A Russian Tragedy

Once soulful and historic, the Russian village is dying. Will the state survive?

Photography by Caroyln Drake

July 2006. A marshrutka, or public minivan, pulls out of Yuzhnaya metro station, headed for the coal-mining town of Shchekino, two hours south of Moscow. Soon it is zipping through birch forest and meadows spattered with wildflowers. The soil here, in the oblast of Tula, is rich, but little farming is going on. Instead, gated communities of large, close-packed modern dachas, the weekend retreats of the New Russians (as they are called), are reclaiming abandoned fields. A sumptuous glossy magazine I flipped through in Moscow had an advertisement for one of these new developments with a photograph of a man in a business suit mowing his lawn in front of his palatial apricot stucco dacha. The magazine is intended for the new elite, the small percentage of the population who own almost everything and have near-total control over the economy. Many of them are former members of the kgb or the Federal Security Service (fsb), the kgb’s principal successor after perestroika, who have reinvented themselves as capitalists or high government officials since the collapse of Communism in 1991. The same amoral, cold-blooded bastards who betrayed the Communist experiment are now betraying the democratic experiment. When Russians are bad, they’re right up there with the worst of them.

Thirty-three-year-old Ramon, one of the passengers, works as a security guard for one of these biznesmeni. He is going home for a few days to visit his wife and two daughters. “I don’t know what kind of work my boss is into,” he tells me, “but he’s paying me 15,000 rubles a month (about $665), four times what I can make in Shchekino.”

Shchekino has been going downhill since the coal gave out in 1994. “Seventy percent of Shchekino is over fifty years old. We are dying,” Ramon goes on. This is true of rural Russia in general. Tens of thousands of villages have been abandoned in the last five years. Further south and away from Moscow, there are villagers living on as little as $50 a month. Whole regions of Siberia have been depopulated. In the far north, the population has declined by one-third since 1989. Russia’s population is declining by 560,000 people a year. The average life expectancy for a man is only fifty-eight years, lower even than Iraq’s. The villages are dying, the people are dying, the population is dying. Russia’s sixteen-year-old capitalist democracy has produced a rural-exodus crisis, a demographic crisis, and a health crisis. The country meets many of the criteria of a failed state. It is not taking care of its citizens.

Another passenger is also a security guard in Moscow, and a third man works on an oil rig in the Barents Sea, two months on, two months off. He, too, is coming home to his family. Then there is a woman who works as a computer programmer in Shchekino and her daughter. They seem more comfortably off — part of a middle class that makes up roughly 20 percent of Russia’s population and is the best hope for the country. The rest of the population might be in desperate straits, but no one in the marshrutka is blaming the Putin government. They think Putin is an enormous improvement over the drunken Yeltsin or even the reformer Gorbachev, “who sold Russia to the Americans,” as the woman says. “Putin is a stabilizer.”

What do Russians see in this man, who was the director of the fsb before he took office in 1999 and seems to have ice in his veins, I wonder. How could someone who seems so bent on turning Russia back into a police state be so immensely popular? Don’t they remember the seventy years of horror they suffered?

I personally embrace Vladimir Vladimirovich enthusiastically on both cheeks and hope he lives up to his people’s admiration and expectations, having no interest in becoming the latest of dozens of critics of the regime to be rubbed out. The last was Ivan Safronov, who fell to his death from his fifth-storey window on March 2. A military correspondent for the daily Kommersant, Safronov was working on a story about the Kremlin’s furtive sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Iran and jet fighters to Syria.

Just one day earlier, Paul Joyal, a US expert on Russian intelligence, was shot by two men in his driveway. He had just accused the Russian government, on nbc’s Dateline, of poisoning former kgb agent Alexander Litvinenko in London the previous November. Litvinenko had blown the whistle on murders and corruption in the Putin regime. He was exposed to a minute amount of a little-known, lethally radioactive isotope, polonium-210, which took twenty-one days to kill him.

The month before that Anna Politkovskaya, who had written about the torture of Chechens by the Russian army in the biweekly Novaya Gazeta, was gunned down in her Moscow apartment elevator. And two years before that Paul Klebnikov, the Moscow editor of Forbes Russia, was shot dead in the street. Klebnikov had just begun to investigate the 1995 murder of a Russian TV journalist, Vladislav Listyev.

