Antonina Lebedeva, 73, tends to the grave of her relatives at the church of the Intercession Baruta, R ussia Image Credit: NYT

With its winding dirt lanes framed by lilacs, quaint wooden houses and graceful onion-domed church, the tiny farming hamlet of Baruta was once a veritable postcard of Russian bucolic bliss.

No longer. More people lie in the tightly packed church cemetery than inhabit the village. Agriculture is slowly withering, too — the roofs of handsome stone barns have collapsed, while untamed forests invade the surrounding fields. With Russia’s natural population growth entering an extended period of decline, villages like Baruta are disappearing from across the country’s continental expanse.

“We have not had a wedding or a baptism for quite some time — we mostly have funerals,” said a grizzled resident, Alexander Fyodorov, 59, one of just 17 men left in what was a thriving collective of some 500 farmers.

President Vladimir Putin frequently cites hardy population growth as a pillar of restoring Russia’s place atop the global order. “Demography is a vital issue that will influence our country’s development for decades to come,” he said at an economic conference, also calling it an important gauge of social and economic well-being.

There is a pronounced gap, however, between the positive terms in which Putin and his advisers habitually discuss demographic trends and the reality of the numbers. Basically, Russians are dying faster than they are being born, demographers said. Given the general hostility towards immigration, the question is to what degree the population of 146 million, including annexed Crimea, might shrink.

The number of deaths exceeded the number of births in 2016 by a few thousand, and the prognosis for the years ahead is poor. From 2013-2015, extremely modest natural growth peaked in 2015 with just 32,038 more births than deaths. “The statistics and the propaganda are very different things,” said Natalya V. Zubarevich, an expert in social and political geography at Moscow State University.

On the world stage, Russia is flexing its newly restored military and political might in places like Syria and Ukraine, and is using cyber warfare to distort politics in the United States and Europe. But it often seems far less robust at home.

In particular, its rural areas — long considered the wellspring of Russian culture and identity — are dying.

Valentin Kurbatov, a specialist in village prose, moved to the Pskov region in northwest Russia in 1964. At that time, the entire region was known for cultivating flax, from which linen is made. “Linen has this heavenly blue colour, and when I came here the skies were reflected in the linen fields,” Kurbatov said over a long discussion that finally ended because he said it was too distressing. “Now the brush and swamps have returned. Even when you ride the train to Moscow, all you see is this black forest with nothing in it.”

Similar to a tyre with a slow leak, villages like Baruta, 550 kilometres northwest of Moscow in Pskov, began to deflate after the end of the Soviet Union. The school closed, and the church stopped holding regular services. The only gathering point left for the 160 year-round residents is a small general store that stocks plenty of vodka and a little bit of everything else.

“Just as fish seek deeper water, so people seek better places to live,” said Fyodorov, the farmer, showing the pithy rural wisdom that Russians hold dear. Russia’s demographic problem dates back at least 100 years, to the upheaval of the 1917 revolution, followed by Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. Both events curbed population growth, foreshadowing the devastating impact of the Second World War, when Russia lost some 20 million people. More recently, birthrates plunged in the years after the chaotic 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Demographic catastrophes

These sorts of demographic catastrophes return to stunt population growth two decades after they happen, as the number of women reaching their childbearing years drops. Russia is entering one of those periods now, recording 83,300 fewer births in the first five months of 2017 than a year ago.

In terms of population loss, Pskov, which borders Latvia and parts of Estonia, is among the worst hit regions in Russia. The population peaked at around 1.8 million in the 1920s, said Andrei Manakov, a demographer at Pskov State University. It is down to 642,000, and projected to drop to about 513,000 by 2033.

Researchers estimate that out of 8,300 area villages in 1910, 2,000 no longer have permanent residents. The region’s defence industry factories closed in the 1990s, but residents anticipated the area would become a gateway to Europe as the newly independent Baltic States next door joined the European Union.

The region failed to become a hub, however, and then came the 2014 crisis over Ukraine, which brought tense relations and interrupted trade.

“The border has become very unfriendly,” said Lev M. Shlosberg, an opposition politician in the local legislature. “Because of the politics, the region is turning into the boondocks.”

In Baruta, Dmitry Mikhailov, 40, is among the youngest full-time residents. Asked what life was like, he said, “Bread, but no butter,” adding, “It is not completely awful, and there is not much good.”

A few well-maintained wooden houses dot the village, painted bright colours and surrounded by small orchards. These belong to dachniki, descendants of village inhabitants who moved to St Petersburg or Moscow and turned their family homes into summer homes, or dachas. They keep countless villages on life support.

Some of Baruta’s satellite hamlets are deserted, or almost. Trees grow up through the old roads, rendering them impassable. Even local taxi drivers have trouble navigating, and mobile phone signals fade. In the cemetery of Baruta’s 18th-century church, headstones are heaped with mostly faded plastic flowers. Antonia M. Levedova, 73, worked surrounded by a cloud of mosquitoes, sweeping a winter’s worth of accumulated debris off the graves of her husband, grandmother, aunt and sister.

Of 50 houses in the neighbouring village of Seletskoe, where she was born, Levedova said, just three are inhabited all year, and a few more in the summer. It will soon disappear, she predicted.

“The young left, and the old die,” she said, shrugging with resignation.

The Pskov region has four maternity hospitals, down from 26 a decade ago. “We understand that the Pskov region is melting away,” Shlosberg said.

The trend is similar across Russia. Under the most optimistic projections by demographers, the population by 2050 will stay the same, about 146 million, if immigration from Central Asia — which has also been dropping — balances out low birthrates. Less optimistic figures put the population around 130 million by 2050, and the most pessimistic say fewer than 100 million.

“We understand that if the population is going to be small, Russia will not be able to play a role in world politics, in the economy,” said Manakov at Pskov State. “That is why the authorities want the birthrate to increase.”

Aside from fewer births, problems at the other end of life also hold down the population. Mortality rates in Russia have improved markedly in the last decade, yet remain stubbornly higher than in most Western countries. Average life expectancy just reached 72, a record for Russia, yet in the developed world it is often about 76 for men and 85 or higher for women.

The government created various incentives to have more children, in particular a one-time payment of about $7,500 for a second child. It also established a medal, the Order of Parental Glory, for seven or more children, which Putin awards to parents at a nationally televised Kremlin ceremony. But such measures have not spurred sufficient change.

The Pskov region has the worst ratio of births to deaths in the nation, Manakov said, with 18 people per 1,000 dying every year and just 11 per 1,000 being born.

Another demographer, Sergei V. Zakharov of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, said the military adventures and economic problems of the past two years undermined the confidence people need to reproduce, similar to what happened in the 1990s. “Life is unpredictable, so people have fewer children,” Zakharov said.

Kurbatov, the specialist in village writing, said he mourned the demise of rural Russia as the very death of the roots of the language and the unique Russian soul.

“Russia herself is a village from birth,” he said. “Everything that was best — the national way of thinking, the national economy — everything was rooted in our existence on the land.”

–New York Times News Service