Staunton, March 21 – The death of Russian villages is already an old if very sad story, but that country’s economic decline is now leading to the contraction of the population of many small and mid-sized cities, a development that has received little attention but that entails enormous social, economic and political problems.
In an article posted on Slon.ru, Sergey Zakharov says that all of Moscow’s big talk about increasing the amount of Russia’s housing stock largely ignores what he calls “an extremely unpleasant problem,” the contraction in size of many of the smaller and mid-sized cities of the county (slon.ru/economics/kak_vymiraet_rossiya_karta_opustevshikh_gorodov-920081.xhtml).
Moscow is continuing to grow despite the country’s demographic problems, “but in a majority of other regions of the country,” the population is falling and that in turn means that the challenge for the authorities is not the construction of new housing but rather tearing down existing stock so that it does not become a magnet for the homeless or the criminal.
But such deconstruction entails many things, including the elimination of infrastructure or its maintenance at higher per capita costs because of fewer users along particular routes. As a result, many cities and regions are cutting back on precisely that, and the result is the acceleration of depopulation because residents no longer have access to needed services.
That in turn leads to “an inevitable trend – the voluntary or forced concentration of the population and the liquidation of settlements and villages which are left with few prospects,” Zakharov suggests. And that creates serious problems even though at present, they “practically are not discussed.”
The 2010 census, he writes, recorded “a mass of settlements and [even] cities where the only thing that remained was the name!” the journalist continues. “They exist [only] on paper as administrative units, and many leaders at the district or even oblast level command territories in which there are no people.”
The most recent enumeration, Zakharov continues, found that 36 percent of the Russian Federation’s 153,124 villages now have fewer than ten residents each and that 15 percent of the country’s cities and towns have fewer than 3,000, figures that are much higher in the northwest and far east than elsewhere.
The villages are disappearing entirely, while smaller cities and settlements are simply declining in size, sometimes in radical ways. And this isn’t happening only in the Russian Far East, Zakharov says; it is taking place in oblasts just “200 to 300 kilometers from Moscow,” especially where transportation into the bigger cities makes commuting impossible.
Residents of the two capitals rarely see these places, but if one goes to areas just beyond their adjoining bedroom communities, he or she will find disappearing oblasts such as Tver, where “high mortality and low birthrates are leading to the depopulation of the region.” And if one looks further afield, the situation is even worse.
In Siberia and the Russian Far East, the problem is far advanced, the journalist points out. There, the cities and towns that had existed along the Trans-Siberian are emptying out, “and around them is a desert,” at least as far as population is concerned. In the future, Zakharov warns, the problems this will create for the country as a whole “will only grow.”This raises a critical question that as yet has found no answer, he suggests. “How can the social-economic and political integrity of the country be preserved with such a system of settlement, with a hypertrophic capital at the head, with a weakening body in the European part, and with too thin a skeleton beyond the Urals?”