Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Which Russian Cities are Withering Away?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 14 –Russia’s demographic decline is taking many forms – the disappearance of villages, the hollowing out of the countryside and difficulties with meeting draft quotas and having enough working age people to support an aging population – but perhaps the most dramatic is the predicted disappearance of relatively large cities like Ivanovo.

            As reported in yesterday’s “Rossiiskaya gazeta,” scholars at the University of California predict that Ivanovo, which currently has 448,000 residents, will simply disappear from the face of the earth by the year 2100 because there will not be anyone left to live there (rg.ru/2014/01/13/reg-cfo/ivanovo-anons.html).

            Ten other large Russian cities will also likely disappear, the researchers said, along with five Ukrainian urban areas, and one each in Armenia and Georgia in and a variety expand rapidly, with 21 of the 31 fastest growing cities in the world located in the Peoples Republic, a reflection of the rapidity of demographic shifts.

            (An even more dramatic shift was reported in the England and Wales yesterday. There, almost ten percent of the children under five are Muslims while only one half of one percent of those over 85 are, a pattern that points to a rapid increase in the overall Muslim share of the population Muslims in the coming decades (svoboda.org/content/article/25226428.html).)

                In an analysis of the California projections on the “Svobodnaya pressa” portal, Svetlana Gomzikova says that Ivanovo’s disappearance if it happens will be the product of the lack of industry, the flight of youth to Moscow, falling birthrates despite an unchanged gender balance, and rising mortality (svpressa.ru/society/article/80458/).

            These projections are somewhat at variance with those offered by United Nation experts in 2012. The latter pointed to Nizhny Novgorod as the Russian city which is losing population most rapidly – a projected 12 percent by 2025 – followed by Novosibirsk, Omsk, Chelyabinsk, Volgograd and Voronezh (unhabitat.org/pmss/listItemDetails.aspx?publicationID=3387).

            Gomzikova spoke with Denis Vizgalov, a geographer who heads the Living Cities Company, about these projections. He was dismissive, suggesting that such predictions are made “not to predict the life of cities” but to advertise the companies which make them. Such self-promotion, he said, is to be found “in all branches of science.”

            At the same time, he acknowledged that “many Russian cities will disappear from the map over the next 50 years.”  But these will not be major cities but smaller ones, who are far less capable of finding new directions and attracting population from the countryside. Russian cities under 30,000 and those with only one industry are especially at risk.

             In contrast, cities with more than 500,000 have many resources which will allow them to survive even if they go through difficult times.  Ivanovo is near the dividing line, but Vizgalov said he believes it belong with the larger and potentially thriving urban centers than with the smaller and dying ones.

            Russians have focused on the problem of single-industry company towns, the “monogorods.” Those are places in which more than a quarter of the population works in one branch and more than a quarter of production comes from that. But in doing so, both ordinary Russians and the Russian state forget how varied these places are, Vizgalov said.

            Some are scientific centers, some are mining centers, some are industrial centers. As a result, “the financial situation and even the standard of living in them is very, very different. Different problems require different solutions, “but all our government programs directed at the development of the monogorods ... approach them with one and the same medicine.”

                Some company towns will benefit from a simple influx of cash, but others won’t. Such outside funding will help if and only if it changes the economic structure of these cities. Sometimes that is possible, but in many cases it isn’t.  And of the roughly 400 Russian company towns – a third of all Russian cities – some ten to 15 will disappear in the next two decades.

                Those most at risk are places based on industrial production, extraction industries, and northern cities where climatic conditions are bad.  In short, Vizgalov said, “these are cities which have not been able to find a reason for their existence after the dismantling of the Soviet planned economy. They are now in the most difficult situation.”

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