The country's population is shrinking at an alarming rate. Is there any hope for the future?by Oliver Bullough / March 20, 2013 / Leave a comment
The church at Yeski: between 1991 and 2010, 20,000 Russian villages were abandoned © Oliver Bullough
This article was the winner of the Foreign Press Award for Travel/Tourism Story of the Year 2013
Driving towards the Russian village of Yeski on Christmas Eve was like entering a 19th-century painting. The unscarred snow stretched away to dense walls of conifers. Log houses clustered in the village centre. And, all the time, on the horizon, the strong vertical of the church bell tower gave a focus to the composition.
If you wanted to invent a landscape that told viewers that they were in Russia, in an eternal Russia of smallholders and snow and Orthodox Christianity, this would be it. It is an illusion, however. The log houses are empty, their gardens without footsteps and their chimneys without smoke. The forest is advancing on the fields in armies of saplings. The church windows gape empty, and its onion domes are shattered.
Yeski’s church is one of thousands built during Russia’s period of imperial glory, designed to lift the hearts of the peasants and trumpet the wealth of their lords.
Now, its crumbling walls broadcast a different message, dire tidings of the country’s collapse. Only a run of scaffolding beside the bell tower hints that someone is at least trying to keep this church, and indeed the whole village, from collapsing altogether.
In the 1980s, Yeski’s population numbered more than 2,000. It had three schools, hundreds of cattle and a collective farm. Now, it is home to 78 people, of whom almost half are pensioners. There are a couple of dozen cows. Any children here—I saw none—are bussed out for their education.
“Most people are old, and families are rare; there are five of them here. There is no future, no work,” said Galina Antoshkina, 60, as we walked through the snow on her way to open the village shop.
“Many people died, many people left. We are an ancient village, older than Moscow, but in five years time we’ll be gone. Yeski will exist only as a memory.”
I did not mention it to Antoshkina but, by the standard of Russian villages, Yeski is pretty well off. It is in the Tver region and within an easy day’s drive of Moscow, so in the summer it will throng with holidaying Muscovites who have bought its houses as second homes.
Its permanent population of 78 is healthy compared to the 20,000 Russian villages that were abandoned altogether between 1991 and 2010. Of the 133,000 still-inhabited villages in Russia, more than 80,000 had fewer than 100 inhabitants when the census-takers called. Of those, 35,000 others were home to fewer than 10 people, and will be dead too when the pensioners who live there succumb to old age and isolation.
Russia’s rural depopulation is part of a broader demographic crisis whose consequences are so enormous that they are almost impossible to grasp. Beginning in the 1960s, life expectancy began to fall, while around the same time the birth rate dropped below the level needed to sustain the population. The problems accelerated after 1991, when the Soviet collapse destroyed much of the country’s economy, but they long pre-date it.
According to official figures, deaths have exceeded births in Russia by 13m since 1992. There are still 143m people in Russia—a drop of 4m from the peak—but that total would not be nearly so high had large numbers of people from other ex-Soviet states not immigrated to escape the still-worse situation elsewhere.
President Vladimir Putin has declared that it is his goal to stabilise the population at present levels, then gradually increase it once more. However, Demoscope Weekly, the respected and independent Russian demographic research organisation, predicts that by even the most optimistic—and, thus, least likely—predictions Russia cannot have more than 136m people by 2025, and 128m by 2050. The US Census Bureau forecasts that Russia will be home to just 109m people by the middle of the century, meaning that the faded superpower’s population will be smaller than that of Uganda.
This affects every aspect of public life. Russian military strategy—not least when fighting the Germans during the second world war—has been forever based on the assumption that it has unlimited manpower. It no longer does.
We in Britain agonise about having only 3.2 people of working age to support every pensioner, but Russia will have just two working-age adults per pensioner by 2026.
A woman was waiting outside the two-storey log-built shop as Antoshkina and I walked up. While Antoshkina fumbled with the keys, the woman leaned forward and vomited quietly into the snow, then straightened up, panted, leaned over and vomited again, this time noisily and at length. When Antoshkina had the door open, the woman bought a 70cl bottle of vodka and walked out again, without saying a word.
The shop’s fridge held just four cans of Fanta, a can of 7-Up and some pickled mushrooms, but its shelves held 15 bottles of vodka, four of brandy, nine of wine and two of the sparkling wine Russians call shampanskoye. With the woman gone, Antoshkina looked at me and shrugged.
