Staunton, April 23 – The demographic decline of the ethnic Russians is leading to a hollowing out of predominantly Russian regions, leaving many of them with only a few cities surrounded by a decaying and increasingly empty countryside, according to the latest demographic data.
With the release of ever finer-grained data from the 2010 Russian census, statisticians in the regions are pointing to some disturbing trends. In Smolensk oblast, for example, “more than half of the villages of the region are dying,” with 58 percent having fewer than ten residents, and two urban settlements only a little more than 3000 residents.
According to the census, Vitaly Slovetsky writes in “Svobodnaya pressa” today, 36 percent of the villages in Russia have ten residents or fewer, with that figure rising to 46 percent in Central Federal District where there are now 20,000 villages and settlements marked on the map but without any residents at all (svpressa.ru/society/article/67168/).
The very worst case of the dying out of the countryside is found in Pskov, Slovetsky says in his review of the new data, but that northwestern oblast is closely followed by Tver, Tula, Ivanovo, and Ryazan. Overall, in regions where ethnic Russians form 90 percent or more of the population, the population is declining by 7 per 1,000 according to the 2010 census.
The farther a village or settlement is from a district center, the less well it is provided with services and the more rapidly the Russian villages are depopulating. Statisticians “’prophecy,’” Slovetsky continues, “that in place of the traditional Russian village, we will soon have lands without any people at all.”
The only parts of the country where population has grown in rural areas are those which are either economically developing like Tyumen or the Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous District or several of the North Caucasian republics like Daghestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya. “Not only Russians are dying out at a rapid rate; other indigenous peoples” are as well.
Declining fertility rates are only part of the problem, Slovetsky points out. It is intensified by a continuing decline in the average life expectancy of residents of the Russian Federation at such an extreme rate that demographers now call it “’hyper-mortality,’” largely the product of alcohol consumption and environmental factors.
With regard to Pskov, Vyacheslav Glazychev, a professor of the Moscow Institute of Architecture, says that five to seven years from now, only four cities will remain there “and nothing else.” These will be Pskov, Velikie Luki and Pechora and Dno because of its railway junction.
More than 12,000 residents of Pskov oblast are registered in the medical facilities of that district as suffering from alcohol dependency, and some 400 young people and children are being treated for drug dependence. At the same time, “up to 1800” Pskov oblast residents are dying each year from cancer. One Pskov official, Aleksandr Nesteruk, says that residents there “are dying more often from alcohol than from other illnesses.”
Yuri Krupnov, who oversees the Moscow Institute of Demography, Migration, and Regional Development, says that the central government could save the dying villages but prefers to “stimulate the outflow of population” from them “into the major cities.” Indeed, he says, “the expansion of Moscow is a death sentence to other regions like Pskov.”
The problems of rural depopulation are part of a broader problem, according to other demographic experts. Vladislav Zhukovsky, an economist says, that the overall population decline reflects “the absence of social lifts, the poverty of a significant portion of the population, the degradation of industry, the lack of jobs, the rise of the ethnic mafia, corruption and threats to life.”
All these things, the economist says, “do not allow [Russia’s] citizens to feel themselves masters in their own country.”
Anatoly Vishnevsky, director of the Institute of Demography of the Higher School of Economics, acknowledges that the villages are emptying out. In many of them, the only people remaining are elderly who “will soon leave this life.” And many villages exist now “only on paper.”
From one point of view, he says, this is a natural and nearly universal process, but it is one that in Russia has assumed “a catastrophic character which is completely emptying” the rural portion of the population. Russia’s native born population has been declining since 1994, Vishnevsky says, and will continue to fall until at least 2030 because of the age structure.
In recent years, this decline has been compensated by the influx of migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus, but “to the extent Russians are not very positively inclined toward gastarbeiters, [Russia] will continue to slide into a demographic pick ever more deeply” for another generation.