Russia’s Villages, and Their Way of Life, Are ‘Melting Away’

There is a pronounced gap, however, between the positive terms in which Mr. Putin and his advisers habitually discuss demographic trends and the reality of the numbers.

Basically, Russians are dying faster than they are being born, demographers said. Given the general hostility toward immigration, the question is to what degree the population of 146 million, including annexed Crimea, might shrink.

The number of deaths exceeded the number of births in 2016 by a few thousand, and the prognosis for the years ahead is poor. From 2013 to 2015, extremely modest natural growth peaked in 2015 with just 32,038 more births than deaths. By comparison, Mexico, with a population approximately 10 percent smaller, recorded some 1.7 million more births than deaths in 2015.

Photo

An abandoned house in the village, which has 160 year-round residents.

Credit
James Hill for The New York Times

“The statistics and the propaganda are very different things,” said Natalya V. Zubarevich, an expert in social and political geography at Moscow State University.

On the world stage, Russia is flexing its newly restored military and political might in places like Syria and Ukraine, and is using cyberwarfare to distort politics in the United States and Europe. But it often seems far less robust at home.

In particular, its rural areas — long considered the wellspring of Russian culture and identity — are dying.

Valentin Kurbatov, a specialist in village prose, moved to the Pskov region in northwest Russia in 1964. At that time, the entire region was known for cultivating flax, from which linen is made.

“Linen has this heavenly blue color, and when I came here the skies were reflected in the linen fields,” Mr. Kurbatov said over a long discussion that finally ended because he said it was too distressing. “Now the brush and…

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