As a writer of Russian ancestry, it has been impossible to ignore the extensive coverage of the assassinations of these colleagues and compatriots. While there is no direct evidence linking Putin to the killings, and they were already happening years before he took office — although, if the regime was involved, the fsb, which Putin was once head of, would presumably have carried out some of them — they represent an alarming trend. Let’s just say there’s no disputin’ Putin. My people sure seem to like their leaders brutal and ruthless. What does this woman mean by “a stabilizer,” I wonder. Like Ivan the Terrible, Tsar Nicholas I, and Stalin? Maybe the real question is, what is the subtext? Stabilize for what? So Putin can return Russia to her former greatness and usher in a Fifth Empire (following the Kievan, Muscovite, Romanoff, and Soviet) — a new form of parliamentary absolutism for political scientists to ponder: totalitarian democracy. Backed by state control over the massive oil-and-gas sector, is Putin simply providing the theatre, the demonstration of being in total command, with the power over his subjects that démocratie à la russe and historical precedent require?

Shchekino’s one hotel is booked solid by “sportsmen,” so I take a five-minute cab ride to Yasnaya Polyana, where Leo Tolstoy’s estate is. At the end of a long drive through a dark forest of ancient birch and lindens, there is a hotel that used to be a rest home. The roof of the central columned section, built in the fifties in the Russian imperial style, has caved in, but one of its wings has rooms. I take one for two nights. The receptionist is a local blond beauty named Victoria. The chambermaids are a voluptuous girl from Bulgaria and a slender, raven-haired stunner from Tashkent. Every tenth young woman in Russia is a knockout. Such lush, fertile creatures, such compelling, unfathomable eyes — but they aren’t having children. This is one of three components of Russia’s demographic problem. The birth rate has fallen to 1.3 children per woman, far short of the 2.2 needed to stabilize the population. Only 12 million women are in the most fecund age bracket, twenty to twenty-nine, and in a few years there will be only 8 million. They aren’t reproducing because most Russians cannot even think about having a family. There is no social infrastructure — schools, health clinics, buses, playgrounds, etc. In many rural communities and urban neighbourhoods, the proletariat has been abandoned.

The second part of the demographic problem is the collapse of a health care system that was one of the best things about the ussr. Epidemics of tuberculosis, hepatitis, hiv/aids, and other communicable diseases are spreading out of control, and people are dying simply because they are not being treated.

Only the New Russians can afford health care. But death rates are also skyrocketing among working-age males due to alcoholism, drug use, tuberculosis, violence, and suicide. Forty-two thousand Russians a year are being killed by samogon, home-brewed alcohol, and other intoxicating beverages like eau de cologne, aftershave, and cleaning fluids. This is the third part of the demographic crisis: a pattern of self-destruction and cultural demoralization similar to that of native people on reservations in North America. Demographers predict that in twenty years there may not be enough Russian citizens to staff the military or the workforce.

There is no restaurant at the hotel, so I walk fifteen minutes back out through the forest and down the highway to a trucker’s café. The café has no customers, only the boyfriend of the waitress, who is watching the Russian version of Supernanny on a grainy black-and-white TV. Many young women from the countryside work as nannies for the children of biznesmeni in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and the men are their bodyguards. Too many of the women prostitute themselves to pimps who promise to get them to the West, and those who make it there often end up as sex slaves.

The owner of the café, a bald, fleshy Armenian, upon hearing that he has a foreign customer, comes out of the kitchen and sits with me. He has been in Yasnaya Polyana since 1982, when ethnic strife forced him to leave his home in Tashkent. “To tell the truth,” he says, “during Communism the people knew that if they got sick, they’d be taken care of. Now 60 percent of our girls have syphilis and other venereal diseases,” he says, wildly exaggerating what is nonetheless a hideous reality. “Under socialism it was not like this. But you weren’t allowed to own property. And now I have my own café. Even with all the problems, I prefer the way it is now.

“This land is rich,” he says. “The problem is that Russians don’t work. They only drink. If this land belonged to the Armenians, if they were living here . . .” He runs his forefingers across his chin, suggesting how prosperous they would be.

On the way back to the hotel, I cut through the woods. Passing the charred remains of bonfires littered with empty bottles of samogon, I wade through a meadow of thistles and yarrow up to my nose. Mountain ashes sag with scarlet berry clusters. The brief Russian summer is lush and intense. I come to a path that skirts a village beside the hotel. An old man approaches. He has a white mastiff straining on a leash, looking as if it would tear me apart if he turned it loose. The man passes without a greeting or even a nod. No dobryi vecher or anything. None of the old nomenklaturi, I have noticed, give you the time of day. I wonder what horrors this man carries inside him, what horrors he has seen and maybe even participated in. I pick a sprig of wild mint and give it to Victoria, who is pulling a twelve-hour shift at the reception desk and is glad to have the work.

