Abandoned Russian village testifies to population decline

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As Russia launched a new census on Thursday, nowhere was its dramatic population decline over the last 20 years more evident than in Chekanovo, an abandoned village of only two residents.

Once home to about 200 people, this hamlet between Moscow and Saint Petersburg is now a wasteland of ruined homes with broken windows and no electricity.

"If only you could see how life was in full swing here 40 years ago, the parties we used to have!" said 70-year-old Vasily Egorov, who along with his wife Galina are the only remaining residents of Chekanovo.

A four-kilometre (two-and-a-half-mile) hike from the nearest train station, Chekanovo lies on a road that in the years since its decline has become largely impassable.

Egorov's home, with his new fence and banya -- the Russian version of a sauna -- stands in stark contrast to the surrounding houses, abandoned by all except the occasional visiting fisherman or hunter.

He said residents started to abandon the village in the 1970s, but its decline truly gathered pace with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which lead to a significant rural exodus and demographic crisis that continues to depopulate Russia.

"I also left and lived here and there... everyone wanted to live in the big cities," Egorov recalled, adding that he returned to the village 15 years ago after the death of his mother, then Chekanovo's last resident.

"I was in Crimea (in the south of Ukraine), and I got sick. It was too hot there so I decided to come back," he explained.

Dead villages like Chekanovo dot the Russian countryside, with experts estimating that tens of thousands of settlements have been abandoned.

Russia will finally be getting a full picture of the desolation with the new census, the first since 2002.

Russia's population fell precipitously after the Soviet collapse, from about 148 million in 1991 to some 142 million today, due to various factors including economic difficulties and high alcoholism rates.

The government has for years been seeking to reverse the decline, in particular through efforts to boost the birth rate, and is hoping to increase the population to 145 million by 2025.

The authorities have taken a range of measures, including awarding medals of "parental glory" to parents of many children.

Russia's population increased slightly last year for the first time since 1995, thanks largely to increased migration to the country.

But experts are expecting further drops as Russia's young population declines due to low birth rates in the 1990s.

Egorov, who must march for two kilometres (1.2 miles) to buy his groceries, is hoping to some day see the village revive, perhaps with the help of wealthy patron falling in love with its picturesque setting near a lake.

"You know, not very far from here, in Valdai, (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin has a residence," he said.

"I hope that one day some rich person will see Chekanovo and buy land here, because I have never seen anywhere as beautiful."

© 2010 AFP

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