Visit to a Russian Village
Russia’s villages are often in the center of attention when one is trying to demonstrate negative views on the nation’s economy and demographics.
Many Russian villages are indeed in very poor shape, some without in-house plumbing and gas heating. Village roads are sometimes impossible to surpass in the spring and autumn and their may be no stores in sight for a few kilometers. Private sector jobs are nearly nonexistent.
And many of them are indeed ‘dying’ out, with no or only a handful of residents left in some villages where maybe hundreds lived decades ago. The young people have moved to towns or cities for work, leaving their parents and grandparents in the village. Those that don’t escape may succumb to alcoholism, which runs high in villages.
Left to Slowly Die Out
I come across articles from time to time that bemoan the ‘death’ of Russian villages and criticize the government for not doing more to save or improve them. The situation is a lot more complicated and such an analysis is too simple. Russia, by some accounts, has around 100,000 villages, many of which have no more than 20 homes….and maybe even less people.
Just think of all the social needs for any settlement – big or small: gas and water pipelines, power lines, roads, schools, hospitals, police and fire departments to name some. And now think of Russia’s 11 time zones and how scattered these villages are over thousands of kilometers from east to west and north to south.
The costs of maintaining or improving the infrastructure in even half of these villages literally isn’t worth it. It may cost more to just extend a gas pipeline 10 kilometers to a village than to relocate all the people living there to a bigger settlement where they can get the full spectrum of social services.
Russia has plenty of sizable towns with poor infrastructure, such as roads, that leads to death. So one has to ask, is it justified to spend money to build roads to a village where just a few dozen people live and not in a town where tens of thousands live?
A Positive Angle
Instead of reviving them, Russia needs to actively manage their decline, relocating those willing to move to bigger villages or towns. It should have a program for job training to ease adjustment.
Some people who have spent their entire lives in a village will not want to leave because – no matter how poor the conditions are – their village and home means the world to them.
This is the conundrum Russia – and other countries – face. In that case, its not just the state, but family and neighbors that must help out to ensure their wellbeing in these distant villages.
In short, the death of many Russian villages is not just a ‘bad thing‘ that we should shed tears over and highlight as signs of demographic decline. We should remember the flip side – that more Russians are living in towns and cities that offer more opportunities.
Kursk Village Visit
I have recently made brief visits to two Russian villages, one in Kursk Region about 450 kilometers to the south of Moscow and one in Vladimir Region about 120 kilometers to the east of Moscow simply to look around and photograph. Below are some notes and photos from my trip to the Kursk village. I will post separately about my trip to a Vladimir village.
The Kursk Region village was around 70 kilometers from the city of Kursk (pop. 400,000) and off the highway that leads toward Moscow. According to data, about 40 people live in the village. There are about 20 homes stretching along one bumpy road made of gravel and dirt. Some of the homes looked well maintained.
Upgrades seemed to be going on at two of the homes….perhaps they are dachas for people that work in the cities. The proximity to a main highway and a mining town likely mean this village is better off than many others.
We passed an abandoned Russian-made car on the side of the village road. It looked like it had been there for months. A Soviet-era ambulance then slowly crossed over an icy road, turned right and pulled up in front of one of the homes. Two people exited the ambulance and entered the house.
As we walked around, we met an Armenian women who moved to the village some 20 years ago. She had come out of her home to get some water from the street pump. She said the post office had recently closed and the nearby school would be closed in a few years. I didn’t ask, but I assume it’s a school serving the village cluster. The children will be bused to a school further off.
The woman said she is ‘the first’ first-aid to the elderly in the one-street village, bringing water, medicine and other goods to them. She said there are mainly elderly people living in the village. Without being promoted, she mentioned alcoholism as a problem. There are no jobs she said.
Her two children have left for the bigger cities in the region. It sounded like they were doing fine. But she doesn’t want to leave the village because she is used to it. She didn’t come across as bitter or unhappy, often smiling as she spoke to us. She simply accepted things. Another man of about 50 came out to talk to us. He said the pension checks arrive and there is gas, but no jobs.
We saw a couple walk along the village road into the distance and then the ambulance drove off. We passed some rusting equipment and trucks near one of the homes.
As we got back to the highway, we could see on the other side the local store. The Soviet-era sign still hung over the general store: ‘Goods of Everyday Demand‘ as it literally translates.
Fantastic images and a great article Todd – really insightful and well written, as usual.
Thanks Andrew – I will be visiting some more villages over the coming months and will certainly post photos and notes from those trips.
Thank you, Todd. You did a great journalistic job of our trip!
Thanks Sergey – hope we will get a chance to travel again, if not around Kursk, then perhaps around a neighboring region. Thanks again for your help and insight!
Nice article — well-done! Well, it’s fascinating and I can relate to the feelings of these people because I have lived in Appalachia all my life and many of the issues are similar, especially the one about the older folks staying on until they die. They don’t want to move and I don’t blame them. Do they heat with natural gas??? I see very l;ittle wood around. Anyway, thanks for the great pics and the article. Pat
Hi Patrick – Thanks for your comment. Russia has been carrying out a large-scale ‘gasification’ program over the past decade to deliver natural gas to many distant villages (don’t remember the exact figure, but would impact a few million people). I remember reading a year or two ago an interview with one regional governor, who said that some villages were refusing to get hooked up to the gas network as it was too expensive, so they continued to use coal and wood. I have seen the gas pipelines being laid down and when you consider the distances and amount of metal needed, you would almost think that it would be cheaper to just move all the people in the village to the nearby town.