "If you go out there and find something more optimistic, please tell me."

Down a dusty road and then a dirt path from Kuvshinovo, Dr. Anna Voronova holds medical clinics in the village of Pryamukhino. Sitting behind her desk in a dimly lit room with warped floors and chipped paint, Voronova said she saw a lot of people with drinking problems. She didn't mean just vodka and beer.

"They buy household cleaners, or solvents used to clean a machine, and drink it because it's cheap," she said. "It's not one or two people; it's many people."

There were 720 people living around Pryamukhino in 1990. Today, there are about 500, a decline caused in part by an exodus to Russia's cities, but mostly by the fact that deaths outnumber births.

The talk of alcoholism isn't confined to handwringing clergymen and small-town doctors. A study published this June examined three Russian industrial cities with typical mortality trends and found that during the 1990s, more than half of the deaths of those aged 15 to 54 were alcohol-related.

The findings, authored by a blue-ribbon panel of experts including representatives of the Russian cancer research center and the University of Oxford, suggest that Russia is drinking itself to death.

Unless something changes, "the villages will die out," said Yulia Novosyolova, a school equipment manager in Pryamukhino whose husband shovels coal in the winter and tends to cattle in the summer.

Novosyolova, who invited a guest to tea and pastries, has three daughters aged 17 to 22. All of them have moved away or are planning to, and none of the three sounded optimistic about the future.

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