Flicking on the TV in my room, I watch a documentary about a gang of neo-fascist punk nationalisti in St. Petersburg. They have shaved heads and tattoos on their bare, thick upper arms, and they are mugging and stomping people on the sidewalk and inside the metro. The camera operator is a few feet away, complicit in the assault. The gang is committing these atrocities for the camera. This is followed by a police show in which a young woman is brutally raped in a vacant, rubble-strewn lot in Moscow. This is the urban life that beckons young people from the villages.

Most new arrivals to Moscow find lodging in the Kafkaesque labyrinth of khrushchevki that rings the capital. They rent rooms in mouldering concrete buildings constructed in the fifties, during the premiership of Nikita Khrushchev, with their dark, dangerous, urine-stinking stairwells. I first had a taste of these faceless habitats in 1993 when, on assignment for Esquire magazine, I tracked down the kgb “honey-pot” who seduced Navajo marine guard Clayton Lonetree at the American embassy, getting him twenty-five years in Leavenworth for the information he gave her.

But life in the low-rent parts of Moscow and St. Petersburg has always been grim. Recall the squalor of Raskolnikov’s digs in Crime and Punishment. I curl up with Turgenev’s Nest of the Gentry, a novel about romantic anguish on the country estates of Tula in the 1830s. The tale is like Pride and Prejudice, but more lyrical, and the suffering of the characters, being Russian, is more exquisite. The happiness the two young lovers are able to achieve lasts no longer than the lush, intense Russian summer. It seems like such an innocent, oblivious world. The servants are the servants, the serfs are the serfs.

No one questions this.

In the morning I visit Tolstoy’s estate. The main house is relatively modest compared to the country homes of the New Russians. One of the few homes not destroyed during the Bolshevik Revolution or its awful aftermath, it is full of books. “Tolstoy was a horoshi muzhik, normalni, a regular guy, salt of the earth,” the Armenian told me last night. In his declining years, in the first decade of the twentieth century, Tolstoy dressed like a peasant, with a scraggly beard and a linen roubashka. He lamented the rural exodus that began as Russia industrialized, observing that “millions of people — men, women, and children — working ten, twelve, or fifteen hours a day, are being transformed into machines and perishing in factories that manufacture unnecessary and harmful gadgets, while more and more of the villages become deserted.” The dying of Russia’s villages is nothing new. But this latest die-off could be terminal.

The current rural exodus was already under way when I revisited my paternal grandmother’s estate in Ukraine in 1995. Photographs from the 1890s show that there was a village of several hundred thatched khati, small white-washed stucco cottages below the old Tartar ramparts where the big, columned house (blown to smithereens in the civil war) stood. When I first visited in 1982, Shideyevo, as the estate was called, had become the Maxim Gorky Collective Farm, and there were only a few dozen khati in the village. The collective farm collapsed with Communism and the Soviet empire in 1991, and four years later there were only a few old people left. Today, most of the villages in Poltava, the oblast in Ukraine where Shideyevo was, lie empty. Even Dikanka, the village made famous by Nikolai Gogol in Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, is deserted.

I catch a marshrutka to Shchekino and negotiate with the taxi men at the bus stop for a round trip to Lipki, striking a deal with a man in a yellow skull-cap named Victor Orlov. “Orlov — that’s a famous name,” I say as we head out of town. “Wasn’t one of Catherine the Great’s lovers an Orlov?”

“My people were counts long ago,” Victor tells me. “But I only know three generations. My father worked in the shakti [the mines], and so did his father. My great-grandfather worked for a church on the Tolstoy estate.”

The stretch between Shchekino and Lipki is a particularly grim rural dead zone. We pass a pile of rubble that Victor says was a railroad station. “Perestroika destroyed everything,” he complains. “Where is this democracy? It stops at the outer ring of Moscow.”

We continue through the little village of Socialisticheski, whose Communist-era Palace of Culture is in ruins. It wasn’t destroyed like the country homes of the nobles, it just wasn’t kept up. Most of the houses along the road are abandoned or falling down. They are built mainly of brick and are architecturally and aesthetically uninteresting, unlike the centuries-old izbi (long log houses) in the villages I passed through last summer in the oblast of Ryazan, 240 kilometres to the east. Those villages, too, were down to a few old babushkas.

