Down a winding lane, through fields still covered in snow, stands a cluster of wooden cottages an hour’s drive east of Moscow. Twenty years ago, the village of Rybaki was a lively community of more than 1,000 people. Today the population is a quarter of that. Almost no one has a job inside the village; the only thing thriving is a cemetery, which is black with fresh graves.
The fate of Rybaki is echoed across Russia. Late last month the government published the initial results of a census taken last year. Since 2002, Russia’s population has fallen by 2.2 million to just under 143 million.
The proportion of men has fallen from 46.6% to 46.3%, which means the country now has 10.5 million more females than males. That speaks of an ugly truth: while outward migration to towns plays its part, a punishing mortality rate among men has devastated places such as Rybaki.
“Most of my contemporaries are already dead,” says Oleg Zlotnikov, 50, who sells sand and crushed stone at the end of a track in the village. He is one of only a few dozen men, and among the tiny handful who still work.
While it is only 25 miles from the skyscrapers and Bentley showrooms of central Moscow, much of Rybaki looks like a scene from Tolstoy. Shabby cottages made from split logs stretch along streets of mud and slush. A few smart brick buildings fringe the community, but these are dachas built by rich Muscovites who are there for only a few weeks in the summer.
Russia’s demographic crisis sets it apart from most of Europe, where numbers have been more or less stable for two decades. Its population reached about 148m in 1990, but has declined since. While many countries have low fertility rates, here the problem is compounded by a high early death rate. Smoking, heart disease and accidents all contribute. One of the greatest killers, however, is the old Russian demon: vodka.
“We are only women left,” says Nina Burenina, a 75-year-old former milkmaid in a coloured headscarf, sitting in her kitchen in Moskvaretskaya Street. “Two of my sons died from drink – and my husband, too. Why hide it?”
The first to die was Alexei, 23, who got into a drunken brawl with some men on a barge by the river, not long after coming back from his army service. “They beat him to a pulp and tossed him overboard, then pretended he fell in and got caught up in the propeller,” says Burenina. “His body was found downstream three days later.”
Her husband, Ivan, a digger driver, succumbed to booze at the comparatively ripe age of 77. Then last May, her son, Konstantin, a 42-year-old engineer, died after contracting lung cancer, an ulcer and paralysis caused by drinking. Such stories are rife in Rybaki.
On the other side of the village is a crumbling two-storey apartment block, behind the ruins of a social club where dances were held in the Soviet days. On the second floor, Klavdiya Turbanova, 78, peeps out of her window from behind a geranium plant. She moved to the village three years ago, but is shocked by the spectacle she sees in the yard below.
“All the time there are people crawling around drunk,” she says. “Once I found a man lying in the snow and wrapped him in a coat. Another time I dragged one out of a puddle. One of my neighbours said, ‘You’ll soon get used to ignoring them.’ But I can’t get used to it, it’s not right.”
An alcoholic woman from the floor below recently burst into the flat and demanded the tiny bottle of nastoyka – a mix of vodka and herbs – that Turbanova sips to help with her high blood pressure. “After I retired I mopped floors and made pies and knitted socks to make a little money,” she says. “Even now I have a little allotment out the back where I grow potatoes and cucumbers. These drunkards have lost all hope. They don’t want to look for a job.”
Turbanova’s granddaughter, Nastya, who is visiting from Zhukovsky, a town closer to Moscow, would like her to move away. Rybaki has a small medical station with a nurse, but two years ago Turbanova began to suffer fainting attacks. She had to go to a hospital in a larger village nearby. “It was ghastly,” says Nastya. “There were cockroaches all over the place, the toilets were falling apart. We had to buy grandma’s medicines ourselves because they didn’t have any.”
Oleg Zlotnikov says people are driven to alcohol by lack of opportunity and the harsh living conditions. A long-promised gas supply has not been connected, so all the households are heated with wood or coal burners, or small electric heaters. In December and January, when temperatures fell well below zero, Rybaki went without electricity for almost two weeks after an ice storm brought down the power lines, said Zlotnikov.
“Life is tough and people need jobs,” he adds. “There’s a farm, but they pay practically nothing, so only a few Tajik and Kyrgyz migrants are prepared to work there.”
Land is sold for dacha construction at such high prices that buying it for agricultural use is unprofitable. Meanwhile, Zlotnikov and his wife, Marina, have struggled to keep their business alive. The desperate conditions can lead to hatred and envy. One winter someone plugged up the holes Oleg had drilled in the ice of his pond to keep his fish alive. “Just out of spite,” said a neighbour.
In 2006, Zlotnikov was jailed for four years for planning to murder a business rival. He claims that the accusation was fabricated because he refused to cede to a local mafia kingpin.
“They didn’t reckon on my wife,” he says, smiling. Marina fended off the raiders while Oleg was in jail, and saved his life when he contracted tuberculosis.
Marina says: “Corruption also kills. It’s psychological; in the end people just lower their hands. We didn’t give up.”
Now the couple have branched out into breeding geese and turkeys. They even have two shaggy Bactrian camels from Astrakhan which they hope to hire to a local holiday camp for rides.
Despite the hardships, some residents refuse to blame Russia’s ruling tandem – President Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, who is still thought to be the dominant force – for Rybaki’s decline.
“Please say thank you to Putin,” says Burenina. “It’s not his fault my sons turned to drink. It was the local shop, for staying open too late. Putin speaks well. He said he would raise pensions and he did.”
Turbanova said there were worse things than watching the drunks outside her window. “I lived through the war: I lost my father and brother at the front,” she says. “At least there’s no war now.”
What did she think of the country’s leadership? “I like Putin, he’s good. And that other one, his assistant.”
President Medvedev? “That’s it. I like him, too.”
Russia’s heartland in crisis as desperation and vodka take toll | World news | The Observer.