Staunton, October 28 – Provincial Russia is not what it was 20 years ago or as many still imagine it to be, Simon Kordonsky says. While it is true that some villages are in fact dying out, others are attracting a variety of new people whose activities, although often unnoticed and uncounted by Moscow, mean that rural Russia is in fact bubbling with “hidden life.”
For the last decade, Kordonsky has led a group of scholars at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics in investigating what rural Russia is like, why it is now so different from what it was in the past, and why because of these changes Moscow often fails to take it into account in its approach to the country (opec.ru/1885527.html).
Among “the new people” of rural Russia, his team has found, are “those who want to isolate themselves from social contacts and government supervision, dacha owners, people who want to live in harmony with nature, and sectarians.” In many cases, these people are moving into places that have been deserted by their former residents.
Government statistics are very good at recording the outflow of the older population and the supposed disappearance of villages and other settlements, but they are much less good at recording “the enormous number of the active population” which lives one place and works another, or moves from one residence to another during the course of a year.
Kordonsky argues that “the system of settlement in Russia has essentially changed over the last 25 years,” from one in which the state determined where people would live to one in which individuals make choices on their own for economic or other reasons.
On the one hand, that has led to an emptying out of the original population in many rural areas. But on the other, it has sparked a move in the other direction with “residents of major cities beginning to move into the provinces,” a situation that is possible because many Russians now have two or three homes, often at opposite ends of the country.
Related to and reinforcing this is the disappearance of traditional settlement forms and the appearance of new communities, which have “intentionally isolated themselves from state supervision.” On the basis of his team’s research, Kordonsky says, “we have come to understand that hidden life is everywhere.”
Isolated communities are being formed for various reasons, including “ecological, romantic, philosophical-esoteric, social (flight from a technocratic world which is globalized and spiritless), and deeply practical ones as well, such as the striving to live in a self-sufficient way in the case of economic crises and other cataclysms.”
Rural Russia is especially alive along major transportation routes and in border areas because these give ample opportunities to earn money through trade of various kinds. Those who fall into this category number as many as five million, and among them are often religious sectarians who have their own reasons for isolation.
According to Kordonsky’s team, “the specific feature of Russia is that [its residents] remain nomads at heart,” something that “radically distinguishes them from [their] European neighbors who tend to live in one place only. Russians on the other hand may live in Arkhangelsk but work elsewhere in central Russia or the Far East much of the year.
The dramatic increase in the number of dacha owners – now some 60 million people – and the concomitant growth of the 40 to 50 million people who support them represent yet another aspect of life outside traditional Russian cities and villages. Such people are often far more numerous on any given territory than are the original residents.
Other groups that have moved in as others have left are some 10 million sectarians and almost as many more agriculturalists who often take over villages that have become vacant. In many cases, both groups remain “’outside the state’s field of vision.’” But they are very much there in fact.
Many of these new or new-old settlements have no official status. That often means that any structures that are erected have no official status and that those who live “outside the state” are at least formally without the social services other Russians receive.
Relations between the new rural Russians and the old ones vary widely. Often they coexist without much interaction, but if the new rural Russians try to take too many resources, there are conflicts – and these too remain outside of government regulation, by design or by default.
At the same time, the Kordonsky team found, the new rural Russians and the old rural Russians are cooperating in interesting ways. The new ones use the Internet to sell products that the old ones produce, benefiting both and allowing for rural life in Russia to thrive in places where many thought it never could.