The landscape on either side of the road is flat and open and blighted with discoloured khaki slag heaps. Down in a lovely valley is a huge, abandoned coal plant, a fantastic maze of rusting pipes, conveyor belts, and smokestacks. Another monumental feat of mechanical engineering is decomposing on a hilltop. There are monstrous, toxic industrial ruins and abandoned townlets, where the workers lived, all over the former ussr. Armenia is full of them, as is the sliver of the Black Sea coast that still belongs to Russia.

We drive through several acres of garbage — bottles, old tires, all manner of refuse. “Welcome to Lipki,” Victor says. “There is a dump, but the people are too lazy to take their trash to it. They just throw it anyhow on the edge of town, because there is no order.”

Lipki is a grid of mouldering stuccoed brick barracks built in the fifties to house coal miners and their families. The streets are lined with lindens, mitigating its grimness, but only slightly. We stop at the town hall to talk to the mayor. Several sunken-eyed men in filthy parkas, looking like homeless winos, are standing around on one side of the building. The mayor, a large, gracious woman named Gaena Patileeva, tells us that Lipki once had a population of 20,000. Now there are 9,000. “The air here still has a radioactivity from Chernobyl [560 kilometres to the south]. Life was good in Lipki until the mines closed. There was work, a technical college, people were happy. We need investment, we need a factory here. Then there will be housing for young people, and children will come.”

In front of the town hall a young mother wheels a pram containing her second child. Her husband owns a store in town. I ask her why she has children when so many of her peers don’t. “Anybody who wants to can,” she says. “They just don’t want to. Many young women want to be free.” So it is not just that they don’t want to bring children into a world that is so horrible. Russia’s at a stage when most of the young women who can are opting for a career or are emigrating. Raising families is the furthest thing from their minds. And what happens to a society that loses its upwardly mobile women and its mothers? Does it revert to the barbarism that Russians know so well?

In one part of Lipki — a cluster of two dozen ramshackle houses lining a dirt road — a shirtless man named Sasha, with a big belly and a round, genial face, proudly shows us his garden. It’s maybe a quarter of an acre, bursting with cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbages, carrots, onions, watermelons, raspberries. He has enough vegetables and fruit to pickle and get his family through the winter. Most of Russia’s vegetables are grown in these little kitchen gardens. In this land of unrivalled centralized planning, they are keeping people going.

Sasha takes us down to a pond fed by a spring where everybody in the village gets their water. Two young women in bikinis are sunbathing on the grass. A knot of large, iridescent, lavender-blue lycaenids — the family of butterflies that Vladimir Nabokov specialized in — is swirling around a puddle. There is no discernible misery in the village of Lipki. I think of Gogol’s description of rural Ukraine, 175 years ago: “How intoxicating, how magnificent is a summer day in Little Russia! How luxuriously warm the hours when midday glitters in stillness and sultry heat . . . . Everything might be dead; only . . . . From time to time the cry of a gull or the ringing note of a quail sounds in the steppe . . . . The insects of the air flit like sparks of emerald, topaz, and ruby.”

Sasha is not a native of Lipki, although some of his neighbours are. He lives in the city of Tula, an hour away, where he owns and operates a marshrutka. His aunt bought one of the houses in Lipki as a dacha, and he spends as much of the summer here as he can. He invites us inside to meet his pregnant wife and his aunt, a big-bodied, big-hearted heavy-equipment driver in Tula. In a twinkling, as if we had been expected, the aunt lays out a delicious meal of homemade pickles and just-baked perogies, which we wash down with fiery samogon. The aunt insists that I accept a treasured possession, an ornately etched antique shot glass. “You can’t find these any more,” she says. She proposes a toast to family, and we down our shots. I toast “my people, whom I am so happy to be back among.”

All four of my grandparents emigrated to America during and after the 1917 revolution, and I keep coming back to Russia in an effort to reconnect with my severed roots. This is my sixth trip in twenty-five years. Breaking down in tears, the aunt tells me she has a neurological disease that makes it excruciatingly painful to hold a steering wheel. She can’t do the work she loves.