“We don’t live, we survive,” she said.
Russians have, of course, always been famous for liking their vodka. In pre-revolutionary villages drinking was the major form of entertainment, but it was restricted by the drinkers’ spending power. Peasants got rich, so they got drunk, so they got poor, so they got sober.
In the latter Soviet years, when people had salaries and no one much minded whether they worked or not, such limits fell away. The production of spirits trebled between 1940 and 1980, and the consumption of all alcoholic drinks increased eightfold. The average Russian now drinks three times the volume of spirits drunk by a German, and five times that of a Portuguese (and that excludes consumption of moonshine, which does not make the statistics).
Conspiracy theorists speculate that the Soviet state liked a drunken population, since this made it easier to control. That may be true, and it is certainly the case that the government was hooked on the revenue from alcohol as much as the population was hooked on the oblivion it gave. Taxes earned from drink were greater than the defence budget by the early 1970s.
The trouble was, of course, that the same drinking that was financing the government was destroying the population. In 1965, the first year for which the Russian government presents statistics, 119,170 Russians died from “external causes,” the majority of which are connected to alcohol (car crashes, murder, suicide, poisoning, drowning). By 1995, that number had almost tripled. In 1965, 419,752 Russians died from problems with their cardiovascular system, which are overwhelmingly caused by drinking and smoking. By 1995, that number had more than doubled.
Russia, therefore, doesn’t have so much a population problem as a vodka problem. And that is a symptom of something very troubling. When a nation decides to drink itself to oblivion, it has clearly—through civil war, repression, collectivisation, war, surveillance and exploitation—been abused past the limits of endurance.
Mikhail Gorbachev is the only national leader to have made an effort to rid the country of this plague. He severely restricted access to alcohol, grubbing up vineyards and closing shops. Average life expectancy and the birth rate jumped, but Russians were furious and few policies did so much to undermine his popularity. Within seven years he was dethroned, his country had vanished and public health worsened catastrophically.
Politicians attached to their careers have since been careful not to follow his lead. They focus instead on spending their petrodollars on vanity projects like the Sochi Winter Olympics, rather than trying to wean the nation off its favourite tipple. Vodka is available everywhere. The nearest town to Yeski is Bezhetsk (its population has fallen from 28,500 to 24,500 in the last decade) where one ordinary food shop had two three-metre long shelves full of vodka, another of brandy, another of assorted spirits, another of wine and a fridge full of beer. It had no bread.
Politicians can point to recent improvements in the demographic picture to justify inaction. The relative prosperity brought by high oil prices and Putin’s increases in pensions and public salaries have helped push life expectancy to almost 69 years, still a little lower than Gorbachev’s achievement, but a post-Soviet high nonetheless (the average Briton, for comparison, can expect to live more than 80 years).
An echo from the baby boom of the hope-filled and alcohol-limited 1980s has pushed birth numbers up too (helped by Putin’s government increasing payments for a second child), and deaths outnumbered births last year by a mere 2,500—the best figure in decades. But the damage has been done, the cohort about to give birth to the next generation is half the size of the one before it, and the Russian population is set on a path of inexorable contraction.
This slow decline of the Russian nation is a problem not only for Russia’s military, budget and economy but also for anyone who loves Russia and its culture. And among those people is Svetlana Melnikova, the woman responsible for the scaffolding on Yeski’s church.
A formidable great-grandmother with a torrent of white hair, an angora head scarf and a black astrakhan coat, she invited me along on a tour of the ruined churches of the Tver region, hoping to show me how saving churches would help save the country.
The fate of Russian churches has been a common concern for patriots since at least the 1970s. Artist Ilya Glazunov, who specialises in medieval battle scenes and other glorious national epics and who is patronised by Russians from Putin down, depicts the miseries of the country’s present via its derelict churches, the sky visible through their domes.
Ironically, under the atheist Soviet system, churches that were not demolished were well preserved. They were by far the best-made buildings for miles around and were used as storehouses, libraries or barns, often with minimal alteration, meaning many of their frescoes survived barely scathed. It was the closure of the collective farms that sealed their fate, since it took away any incentive to maintain them, which is a shortcut to collapse in the extreme Russian climate.
