The flow toward urbanization is an international phenomenon. While becoming pronounced in our Heartland states, rural depopulation in Russia is extreme.
Of course the rest of the country isn't doing so well either. The population has dropped by 2.2 million people, or 1.6%, since the last census was taken in 2002. These were supposed to have been the glory years under Vladimir Putin, who has ruled Russia since 2000, first as president and now prime minister. And in that time, a handful of cities have indeed prospered, with Moscow becoming home to more billionaires than any other city in the world. But more than 6,000 villages have meanwhile turned into ghost towns, or as the census calls them: "population points without population." About 2,000 of those are in Pskov.
In just eight years, the region has lost 11.5% of its population, a rate of decline more often seen in times of war and famine. This might have been expected in Russia's permanently frozen north, like the region of Magadan, once home to the Gulag prison camps, where the population dropped 14.1% in that time. But Pskov lies on the border with the European Union, and the city of St. Petersburg, Putin's birthplace, is only 100 miles away.
In Soviet times, huge collective farms and machine works were based in Pskov. Village life thrived, and the main city was still famed for nobler things, like fending off the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century. But traveling the region's backroads now inspires the creepy feeling that a plague has just passed through. Every few miles a cluster of huts emerges from behind a hill, and most of them turn out to be abandoned, their floorboards warped and splintered, releasing a smell of decay. The fields are overgrown, and old grain elevators tower over them like enormous ghosts — landmarks to Russia's demographic catastrophe.
So by local standards, the village of Lopotova is doing fairly well. The villagers say it still has a few hundred residents (down from about a thousand ten years ago) as well as its own grocery store, where the saleswoman spends most of the day ringing up liquor sales on an abacus. No surprise that the most popular item is vodka, the cheapest half-liter bottle going for 68 rubles, or $2.25. Far from everyone can afford it.
Behind the store, at the end of the unmarked village road, Zhbanov comes across a group of five young men in their 20s sitting on a log in front of a sheet-metal shack. They are not homeless, but they look it. In a week or so, the weather will let them pick mushrooms and berries to sell on the side of the road, the steadiest form of employment they have had since 2003, when the local farm went bankrupt. Aside from that, they can forage for scrap metal or go talk to Zhbanov, who makes enough selling his paintings in St. Petersburg to give them a handout from time to time.
Note the statement "the local farm went bankrupt". In a world of grain anxiety and real questions about enough ag production this boggles the mind. This is not desert or swamp, but a place where stuff can be grown.
I think it may be partly or even largely due to Stalin's massacre of the peasants. He literally killed off the nations farmers and with it all working knowledge of what the right answer looked like. They have never recovered.
The other mystery is the debilitating problem of alcoholism in Russia. I don't think we can even begin to comprehend how pervasive and pernicious this cultural pillar is there. But it also tempers my expectations for how much load Russia will be able to handle agriculturally in the demand years ahead.