It is the proximity to Tula that is keeping the village of Lipki alive. The villages close to cities are faring better, I say to Victor as we drive on. “Absolutno,” he replies — absolutely. The next village we visit is called Ustkalpna, and its dozen houses are lovingly built in the traditional Tulskaya folkloric style. It is a classic Russian village, uyutniy i spokoyniy, cosy and calm, as Victor describes it, with the mud puddle in the road that never dries and white geese wallowing in it but never getting dirty. We talk to a kerchiefed babushka who is washing out pickling jars at the village water pump. “There are only old people here,” the baba, who is eighty-four and has five grandchildren, tells us. “No young ones. My son is in Moscow. This is where I was born and where I have always lived.” Will this village die when its last babushka is gone, I wonder. I can’t imagine that such a magical human creation will be just allowed to return to the elements.

The further out you get from Moscow and St. Petersburg, the more dire it gets. Most of the land on the old collective farms lies empty. No one wants to be a big landowner; they know what happened to the nobility and the kulaks. The tractors and other machinery have been stripped for their parts, and there are villages without electricity because the power lines were cut down and sold to middlemen, who sold them in Estonia. In the early 1990s, Estonia, a small rural country, became one of the world’s largest exporters of non-ferrous metal. The villages were rewired, and the cables were cut down again. There are stories about drunken parents sending their children to take the wires down and the children being electrocuted.

This part of Tula, at least, seems better off than the oblast of Kostroma, which I visited last summer with my son Nick. We took an overnight train northeast of Moscow to the ancient city of Galich, where our ancestors had been powerful boyars in the fourteenth century. Galich was the main source of salt in western Russia and in those days was bigger and more important than Moscow. Now it is derelict, the once-imposing wooden mansions mostly abandoned and beyond restoration. And outside of Galich it was even worse, one dead village after another.

Victor and I drive past another colossal, phantasmagoric ruined coal plant and across some abandoned, rusted tracks with grass growing high between the ties. He wants me to meet an academic named Vasily Yeroschev, an economist who lives in a cozy clapboard house nestled among fruit trees in Shchekino. “We’re shooting the dollars up our veins,” Vasily says. “Our young people are so sick from hard drugs they have ruined their dna and can’t reproduce. It’s a strashnaya problema, a terrible problem. By 2023, there will be only 38 million of us if we don’t do anything.”

This is the most pessimistic assessment I’ve heard yet. Most of the demographers are predicting 108 million by mid-century, almost 35 million fewer than now. I ask Vasily how he figures there will be only 38 million. “Six are dying to every one that is being born,” he says. “The math is simple. Car accidents, accidents at work, smoking, drinking, our lifestyle, are killing us. Putin has offered $9,000 to each woman who delivers a child,” he continues. “He’s telling couples to take the afternoon off, have a nap with your wife and make a baby. We’re becoming a senile nation.” And immigration, at but 140,000 a year, will not turn the tide.

A retired school librarian comes in with Vasily’s wife and tells me, “Central Russia is dying. Hospitals, schools, shops are closing. There is no power, no clubs or culture centres in Tula, Vladimir, Ivanov, Kursk. We are in the Chernobyl zone. Children are being born with hereditary mutations from the radiation, and the government is paying 100 rubles (about $4.50) compensation. American scientists have a program to destroy Russia with drugs and pornographic films.”

The paranoia about America aside, Russia is doing a good job of destroying itself, I think to myself, as it always has. But the amorality of American movies and TV and music and videos is not helping. It has “west-toxicated” (as the Iranian intellectual Ahmad Fardid describes it) cultures around the world. “Capitalism is not the answer,” Vasily says. “All our money is in Moscow, Switzerland, the US. We need some out here, to restore our villages.” But then he reflects, “Russians are always suffering, always complaining, and always surviving.”

I think of my cousin, Alex Grigorov, a doctor in Moscow, who took me on a tour of our ancestral sites in Moscow and Novgorod. A passionate genealogist, Grigorov was writing a history of our mutual ancestors, the Avinoffs. We are both descended from one of the few boyars in Novgorod who wasn’t killed by an angry mob as Ivan iii descended on the city with an army from Moscow. Our lines diverge sometime around 1477. Grigorov and I are twenty-second cousins, we figure.

Grigorov had been the head of a resuscitation unit in a hospital, but after the collapse of the health care system he was making only $60 a month. Adapting to the new reality, he went into private practice, treating alcoholics and narkomani, drug addicts. “But only narkomani who can pay,” he stresses, referring to the children of the New Russians. He gets more business than he can handle.

