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The death of the Russian village

Traditionally Russia’s agricultural land was subdivided into a patchwork of villages and fields, interspersed by forest and marsh. Now the villages are deserted and crumbling: the state closes them down, often on a whim, and young people leave to find work elsewhere. Matilda Moreton tells the tragic story based on fieldwork in the Russian North.  

During my five years of travelling in the Russian North (2006-2011), on the trail of its last remaining wooden churches, I heard stories describing the fate of the villages that became as familiar to me as they were tragic. The disappearance of churches throughout Russia is a tragedy of huge proportions in itself, but the surrounding tragedy is even greater: the demise of country villages far and wide has been taking place throughout the whole vastness of the former Soviet Union for decades.  Sadly, in recent years the situation has deteriorated still further. My own travels opened my eyes to the problem of dying villages in Russia’s northern regions of Vologda, Archangel and Murmansk,  and the Republic of Karelia. 

These are snippets of what I heard from villagers in four villages on the northern shores of Lake Onega in Karelia:

  • ‘There used to be 23 houses here and another 13 across the field, now only two remain, with a few summer visitors. In winter there is no one here at all.’ (Natalia Mikhailovna, Ust’ Yandoma)

‘There were thriving collective farms here, fields of barley and rye, cattle. There was a school, fishing and forestry collectives… They started herding people into towns in the 60s. There were still cows here into the 80s. But now everything has gone, even the fish. In the winter there is no one.’ (Larissa Leonidovna, Yandomozero)

‘There were four villages here, working together in a thriving collective farm. Every kind of crop was grown: barley; rye; wheat; peas… and we grew potatoes for the soldiers in Murmansk. There were hundreds of animals: pigs; cows; horses. I left for the army in 1962 and when I returned there were only ten people left. Now it is only the two of us, me and my daughter.’ (Nikolai, Vegoruksa)

‘Two years ago, people had 3 cows each. Now there are only nine in the entire village. No one brings hay for the winter any more, and we have no horses to go and fetch it. All the young have gone away, only the very oldest remain.’ (Klavdia Mikhailovna, Kosmozero.)

Destruction of churches and villages 

In so many places in the Russian North, village life has all but disappeared. It seems that farming is no longer a sustainable way of life and the young have left to find a living elsewhere. The land, once busy with cows and tractors, is now uncultivated, overgrown, reclaimed by bog and forest. Former ‘millionaires’ (prize-winning) collective farms stand empty, their vast granaries and cow sheds rotting away in the same state of neglect as the villages themselves – now ghostly, almost totally empty – beautiful houses, schools and exquisite churches all collapsed or collapsing.

An abandoned dwelling. According to a 2010 survey, there are a total of 36,700 villages in Russia with fewer than 10 inhabitants.

The demise of the villages and that of the churches are interlinked but stem from quite different Soviet government policies. While I was collecting the histories of the churches, I was constantly reminded of the depopulation and disintegration of the villages around them.

The Church as an institution was outlawed by the Bolsheviks in one of their first steps to reinvent Russia. The ardent revolutionaries closed and destroyed churches with a vengeance during the 1920s and 1930s. Priests and clergy were shot, crosses thrown from the rooftops, icons and valuables ripped from within and burnt on public bonfires or simply chopped up for reuse as firewood. Persecution continued throughout Soviet times. Many churches were used as farm stores or clubs. They also collapsed through neglect: fire, whether arson, lightning strike or careless cigarette end, often contributed to the disappearance of wooden churches in particular.

While the churches are casualties of the Soviet desire to stamp out religious life, the villages themselves, as an economic entity, are the casualties of an attempt by the State to increase agricultural output.

The population of farming men was reduced by a third during the ‘Great Patriotic’ War [WWII] and further decimated in some areas by famine. During the collectivisation and accompanying ‘dekulakisation’ [Rn. kulak: rich peasant] programmes of the 1930s, the peasantry was decimated; millions of people were deported and shot.  

Profit and loss

From the 1930s to 1960s the collective farm dominated and shaped Russian villages. In the late fifties and early sixties, under Nikita Khrushchev, the principle of ‘profit’ was applied to farming in an attempt to cover increased production costs. Villages were assessed in terms of profitability, and then pronounced either perspektivnie (with prospects) or neperspektivnie (without prospects) accordingly. If a village was unlucky enough to be deemed ‘without prospects’, the wheels of destruction began to roll.  

Natalia Mikhailovna talks about the demise of the village of Ust' Yandoma (Zaonezh'e peninsular), Karelia

Firstly and most catastrophically, the collective farm would be closed. As a result of this closure, funds for improvements on local roads and to supply electricity and plumbing systems for the village, as well as for schools, shops, medical and cultural services would be diverted to the nominated ‘villages with prospects for the future’.

With country roads unmaintained and vital infrastructure (gas, water, electricity) compromised, the village would gradually become less and less viable, the post-office, school and shops would be closed, until finally the electricity would be cut and the residents forced to leave. They would be resettled in so-called ‘agrocentres’, often in blocks of flats, in the larger perspektivnie villages or towns, leaving behind their family homes, many of their treasured possessions and their native farmland. It is no wonder they turned to alcohol.

Although the aim of centralising collective farming (turning the so-called kolkhozes or collective farms into the bigger sovkhozes or state farms) was to maximise production, the result was in fact its loss – farming became less efficient and the land located beyond the easy reach of the new sovkhozes was abandoned. Pockets of farmland between areas of swamp and forest, which had been cultivated and used as pasture for centuries, were now left to grow wild. The new system failed to take into account the patchwork nature of the Russian landscape.

Villages with a future – or not? 

