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Portrait of a Declining Russia


The “BRIC” label has never been very useful, but it’s always seemed particularly dubious when applied to Russia. India, China, and Brazil share as many differences as they do similarities, but at least they’re all indisputably more powerful than they were decades ago: Russia, on the other hand, is a country in decline.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the country’s vast hinterlands. In an excellent new featureNew York Times reporter Ellen Barry visited the cities and villages of the 430-mile corridor between Moscow and St. Petersburg, talking to residents and creating a portrait of a long neglected part of the country. In contrast to these two massive and growing cities, the settlements in between were in bad shape. Years of neglect has created a world of crumbling buildings and roads. Basic goods like gas and water are scarce, education is poor and hard to come by, child marriages are common, and wild animals terrorize villages. What’s more, these areas are nearly ignored by the state:

Most Russians live in housing built in the late Soviet period. A report released last year by the Russian Union of Engineers found that 20 percent of city dwellings lack hot water, 12 percent have no central heating and 10 percent no indoor plumbing. Gas leaks, explosions and heating breakdowns happen with increasing frequency, but in most places infrastructure is simply edging quietly toward collapse.

There is a reason for this: Compared with populist steps like raising salaries and pensions, spending on infrastructure does little to shore up Mr. Putin’s popularity, said Natalya Zubarevich, a sociologist at Moscow’s Independent Institute of Social Policy. If something goes wrong, the Kremlin can always fire a regional official.

Just ask Gen. Yevgeny I. Ignatov, a former mayor of Torzhok, who stepped down two years ago after a dressing-down from the regional governor. Two years later, sitting in his neat, well-lighted kitchen, General Ignatov no longer had any reason to speak diplomatically. The money available for repairing heat and water systems, for example, was about 12 percent of what was needed. And everything was breaking at once.

Barry’s piece combines interviews, personal observations, and statistics from a number of towns along the route. It is riveting read, and the accompanying pictures are beautiful. (The web design is excellent, too.) The whole feature is well worth your time.

[Damaged building image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • BobSykes

    During the Soviet era, some economist pointed out that the USSR’s real problem was it was too big for the population it had. All per capita infrastructure costs were huge compared to those in Europe, Asia and the US. The Trans Siberian railroad is 5,753 miles long from Moscow to Vladivostock. Other infrastructure has similar gargantuan sizes and costs.

    The expenditures on these projects prevents investment and expenditures on other stuff and retards Russia’s economic development. Russia would do better to sell Siberia to China and bring its people back behind the Urals.

    • rheddles

      They’d still be Russians. And the money would be blown on vodka within a decade. The twentieth century took a terrible toll on whatever chances Russia had at the end of the nineteenth.

  • Stephen Ivkovich

    That picture could have come from Detroit… Bad Government is a killer.

  • free_agent

    It seems like a lot of the towns are becoming ghost towns. To some degree, this is because they are neglected in government spending. But also, it seems that they are not economically viable, at least given that there is a floor on labor costs set by the opportunities of the cities. At least, the fact that one of the towns is described as used to be surrounded by collective farms and is now reverting to forest suggests a shift in the fundamental economics.

    In the US, most rural towns haven’t shrunk much because the national population is growing. The Russian population is shrinking, and the lessening of controls since the dissolution has probably unleashed pent-up demand for migration to the cities.

  • Andrew Allison

    The gratuitous suggestion that “child marriages are common” is based on a single instance among a minority group among which the practice is common, and detracts from a competent report.

  • corsairthepirate

    Thanks for the heads-up. That was a great article.

  • Matt B

    You know you have it bad when you fantasize about living in Belarus.

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