One afternoon Grigorov took us out to the suburb of Butovo, where my great-uncle and twelve of Grigorov’s immediate family members were shot, along with 20,000 others, during the Great Terror of the 1930s — a minor footnote to the millions that Stalin killed. Uncle Nika had been sympathetic to the revolution’s goal of eliminating the gross injustices and inequalities in tsarist society and hadn’t left with the rest of the family. He stayed and designed coal-fired power plants for the Soviets’ industrialization program and was rewarded for his patriotism by being executed. We filled a plastic bag with dirt from the ditches that the victims had dug for their own bodies to bury in the family plot on Long Island, next to his brother and sister.

We lit candles in memory of our slaughtered ancestors before the icons in the small log church that had been built for the grievers of what happened here. On the neighbouring property a magnificent new church with a gleaming bronze onion dome was nearly finished. Its patrons and parishioners were the New Russians who had McDachas in the vicinity. Some were probably the grandsons of the nkvd, Stalin’s secret police, who carried out the purge. My ancestral homeland is a very brutal place.

Another Muscovite survivor who is quick on his feet is Paul Voytinsky (“Uncle Pasha”), my fixer, who takes care of visiting foreigners. You can rent Pasha’s centrally located apartment and use his computer and Internet service. Pasha got me the contact numbers for demographers and other social scientists I needed to see when I got back to Moscow. He has his own website, UnclePasha.com, and one of the services he offers is “Russian Misery Tourism.”

“The art of suffering, of experiencing and inflicting it, has been developing for centuries and brought to perfection in this land of intrigue, murder, and slavery, of brutal revolutions followed by merciless suppressions,” Uncle Pasha hypes in an email with the black humour that is outdoing itself in Russia these days. “For a lover of misery, there is no place better than Russia. And here it is of the purest, most uncompromising quality . . . . You will see a whole population of sick, malnourished, chain-smoking alcoholics . . . ugly prostitutes oozing with disease . . . heartburn-inducing food from bus-station eating establishments . . . toilets that consist of [only] a hole in the floor . . . . For a small extra fee we will arrange for your money and documents to be stolen. If you prefer, we’ll treat you to the memorable thrill of a knife point robbery . . . . Our offer is not for everyone, but if the pyramids make you yawn, you’ve been to luxury resorts, you’ve tried ecotourism, done sex in Thailand and drugs in Amsterdam . . .

“Maybe,” Uncle Pasha writes, “you should consider one of our Russian misery tours.”

While I was setting up this trip, Pasha and I exchanged a flurry of these kinds of emails. I complimented him on his black humour, which gives Gary Shteyngart (whose Absurdistan I took along to read on the plane) a run for his money.

“If only it was humour,” Pasha replied. I told him that last summer I saw how grim things are for the average Russian, and Pasha answered, “To appreciate what’s happening you need to see the dynamics. Things are very much on the rise but of course the static picture a visitor sees merely tells you what things are, and they are sort of on the shitty side, but not the trend.”

“But a population that’s losing half a million a year, a life expectancy of only 58 for guys, [tens of thousands of] villages abandoned in the last five years — this is not looking good,” I typed, and Pasha fired back. “Right. But look at the profile of those who die. Sorry for being so positive, but we are having a selection process happening. In the last years a few of my alcoholic and troublemaker neighbours indeed vanished . . . . Looks bad at first but from another perspective the population is going through self-cleansing. I’m afraid the trend is nothing to get excited about for a connoisseur of decay . . . . The fact that a place is derelict means that someone is lurking around to buy it cheap and to pour money into it. I’ve seen this happen in Tver and Kaluga, the only two rural regions of which I have good knowledge/feel. I’ve seen these places, which are some of the poorest, shift into economic boom in three to four years. But the impression that things are bad and getting worse can easily be created if that is what the client wants. Too bad I’ll be out with a film crew visiting Jewish communities in western Ukraine that persist no matter what.”

Why was Pasha now singing a more upbeat song than the come-on for his misery tour, I wondered. Could things have improved so dramatically in only twelve months? My own little misery tour suggests that Pasha could be on the money: things do seem to be looking up somewhat. Some of the oligarchs, such as Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, are in exile or behind bars. Moscow has a palpable new vitality, and its streets are safe. In 1993, you couldn’t go out after dark. The streets belonged to the hooligani. Now they belong to bevies of smartly dressed career girls.