Melnikova sees the country’s failure to do anything to protect its heritage as symbolic of the hypocrisy and corruption of a generation that professes higher ideals but is interested only in money.
“Everyone now believes in God, they drive past in their jeeps and cross themselves. But they don’t give a rouble. The patriarchate does not give anything to old churches. If you open them, you have to pay a salary for a priest,” she said.
Thousands of village churches—the precise number is unknown—are in a parlous state, so Melnikova has no illusions she alone can solve the problem. But, with the kind of determination shown by her dissident friends in the 1970s, she sees doing something as always better than doing nothing.
“When the churches are in ruins, they are used as public toilets, young people drink beer in them. But when we restore them, the atmosphere changes. There is so much depression in the villages and when you repair the most beautiful building you give the village a centre,” she said.
Russians, in Melnikova’s clear-eyed view, are disorientated, bewildered and disenfranchised. They are exploited by foreigners and betrayed by their compatriots. They have lost control of their own destiny and sunk into gloom as a result. Therefore, rather in the way you might advise a depressive to take up swimming just to get them out of the house, she wants to mobilise Russians to restore churches.
“Russians need a higher goal. They will not live for sausage alone, for material things. That doesn’t interest them. The Soviet government understood this. They gave the youth a higher duty, the construction of communism. But this new government does not understand it. It just wants money. A Russian needs a spiritual idea, not a material one,” she said.
“The salvation of village churches could be a higher ideal for young people. They happily come to our volunteer days to work. What else have they got to do? They drink, they sit around, they take drugs, they have nothing. They are bored.”
She is not alone in her gloomy assessment of the country’s young. According to a 2011 Unicef study, some 20 per cent of young Russians suffer from depression compared to an average of 5 per cent in western countries. The United Nations agency said 45 per cent of girls and 27 per cent of boys consider suicide.
The situation is, if anything, yet more dreadful in rural areas. Collective farms could have become joint stock companies after 1991 but lacked capital and expertise. Subsidies are almost non-existent compared to those available in western countries and more than half the farmers who launched private enterprises have given up.
In 1974, one in eight rural children were listed as having a congenital defect, most often because of alcohol in utero, according to anthropologists Grigory Ioffe, Tatyana Nefedova and Ilya Zaslavsky, but now the picture is far worse.
In their book The End of Peasantry?, published in 2006, they write: “The situation is apparently past the point when diagnoses like ‘drinking,’ ‘binge drinking,’ and perhaps even ‘alcoholism’ reflect the true meaning of the problem. What is going on today is more aptly described as ‘pervasive human degradation,’ ‘profound degeneration of a genetic pool,’ and so on. While such qualifications may sound harsh, they are not off the mark at all.”
It is this slide towards extinction that Melnikova wants to counter. She is herself not a regular churchgoer but believes church buildings and services provide centres for communities that are all but irreplaceable.
Her Village Church Organisation has put a roof on the Yeski church, and will put in windows this year, keeping out the weather until a time comes when a full restoration is affordable. The operation will cost around £50,000. That would be small change for the Russian state, which is dropping £6.5bn on the Sochi Olympics—but is a massive expense for a shoestring group like hers which relies on donations and paid restoration jobs to finance its campaign.
And is it worth it?
“Yes, it’s good what she’s doing,” said Antoshkina, the shopkeeper. “She’s trying to help, and if the church is restored maybe people will come back to the village and there’ll be work again.”
A glimpse of the future Melnikova is plotting for Yeski came the next day, Christmas Day, in the still more remote village of Poreche, which somehow kept its church open and functioning throughout the Soviet years. The ceiling might have been marbled with damp but the wood stoves kept out the cold, candles blazed beneath the icons, and a couple of dozen parishioners were present for the service and to receive communion and counsel from Father Gennady.
Outside, a car had turned up to sell sausage to the faithful and a pair of friendly dogs begged scraps from anyone who bought some. In its unassuming way, Poreche looked warm and welcoming, like a community, while Yeski looked like a nuclear winter populated only by the alien skeletons of giant hogweed.
And even if nothing comes of her work, and the 50 villages where she and her volunteers have struggled vanish anyway, at least the churches will remain.
“These are monuments of Russian culture,” she said. “Look at the pyramids, and at Rome. They are still there and we need to do the same too. When the barbarians come, at least this way they will know Russians once lived here.”