Only village elderly remain in Russia

The census will soon confirm what this town has long known: Russian villages are dying.

Raisa Klubkova may be one of the last of her kind. Born and raised in this tiny agricultural community, two hours south of Moscow, she can look back at several generations of ancestors who lived here – but forward to nothing.

"All the young people left long ago, including my own children," she says. "This is a dying village; it's almost gone."

When the results of the current census are in, they will almost certainly confirm what experts have known for decades: The Russian village, the traditional institution hailed by admirers as the wellspring of national identity, and bemoaned by detractors as the citadel of backwardness, is virtually extinct. The census of 1897, scarcely a century ago, found that 85 percent of Russians were villagers. In 1960, nearly half still lived on the land. Today, barely a fifth inhabit some 120,000 "rural settlements," the majority elderly or infirm.

"Our countryside is a wasteland which able-bodied people only flee," says Valery Chernikov, deputy editor of Selskaya Zhizn, the main newspaper serving the rural population. "One feels that Russia has been violently torn away from its roots."

But "in my mother's youth," Ms. Klubkova says, "this village was filled with young people. We grew or made everything we needed. There was a local way of dressing and designing our cottages. People made handicrafts to sell in the towns. It was a full life."

For centuries, the village has been the center of Russian life. These small, rural communities are not to be confused with North American small towns, which evolved to serve basically urban functions, as hubs of commerce and transport for agricultural communities. In Russian villages it was just the opposite: Peasants clustered in isolated and largely self-sufficient obschina, or communes, for protection and mutual aid. Village lands were (and are) owned by big landlords – first aristocrats, then collectives – not by those who farmed them. So as their role as a source of farm labor has faded, Russia's villages have shriveled in isolation.

When she was a child, Klubkova remembers, almost all of her neighbors were relatives. Over the years she has watched the lights go out in most of their homes. A few decades ago there were 30 households in Klyonovka; today only six cottages are occupied, all by pensioners. "The people who lived here died or moved away," she says. "We've lost the thread that held us together. Everything has changed."

Klubkova's two children live in Moscow, and seldom visit. Some older people who left Klyonovka as youths return in summertime to grow vegetables and enjoy the quiet pace of life. "But their children, who've grown up in the cities, won't be coming here," she says. "The young generation has no feel for this place."

In the 1930s, the Communist regime brutally collectivized agriculture, but left the village structure largely intact. For much of the Soviet period, peasants were chained to rural homes, as the countryside was pillaged for cheap manpower, food, and resources to fuel industrialization.

Even the space-age USSR brought few modern amenities to its vast rural territories. Klyonovka, less than 50 miles from Moscow, got electricity in 1948; its first natural gas line was installed just three years ago. There is still no paved road; villagers draw their water from an old-fashioned well; and the only telephone is in the nearby home of a private farmer. A 1998 survey by the Russian parliament's audit chamber found that 77 percent of Russian villages lacked a piped central water supply, 34 percent were not reachable by paved road, and 97 percent of village homes had no indoor plumbing.

"In the wintertime the road is closed by snow, and we are almost as cut off from the world as our ancestors were," says Maria Tiplova, another elderly resident. "No one does anything for us. It's as though we don't exist."

Unlike some European countries – notably France – Russia has no programs to preserve its ancient villages, and seemingly no hope of reinvigorating them with returning urbanites. The firestorms of the 20th century utterly ravaged the Russian countryside, and post-Soviet development looks set to bypass old village outposts like Klyonovka altogether. For many prominent Russian traditionalists, such as Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the disappearance of village life is modern Russia's central tragedy.

"The moral core of Russia was its villages, which were built on Christian values," says novelist Vassily Belov, a leading light of the derevenchiki, an intellectual back-to-the-land movement. "Our villages are dying, and so is Russia. We cannot accept this, because it means spiritual extinction of the nation. We will struggle to revive our villages."

For others, the issues are more practical. A century of neglect and exploitation may have wrecked Russian agriculture's potential for revival. "Wages in Soviet collective farms were so low that people left for the cities whenever they could, and so there is no longer an able workforce in the countryside," says Sergei Mikhailov of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "Our state is unwilling to help private farmers, especially, with financial credits, and so the cycle of decline continues."

A new law, which for the first time in Russian history would permit the sale of agricultural land, is due to come into effect in January. But experts warn the new rules are unlikely to benefit the handful of private family farmers who struggle amid the ruins of Russia's villages.

"Big businessmen want to buy up the bankrupt collective farms, with the aim of turning them into Western-style agribusinesses with lots of high-tech investment and few workers," says Yevgeny Butovsky, director of the Barley Production Center of the Russian Ministry of Agriculture. "This may save our agriculture in the long run, but it is no answer for the declining villages."

A few miles from Klyonovka, a large Moscow bank has recently built a gated community of about 10 posh brick dachas for its senior employees. Surrounded by high walls, bristling with satellite dishes, this may be the 21st century face of Russia's countryside.

"We only see them come and go in their big cars," says Ms. Tiplova. "Of course they never come here. They are new Russians and we are old Russians."

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