Moscow Bankrupt To Help Decaying Russian Villages

Moscow lacks the funds to support the 2.5 million people living in hard to reach villages in the Far North, but it also lacks the money that would be needed to shut down these settlements and move their residents to cities, not to speak of the opposition if would face from the villagers if it were to try.

At a time when ever more Russians are urging the promotion of further urbanization – Moscow faces a serious problem with the millions of Russians who live in small villages that are increasingly isolated because of disintegrating transportation infrastructure.

According to the 2010 census, Russia has some 153,000 villages, of which 60,000 have fewer than 100 residents. The ones far removed from the regular transportation grid are dying especially quickly, and targeted interventions such as the one by Vladimir Putin after his press conference for the village of Serebryanka in Sverdlovsk oblast are doing little to slow the pace.

In dealing with these communities, Moscow faces two major problems: The costs of maintaining and supplying these villages are high, rising and unpopular in the cities, and a significant share of the population of these villages has little or no interest in moving away from where they call home to the cities.

As a result of the first, “Komsomolskaya Pravda” reports, Moscow has been carrying out what it calls “optimization” which involves closing hospitals, schools and kindergartens in distant villages and not building or repairing the roads connecting them with the outside. But this hasn’t solved the problem, experts say. According to Nikolay Mironov of the Moscow Center for Economic and Political Reforms, “the rural population views [what Moscow is doing] as a signal that the state isn’t interested in how people live in the villages,” a signal that can’t help the Kremlin which has long relied on rural voters to support it.

Moscow has been carrying out what it calls “optimization” which involves closing hospitals, schools and kindergartens in distant villages and not building or repairing the roads connecting them with the outside.

At the same time, despite complaints by urban residents, Moscow has discovered that it does not have the funds to support these villages or to close them down. At present, some 10.5 million Russians in villages in the North depend on Moscow subsidies which amount to 500 billion rubles (8.5 million US dollars) a year and regional ones that add to that total. But the costs of shutting down villages are prohibitive as well.

The Russian Academy for Economics and State Service establishes that it would take at least 150 million rubles (2.5 million US dollars) to close down a village and 1.2 million rubles (20,000 US dollars) to move each worker. And the Academy’s experts say that it would take three trillion rubles (50 billion US dollars) to move all 2.5 million Russian citizens living in hard to reach villages in the Far North alone. Closing down all the villages as some advocate would cost many multiples of that, their findings suggest.

Vladimir Klimanov of the Moscow Institute for Social Sciences points out that even if the money were available, “there are not so many successful cases of forced liquidation of settlements.” It would cost less ultimately to close the villages than to maintain them. But cost alone is not the only criterion. “The task of the state,” he says, “is to develop territory. If we throw over some land, at one instance we may discover that they no longer belong to us.”

Consequently, the regime needs to “stimulate” both the development of population centers in these regions and the voluntary movement of people out of them. But that is where the problems really begin. As Deputy Prime Minister Yury Trutnyev put it recently, “when people like living in the village, this is a sign of economic development” because “it isn’t normal that all be urbanized and live in big cities.” Moscow needs to help the villagers rather than ignore them or talk about shutting down where they live.

Paul Goble – political scientist and diplomat. He is an analyst, writer and columnist with expertise on Russia.