Thursday, May 19, 2011

Abandoning Hope. Pskov: The Russian Region "Left to Die"

I was checking my email last night and this article was the headline. Strange you never hear anything about Charlie's region.....And then this. I celebrate that God has given Charlie has been given a future in America, but it makes me sad for all the people and orphans still waiting....

Abandon All Hope: The Russian Region That's Been Left to Die
By SIMON SHUSTER / LOPOTOVA Simon Shuster / Lopotova – Mon May 9, 7:45 pm ET

Having tucked into his first bottle of vodka earlier than usual, Anatoly Zhbanov goes on an afternoon stroll to buy another one along the dirt road through Lopotova, a dying village on Russia's western edge, in the region of Pskov. It is mid-April, and clumps of snow are still melting at the roadside where Zhbanov, a local artist, stops to peer inside a lopsided cabin, the home of a local bootlegger. In the window stands a plastic jug filled with murky liquid, its neck sealed with a rubber glove that seems to be waving hello. "That's how you know it's ready," Zhbanov says. "The gas released from fermentation makes the glove inflate. We call that the Hitler Salute."
In the past few years, the region of Pskov has become famous in Russia for two interconnected blights: moonshine and depopulation. In 2006, a brew tainted with chemicals killed at least 15 people and poisoned hundreds, marking the first time a Russian region had to declare a state of emergency because of vodka. Last month, when the federal government released the census data collected in 2010, Pskov earned another claim to fame. It is dying out faster than any other region in Russia's heartland.

Of course the rest of the country isn't doing so well either. The population has dropped by 2.2 million people, or 1.6%, since the last census was taken in 2002. These were supposed to have been the glory years under Vladimir Putin, who has ruled Russia since 2000, first as president and now prime minister. And in that time, a handful of cities have indeed prospered, with Moscow becoming home to more billionaires than any other city in the world. But more than 6,000 villages have meanwhile turned into ghost towns, or as the census calls them: "population points without population." About 2,000 of those are in Pskov.

In just eight years, the region has lost 11.5% of its population, a rate of decline more often seen in times of war and famine. This might have been expected in Russia's permanently frozen north, like the region of Magadan, once home to the Gulag prison camps, where the population dropped 14.1% in that time. But Pskov lies on the border with the European Union, and the city of St. Petersburg, Putin's birthplace, is only 100 miles away.

In Soviet times, huge collective farms and machine works were based in Pskov. Village life thrived, and the main city was still famed for nobler things, like fending off the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century. But traveling the region's backroads now inspires the creepy feeling that a plague has just passed through. Every few miles a cluster of huts emerges from behind a hill, and most of them turn out to be abandoned, their floorboards warped and splintered, releasing a smell of decay. The fields are overgrown, and old grain elevators tower over them like enormous ghosts - landmarks to Russia's demographic catastrophe.

So by local standards, the village of Lopotova is doing fairly well. The villagers say it still has a few hundred residents (down from about a thousand ten years ago) as well as its own grocery store, where the saleswoman spends most of the day ringing up liquor sales on an abacus. No surprise that the most popular item is vodka, the cheapest half-liter bottle going for 68 rubles, or $2.25. Far from everyone can afford it.

Behind the store, at the end of the unmarked village road, Zhbanov comes across a group of five young men in their 20s sitting on a log in front of a sheet-metal shack. They are not homeless, but they look it. In a week or so, the weather will let them pick mushrooms and berries to sell on the side of the road, the steadiest form of employment they have had since 2003, when the local farm went bankrupt. Aside from that, they can forage for scrap metal or go talk to Zhbanov, who makes enough selling his paintings in St. Petersburg to give them a handout from time to time.

One of the men, a native of Lopotova named Alik Matveev, scratches his head when asked the last time he had seen any sign of the government. "I can't really remember," he says. "There's no hospital, and our school closed in 2006. I guess that was a government building."

That was also the year Putin imposed the policy of per-capita financing for education, which meant that schools with too few students could not afford to stay open. In many sparsely populated regions, this crippled the education system, and young families fled to the cities to put their children in school. Many ended up in Moscow, boosting the city's population since 2002 by 10.9% to 11.5 million people, according to the census.

On April 20, Putin announced a plan to spend more than $50 billion through 2015 on projects to alleviate the demographic crisis. A huge portion of the money would be used to try to encourage families to have more children by offering them one-time payments. But having a baby requires that parents feel secure in their overall standard of living, from medical care to education and employments, says Galina Vyatkina, head doctor at the main prenatal hospital in Pskov. "So offering handouts can only do so much," she says. "It has to be a complex approach."

The new earmarks are also unlikely to change the government's broader policy of urbanization, which is driven by the fact that basic services are much easier for the state to provide when the population is massed in huge apartment blocks. Most villages have thus been left to fend for themselves until they either disperse or die out, says Lev Shlosberg, a political activist in Pskov. "It is a semi-official death sentence for rural communities." (See more on Putin's billionaire boys judo club.)

The regional governor, Andrei Turchak, concedes that many more villages will have to disappear. There are more than 4,000 of them across the region with a population of less than 10 people, he says. "That usually means just one or two old folks living in the backwoods ... We cannot provide for everyone."

But Turchak's connections have brought Pskov at least some relief since he was appointed by the Kremlin in 2009. A baby-faced ex-wrestling champion, Turchak, 35, is the son of one of Putin's old friends from St. Petersburg and shares the Prime Minister's passion for judo. Both of them are black belts, and in the clan politics of Russia, these ties can help a lot.

Already Turchak has gotten the Kremlin to promise a new state university for Pskov, as well as the region's first cardiovascular hospital, which is a godsend for a place where 67% of the men die of heart disease years before retirement. But the trick will be finding people to work there. With no place to train doctors, the hospital will have to bring in some 400 specialists from other regions, and it has been hard enough, Turchak says, to find farmhands willing to work in Pskov, let alone heart surgeons.

"People know that working a tractor means getting up at 5:30 in the morning, washing yourself, getting dressed, staying sober the whole time, and working a full day at the wheel," Turchak says. "The mentality here is such that people ask themselves, 'Why would I humiliate myself like that?'"

That doesn't seem far from the truth in Lopotova. Around sundown, one of Matveev's friends passes by, drunk and stumbling, having finished a day driving a combine a few towns over. "There goes one of our working stiffs," Matveev calls out to him, and the rest of the young men burst out laughing before they settle back onto their log.

Sober again, Zhbanov shakes their hands and starts the walk back to his cottage, which doubles as his studio. He turns on the lights, takes a long drink of vodka, and begins to dig through his paintings. At 67, he has already outlived the average man in Pskov by nearly a decade, which he has spent recording images of life in Lopotova. In one of his works, a bleary-eyed woman sips vodka and smokes beside a baby in a cradle. In another, Putin floats over a village hell-scape wearing his judo suit. And in several of Zhbanov's paintings, a jug of moonshine hovers in the background, giving the Hitler Salute.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, a very sad story. As you said, I'm glad we have our babies out of there!