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…