For centuries Northern European Russia was a thriving and prosperous area, exporting furs, fish, dairy products and other local commodities. In 1963 Russia began to import bread, and between 1970-80 its import of grain multiplied 14 times and meat 5 times. While the historic northern pasturelands stayed empty, the import of butter increased no less than 184 times.  

The programme of ‘Liquidation of Villages with no Prospects’ continued through the 1960s and 1970s, affecting hundreds of thousands of villages and its effects are still felt today. The statistics beggar belief. In the Nechernozem’ya region of northern European Russia i.e. not the productive Chernozem’ya  or ‘Black Earth Belt’ Region of Central and Southern Russia, during the 1960s alone, a total of 5,000 collective farms were closed, with the resulting disappearance of about 235,000 villages. 

In the north-western part of this area, approximately one third of villages have been lost. From 1930 to 2002, the population in the villages of Archangel Region has almost halved (from 24,000 to 13,000). Between 1939 and 1970, in Karelia alone, 1,904 villages were closed – nearly two thirds of the total. It is estimated that in 20 years over 60 million people have left their condemned villages. According to a survey in 2010, there were a total of 36,700 villages in Russia with fewer than 10 inhabitants.

For centuries Northern European Russia was a thriving and prosperous area, with a crucial network of trading posts along its rivers, and exporting furs, fish, dairy products and other local commodities to other parts of Russia as well as to Europe. In 1963 Russia began to import bread, and between 1970-80 its import of grain multiplied 14 times and meat 5 times. While the historic northern pasturelands stayed empty, the import of butter increased no less than 184 times.  

i. Virma

On my travels I visited Virma, on the White Sea coast of Archangel Region. 

In 1959 Virma’s collective farm Truzhenik [Rn. labourer] surpassed its goals by 70% and yet in 1960 Virma was pronounced a ‘village with no future prospects’ and Truzhenik was closed. Funds dried up and the population gradually shrank to one tenth of its heyday number. The church is locked. The school has been closed since 1972, and now there are no children permanently resident. The village shop, which opens irregularly and only for a few hours a day, often lacks such basic foodstuffs as bread and milk. Bread is brought to the village twice a week but not at all if there is deep snow. Over 90% of the inhabitants are pensioners. The population doubles in summer, mainly with children visiting their grandparents. Summer visitors usually stay from the time of potato planting in the spring, working hard growing vegetables until the potato harvest in September. There is no indoor plumbing or gas. Electricity has only been supplied to Virma since the 1970s. One woman told me that even in August she has to get up early and light the fire with wood to take the chill mist out of the air, and as there is no mains water supply, she has to go 4 km up river every day to collect fresh water, at the first waterfall.

ii. Sholomya

Two visits to the empty village of Sholomya near Krasnoborsk, in Archangel Region, gave cause for hope. Now living in Krasnoborsk, villagers shared their painful stories of evacuation and years of nostalgia but these were followed by the news of recent regeneration, led by the determined grandson of an original villager, with a team of old veterans. Sholomya was not just one village but a conglomeration of more than 20 hamlets spread along a fertile, sheltered valley, containing two big farms (khutora) and four collectives. It had its own mill, forge, school, shop and post office. As described by one former resident, Vitalii: ‘the people suffered terribly during the dekulakisation of the ’30s of course - dozens of families were sent to labour camps, but they lived well – they had over 3,000 cows’. 

 

A group of amateur restorers (original villagers) in the abandoned village of Sholomya, near Krasnoborsk, Archangel Region

 Then in the 1970s, Sholomya fell foul of the ‘State Programme for the Liquidation of Villages with no Prospects’. First the post office was shut down, then the shop and the school. When the water and electricity were cut off, the entire community of some 1,200 people had no choice but to move into Krasnoborsk. Some people moved their houses into town, taking them apart, transporting them on lorries and then rebuilding them. Now Sholomya is deserted, the houses in ruins, the paths overgrown. 

But Misha and the old villagers are making regular trips back to the village to restore the churches in the valley. Not having received a grant of any sort, they collect materials and funds to carry out the work themselves in their spare time. We joined them one Sunday to see the restoration. Half way up the crumbling bell-tower, one of the amateur restorers, Sergei Vasilievich told the story of the man who agreed to saw the crosses off the church roof in exchange for six packets of cigarettes. A week later he was dead. As a postscript to his account, he added sadly: ‘It is easy to wipe things outbut not so easy to restore them.’ 

A ray of hope?

Sadly the ‘wiped out’ Russian villages have not been restored and are still dying out today. Their future looks bleak. In many parts of the far North, villages are still being threatened with closure. In Komi last year 250 villages were pronounced neperspektivnie, along with their populations, totalling about 8,000 people. But it is not only the remote areas of the North that are affected, villages are dying even within a few hundred miles of Moscow. During Putin’s time in office, when Moscow has become home to more billionaires than any other city in the world, it is estimated that around 6,000 villages have died. According to official figures, over 3,000 of them became deserted in 2010 alone. In January this year a new law stipulated that a village may be closed only with the agreement of all the villagers.

Villages are dying even within a few hundred miles of Moscow. During Putin’s time in office,it is estimated that around 6,000 villages have died. According to official figures, over 3,000 of them became deserted in 2010 alone.

The post-perestroika period of the 1980 and 90s added pressure to life in rural communities, with the collapse of Communism leading to the collapse of many collective farms and a mass exodus of young people to towns. Sadly recent governments have done nothing to alleviate the situation, in fact government input seems to be dwindling, not growing. It is a small consolation perhaps, that new freedoms have encouraged some private initiatives, so that the dedicated old men of Sholomya are able to visit their childhood homes and rebuild their ruined churches without interference from the state. In 2007 the former residents of Sholomya celebrated the 250th anniversary of the village. A grand reunion took place, of original inhabitants of the village from all over Russia, from as far as Siberia, and even America. In this rare instance, a ghost village may be coming back to life.