I sit next to one on the marshrutka back to Moscow — a pretty, self-possessed eighteen-year-old named Julia, done out in lipstick and designer slacks and T-shirt, navel fashionably exposed and cellphone at her fingertips. Julia speaks good English and pretty good French, having been an exchange student in Rheims for a semester. Her parents are middle-class factory managers in Tula and have a dacha half an hour from the city. “But there is no nature, only other dachas,” Julia tells me. She is starting her second year at the All-Russian Academy of International Trade in Moscow and is planning a career in economics.

What about children, I ask. “In five years, after I have set myself up as a businesswoman, I will have one child,” she says. This is not going to stop the demographic hemorrhaging. Julia grew up in Tula but has no plans to return there. She finds it stifling, too small, “the same streets over and over.”

If she is an example of the ambitious, dynamic, upwardly mobile modern Russian women who are taking over Moscow, another passenger, an out-of-work economist in his fifties named Valerii, is an example of the disillusioned, pessimistic, cynical older Russian. Valerii arrived drunk, with two equally drunk men and a woman to see him off. He is beginning to sober up. Hearing that I am a foreign journalist, he asks, “What are you writing about? ”

The dying Russian village, I say.

“Who could possibly be interested in that? ” he asks. “What news interest does it have? The villages are already dead and have been for a long time. We aren’t suffering any more than we always have. This problem has existed since Pyotr Stolypin [Nicholas II’s prime minister, who was assassinated in 1911] and has not been solved yet,” Valerii goes on. “Stolypin wanted to convert the peasant communes into large, individually owned, American-style farms. But he didn’t understand the Russian character, that Russians don’t like to be alone. The peasants need to live together in groups. The climate isn’t conducive to separate farms because they are too far from each other. So Stolypin’s agrarian reform didn’t work. But it caused the deaths of many villages.

“By the turn of the twentieth century, industrialization was already emptying villages,” he continues, echoing Tolstoy’s lament. “And the next big thing was World War I. The army needed peasants from the villages, and most of those who survived the war — and most were killed — didn’t come back. After the war and the Revolution came the Soviet accelerated industrialization program, followed by collectivization of the land seized from the nobles and the liquidation of the kulaks, the rich peasant farmers, then World War II. All of these things killed many more villages. So what’s happening now is nothing to get excited about at all.”

I reflect on the fact that massive village mortality is not only a Russian phenomenon. It’s happening in India, Brazil, Turkey, China, Manitoba, Nebraska — just about everywhere. Western Europe has been dramatically urbanizing since World War II and Africa since decolonization. Is that so bad? The ecological footprint of city dwellers is smaller than that of country people. One tends to forget that farming and grazing have been the main destroyers of the world’s terrestrial ecosystems. As people are vacating the landscape, the forest is returning. This reversion to the wild, to allow the forest ecosystem to recover, is good for everyone in the long run. The growing trees are metabolizing in their tissue more of the runaway carbon in the atmosphere. The only downside, Andrei Treivish, a specialist in urban development at the Institute of Geography, tells me, is that there will be a loss of social control in the depopulated rural areas, which means that wild game will be poached, so there could actually be a decrease in the wildlife.

I ask Treivish what the loss of contact with nature, so famously important to the Russian soul, will mean for the rapidly urbanizing population. How can you care about the environment when you have no exposure to it? He asks, “Where is a people that does not believe its soul is in the countryside? ” But then he points out that more than half of the urban population still have access to some kind of a dacha outside of the city and a garden plot. “Of the 73 percent of the Russian population that is urban, 13 percent have no plumbing, so they are in fact villagers; they are living officially in town but in village conditions.” So the contact with nature has not been severed.

And furthermore, the land, particularly the fabled black earth steppe that starts in Tula and spreads down into Ukraine, is far too fertile to be abandoned forever. People will return, in a different way, and they will be different people. Hearty, cold-adapted northern Chinese, who still have the farming avocation, may have to be brought in, Zhanna Zayonchkovskaya, chief of the Laboratory of Migration at the Institute for Economic Forecasting, predicts. The local workforce is unreliable. “Some businessmen are even paying for the alcoholism treatment of their workers,” Zayonchkovskaya tells me. “Two or three months drying out in a sanatorium can be very expensive. In Stavropoloblast, some businessmen who were trying to organize grain production brought in Turkish tractor and combine drivers, and the locals were very unhappy with this phenomenon. But if you have bought a grand combine for $200,000 you need to know that tomorrow it’s not going to hit a tree.”

