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THE VANISHING RUSSIANS

A Dying Population

The nation is succumbing to a low birthrate, disease and despair. Leaders see the trend as a security threat.

October 08, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

Kstinovo, Russia — Welcome to Kstinovo, population one.

Antonina Makarova, 78, spends her days watching news and soap operas in her peeling wooden dacha, the only inhabited structure in two lanes of sagging cottages that once were a village. Her nearest neighbor, 80-year-old Maria Belkova, lives in adjacent Sosnovitsy, population two. But she can't hear anymore, and all in all, Makarova finds the television better company.

"All the houses here were filled with people. There was a cheese factory. But now everyone else has died. God has taken care of them, and he's still making me suffer," Makarova said. "Even the thieves have disappeared."

The Tver region, along the upper reaches of the Volga River 130 miles north of Moscow, is dotted with more than 1,400 villages such as Kstinovo labeled nezhiloye -- depopulated. Since 1989, the number of people here has shrunk by about 250,000 to about 1.4 million, with deaths outnumbering births more than 2 to 1.

The Tver region is far from unusual in this country.

Russia is rapidly losing population. Its people are succumbing to one of the world's fastest-growing AIDS epidemics, resurgent tuberculosis, rampant cardiovascular disease, alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, suicide and the lethal effects of unchecked industrial pollution.

In addition, abortions outpaced births last year by more than 100,000. An estimated 10 million Russians of reproductive age are sterile because of botched abortions or poor health. The public healthcare system is collapsing. And many parents in more prosperous urban areas say they can't afford homes large enough for the number of children they'd like to have.

The former Soviet Union, with almost 300 million people, was the world's third-most populous country, behind China and India. Slightly more than half of its citizens lived in Russia. The country has lost the equivalent of a city of 700,000 people every year since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, only partially offset by an influx of people from other former Soviet republics.

A country that sprawls across one-eighth of the globe is now home to 142 million people.

The losses have been disproportionately male. At the height of its power, the Soviet Union's people lived almost as long as Americans. But now, the average Russian man can expect to live about 59 years, 16 years less than an American man and 14 less than a Russian woman.

Sergei Mironov, chairman of the upper house of Russia's parliament, said last year that if the trend didn't change, the population would fall to 52 million by 2080.

"There will no longer be a great Russia," he said. "It will be torn apart piece by piece, and finally cease to exist."

That may be an overstatement, but there are serious questions about whether Russia will be able to hold on to its lands along the border with China or field an army, let alone a workforce to support the ill and the elderly.

The government, flush with revenue from record prices for the country's oil exports, has started to respond. President Vladimir V. Putin this year pledged payments of $111 a month to mothers who elected to have a second child, plus a nest egg of $9,260 to be used for education, a mortgage or pensions. He also called for renewed efforts to attract ethnic Russians still living in the former Soviet republics.

"Russia has a huge territory, the largest territory in the world," Putin said. "If the situation remains unchanged, there will simply be no one to protect it."

'This Infection in Us'

The economic earthquake of Russia's transition from communism to capitalism plunged tens of millions into poverty overnight and changed the value systems upon which many had planned their lives.

A small minority, mostly in urban centers such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, were able to exploit the absence of rules in the chaotic 1990s to become fabulously wealthy. But such a profound social transition, coming at the end of a century of war, revolution and ruthless social experimentation, condemned a great many more to a deep malaise.

Those who lost out have proved susceptible to drinking, smoking and other habits that killed millions of Russians even in the best of times. In more extreme cases, they kill themselves.

The suicide rate jumped nearly 50% during the 1990s; half a million people killed themselves from 1995 through 2003. Russians fling themselves from balconies, slash their wrists or simply walk out in the snow on a bitter night.

Russia's suicide rate, at about 36 per 100,000 people, is second only to that of Lithuania, according to the Serbsky National Research Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry. In some remote areas of Russia, the rate exceeds 100 per 100,000.

Nikolai Zavada, a 21-year-old musician who goes by the name Serial Self-Killer, posted a song on www.mysuicide.ru, a well-known website that was later shut down because of public pressure:

I'm going out.

And it doesn't matter whether it's up or down.

Or who's holding your hand, an angel or otherwise....

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