As Villages Die, the Russian Heartland Empties Out

ISUPOVO, Russia, February 5, 2004 : He is the last man left, ragged and forgotten in his two-room house, and when he dies this little village lost in the snows of central Russia will die too.

The timbers of his walls are cracking and he has hung coats over his broken windows to keep out the wind. He bustles, muttering, through useless clutter, heating a tin cup of tea.

The old man, Vladimir Bykov, 76, once lived in a pretty hillside village with a graceful church, a pond and a cluster of about 30 houses where everybody knew more than they should about everybody else.

One after another, his neighbors moved away over the years in search of something better, leaving behind the sagging shells of their homes and the silence of the winter.

The departed are part of a mass migration that has emptied out more than half the country’s villages, the heart of Russian life for centuries. In modern Russia, cities are growing; the nation’s population is shrinking.

The movement from the villages has been under way for decades, but has found a new impetus since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The collective farms, state enterprises and defense-industry plants that provided rural jobs and services have shrunk or disappeared, leaving stranded settlements behind.


Photo by Seth Mydans

Of the country’s 155,000 villages, according to the latest census, 37,000 are home to 50 people or fewer. About 35,000 have dwindled to no more than 10. Some 13,000 have emptied out altogether.

Still part of the official municipal structure, some of these ghost villages, like Isupovo, continue to be supplied with electricity. The empty village of Troitskoye, a few miles away, had electricity until thieves stole the cables to sell.

Here in the Kostroma region, 200 miles northeast of Moscow, government maps still show dozens of these villages, along with the notation, ”Uninhabited.” Only their names remain, like a song of the past: Polovinovo, Severny, Ulshma, Trassa, Ust-Sennaya, Steklyanny Zavod, Osurka, Igoshino.

For those people who have not yet left, the hard life of the countryside has become even harder as nearby shops and schools and clinics and post offices have closed down.

For Mr. Bykov, the nearest working well is more than a mile away. He breaks off bits of his neighbors’ empty houses to burn for fuel.

Almost all the villages around Isupovo are shrinking, and almost all their young people are gone, leaving aging pensioners behind. For the most part, these dying villages are populated by the dying.

In Dyakovo, where eight families remain, Aleksandr Rukaveshnikov, 77, will be the last of his line to live in the house where his father and grandfather lived.

”All the kids have gone,” he said. ”Everyone else is dying off. After I die, and my wife dies, there will be nobody.”

Amid the echoes of their past, he and his wife, Antonina, 81, nestle alone in the frozen night watching Brazilian soap operas on television.

In nearby Kozino, where the cheese factory closed down years ago, just two neighbors are left, feuding over who has the right to cut the hay.

In Domnino, across the swamp from Isupovo, the Russian Orthodox convent, locked up tight like a fortress, houses most of the remaining population.

The only person for miles around who has a steady job is Nikolai Kuznetsov, who drives a snowplow, clearing roads into disappearing villages.

For people here who need to mail a letter or make a telephone call or buy a pair of shoes, the district center is a small town called Susanino, a long walk and then a short bus ride away.

There is a school in Susanino and a tiny cinema and a government building that people call the White House. There are threadbare shops with fantasy names like Hope, Fortune, Seagull, Sweet Tooth and Gourmand.

Their half-empty shelves portray the strange imbalances of Russia’s post-Soviet economy. There are the basics — sausages, bread, toothbrushes, vodka. Beside them, for a successful few, are cheeky displays of pineapples, kiwi fruits, grapes and coconuts.

The most cosmopolitan of the residents are the small boys who, for 50 cents an hour, play computer games on a small television screen, virtual compatriots of children in the distant world outside.

For Mr. Bykov, alone in Isupovo, the outside world is a landscape of black and white where a fog of clouds and snow dulls colors and swallows the bare branches of trees.

It is a hostile world, as he sees it, peopled by fascists, bandits, thieves and conniving officials.

”Dying village?” he said to a rare visitor recently. ”The hell with them. It’s the government that’s dying. They can take it and shove it.They’re all fascists just like they were fascists before.”

At night the bandits he calls two-legged beasts prowl the empty villages for loot. ”When people die,” he said, ”they climb in and steal their icons.”

He only visits the next village, Melniki, to pick up his pension and buy a loaf and a bottle, hurrying home quickly to escape drunken bullies.

In his younger years, Mr. Bykov was a soldier, a janitor and a plumber, and the world wasn’t such a bad place.

”When the collective farm was here you could get a sled or roofing or any kind of nail you wanted,” he said. ”Now everything is coming apart. That’s all. Little by little it’s all coming apart.”

He has two daughters and a brother who he guesses live in Moscow. He hasn’t seen them in years. It is $30 to Moscow and $30 back — twice his monthly pension.

”I just stay here,” he said. ”Where am I going to go? If I leave they’ll just put me in the nuthouse.”

He walked his visitor to his sagging gate.

”That’s it,” he said, staring at nothing. ”That’s my story. Nothing good about it.”

Copyright The New York Times