As for the rural exodus, Zayonchkovskaya points out that the real peak was between 1959 and 1989, when half the villages in the country disappeared. “In Russia, there are still many small villages with five, ten, or twenty houses, especially in forested areas. But young people are leaving, and their fate is clear. A survey of secondary-school graduates in central Russia found that two-thirds intend to leave their villages, and only 10 percent plan to return.”

According to a 2006 unaids study, as many as 1.6 million Russians have hiv. And in 2002, the World Bank predicted that hiv and aids, fanned by a rise in promiscuous sex as young people are being detached from their families, could wipe out up to 11 percent of its workforce by 2020. It’s not only the diseases themselves that are depressing the birthrate and increasing the death rate, explains Elena Avraamova, a researcher at the Institute of Social and Economic Problems of Population, but poor diagnosis and treatment. Four million couples in Russia are infertile, and infertility treatment is very expensive and non-existent in most cities.

Demographers predict that Russia could lose a quarter of its population by mid-century. Currently the eighth-most-populous country in the world, it could be surpassed by Nigeria, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. Avraamova explains that “women are postponing having children, and the difference between having your first children at twenty and at thirty has a huge cumulative effect on population growth.” But Western Europe’s birth rate is not at replacement level, either. And isn’t it better, all in all, to be losing population than for it to be exploding? Look at Canada, whose standard of living and untapped resources are the envy of the world, and there are only 32 million people. Maybe we should all be losing population. There are far too many of us. The biosphere’s human carrying capacity is stretched to the max.

There are going to be security problems in the coming decades on the Siberia-China border, which is already drastically underpopulated. Financial incentives will be required to resettle it. And by 2015, the number of Russians at or near military age (between fifteen and twenty-four) will be severely reduced, so the exemptions from military service will have to be reduced. Whatever measures are taken, Russia is destined to become more Asian, and not for the first time. Maybe China will end up annexing Siberia, as it did Tibet. Many things can happen, but as Zayonchkovskaya reminded me, “the numbers don’t lie.” In models and projections — demographic, economic, geopolitical, and environmental — the spectre of China looms large, especially for its vulnerable neighbour to the north. Despite diplomatic ententes — this being the “Year of China” in Russia, following the “Year of Russia” in China in 2006 — and increased sales of Russian oil and gas to China, Russia remains uneasy.

But maybe Pasha is right: things are starting to look up. There is less demoralization in the air than there was last year or in 1995, 1993, and 1980. You can walk the streets of central Moscow at night now without fear of being mugged by hooligans. The streets belong to svelte, stylish women on the make, who are checking the windows of Burberry, Louis Vuitton, and other chic boutiques. Flush with nationalized petro-rubles, Moscow is a boomtown, like Manaus during the Amazon rubber boom, like Alberta, which has also benefited from the spike in oil and natural gas prices.

The most disturbing thing at the moment, besides the Putin regime’s penchant for eliminating its critics, is the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots. London is crawling with Versace Russians, as an émigré friend calls them. So are many other international centres. At Moscow’s annual Millionaire Fair, you can buy a $1.27-million, diamond-encrusted cellphone, a $1.65 million Bugatti, or a $568,000 racehorse. Still, there are the huge numbers of Russians living below the poverty line.The greatest challenge facing Russia is perhaps not demographic but whether it can transcend centuries of brutal authoritarianism. Russia has survived the traumatic collapse of four empires, and there are signs that the phoenix is rising once again from the ashes, that the initial, Al Capone/robber-baron savage stage of this new free-market economy seems to be morphing into something more viable and equitable.

Maybe Putin will be successful in bringing on the Fifth Empire. The Russian Bear is clearly asserting itself. Having nationalized the country’s fossil fuels, the Kremlin is now the world’s largest natural gas producer. It has Europe by the balls and is trying to become the new global energy superpower. The oligarchy of the billionaires has morphed into a “managed democracy,” as Russia’s political scientists call it — a euphemism that gives “climate change” and “global warming” a run for their money.

Boris Berezovsky is in exile in London, heavily bodyguarded against assassination attempts. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s wealthiest oligarch, is now in prison. But the soft underbelly of this wannabe empire might still be the grinding poverty and the death of the Russian village. Can a country survive without its history? Can Russia survive without transcending it? Even with these hurdles, I wouldn’t write off Russia just yet. She has made it through much worse times, including the collapse of four empires. There are other countries, like the ones in Africa’s Sahel region, whose backs are much closer to the wall. Like her tennis players, Russia’s got game.

Alex Shoumatoff