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The Future Looks a Lot More Diverse

THE VANISHING RUSSIANS

Minority populations are growing rapidly. Ethnic Russians fret over their identity and their power.

October 10, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

Alexander Zhilin, an ethnic Russian who is governor of the Astrakhan region on the Caspian Sea, said ethnic Russians there were not having children. However, his region is one of many experiencing a large influx of Chechens and Central Asians.

"The Muslim component is growing, and all the others have a decreased birthrate," he said. "And if we don't give birth to more children, in 50 years there will be nothing left of us."

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Siberia's Changing Face

To fly across Asiatic Russia today is to look down on a carpet of uninterrupted forest and taiga, near-empty villages and rusting, abandoned factories sprinkled with a few oil and mining boom towns. The Magadan region on the Sea of Okhotsk lost slightly more than half its population from 1989 to 2002; Chukotka, in the far northeast, lost two-thirds.

Authorities have nearly given up trying to keep the most frigid, remote reaches of the country populated. The vast tracts of Siberia and the Arctic have barely one person per square kilometer, one of the lowest population densities on Earth.

Residents who were offered better pay and early retirement by the Soviet government to move there have migrated west and south for better jobs and warmer climates. In many areas, the government is encouraging the moves, realizing that populating remote, icy wastelands of the far north never made economic sense.

But some parts of Siberia still are a priority for Moscow. The country's most productive oil fields are in western Siberia, and some areas have experienced strong growth in population and the economy. The government says it needs 10,000 immigrants to develop the huge new Vankor oil and gas field in the Krasnoyarsk region of southern Siberia.

And there has been serious talk of relocation programs to boost the underpopulated far east, presumably as a bulwark to China.

Today, Chinese workers are tilling Russian farms, and towns such as Khabarovsk are dotted with Chinese restaurants and markets selling imported goods that are far cheaper and more popular than Russian products.

"There are Russian demographers who say, 'Oh, it's all right, let the Chinese populate the far east; we'll have mixed marriages and everything will be fine,' " said Yelena Breyeva, an expert with the Laboratory for Problems of Demographic Development, a branch of an institute associated with the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"But recently, I've been hearing a different idea: If we are in such a hurry to welcome the Chinese and people of other nationalities, is this still Russia, or is it some other country?"

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Mutual Suspicion

Any effort to build a multiethnic future would have to overcome deep suspicions from the Soviet past and the recent wars. In Chechnya, where people have suffered from both, each side accuses the other of "ethnic cleansing" and genocide.

Chechens still recall mass deportations by Stalin in 1944. An estimated 200,000 Chechens died on the way to the steppes of Kazakhstan or during the 13-year exile that followed.

Abukhadzhi Batukayev, 101, was separated from his wife and children when he was put on a packed train to take him into exile.

"They would stop the train and just dump bodies out on the side. There wasn't even room to sleep; people were standing and sitting -- they were so jammed together," he said.

"Finally, I met someone who told me that my family, together with the other residents of that village, were pushed into the horses' stables at the collective farm, and the stables were set on fire. And when people began to jump out through the doors and windows, the soldiers began to shoot at them."

Today, Chechens say the old policies have taken a more subtle form. They cite the government's failure to rebuild clinics and hospitals, and the continued arrest of young Chechen men as suspected insurgents. Many are never seen again.

"When a unit of federal troops destroys an entire village, shoots young men, hangs people, including children, what can you call this thing? You can't find another term but genocide for it," said Vahit Akayev, a sociology professor at Chechen State University.

Zarema Mukusheva, an activist with a human rights organization in Grozny, rejects that argument. But the result, she said, still is that young people, those who should be building the future of Chechnya, are dying in large numbers.

Ethnic Russians say they are the ones disappearing.

"Chechnya has become, on the whole, a mono-ethnic Muslim state. Russians fled Chechnya and spread like sand all over Russia," said Lidya Grafova, an advocate for ethnic Russians who lost their homes and relatives in Chechnya. "A majority of them today are leading a life from hand to mouth. People lost everything: housing, belongings, and the most important thing they lost was their relatives -- people died, very many of them.

"The processes underway in Chechnya can be described by one and only one word: the genocide of the [Russian] people."

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