Tuesday, October 15, 2013

On the Russia left behind

The New York Times today presents journalist Ellen Barry's journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, largely along the M10 motorway.  The headline is "The Russia Left Behind: a journey through the heartland on the slow road to ruin," and it is the story of   This excerpt focuses on a rural area, a village called Pochinok, a few miles west of the M10 between Valdai and Torzhok:
Beyond Valdai, where collective farms once extended for miles in all directions, heading off the highway for more than a few miles is like leaving the known world.
* * * 
Between the great cities are hundreds of disappearing settlements: towns becoming villages, villages becoming forest. The Soviets cut off support for them during efficiency drives in the 1960s and ’70s, which categorized villages as “promising” or “unpromising.” 
But the death of a village is a slow process. A geographer, Tatiana Nefyodova, calls them “black holes,” and estimates that they make up 70 to 80 percent of Russia’s northwest, where Moscow and St. Petersburg act as giant vacuum cleaners, sucking people and capital from the rest of the country.
Barry interviews 42-year-old Nina Kolesnikova who lives with her husband and two young sons in Pochinok.  Kolesnikova says that at times they live as if on an island because the road connecting them to the M10 is not maintained year round.  When asked why she does not leave, Barry writes: 
she gave an answer that would resonate with any Russian: The air is clean. They gather berries and mushrooms in the summer. They produce their own cottage cheese and sour cream. “Everything is ours,” she said.
Barry's description of her visit to Torzhok touches on the way in which responsibility for the deterioration of small-town Russia gets attributed to the failings of local government, thereby letting the national government off the hook for the decline.  

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