Staunton, April 10 – The absence of roads and the collapse of civil aviation in many rural areas of Russia has created a new class of “absolutely free” people, Artemy Pozanenko says, village residents who deal with their own problems without any intervention by teachers, policemen, doctors, or government officials.
Pozanenko, a sociologist at the Moscow Higher School of Economics, says that some relatively large Russian cities like Norilsk are cut off from the rest of the country but that he is talking not about them but about villages whose residents find it difficult if not impossible to go to district centers most of the year (zapovednik.space/material/Oni-absolutno-svobodny).
In some parts of Russia, people living in such special isolation form a large proportion of the population. In one district of Arkhangelsk oblast, for example, 40 percent of the population lives that way. Even in places not far from Moscow, there are villages that are cut off from larger population and political centers.
This is a relatively new development, Pozanenko says. In Soviet times, the state sought to intervene and control all aspects of life, by combining rural settlements into larger ones that were easier to control, by establishing heavily subsidized air fares to allow interaction, and by ensuring that officials from rayon and oblast centers visited regularly.
But over the last two decades, all of these innovations have collapsed: with people returning to a natural economy, with air fares now far more expensive than before, and with most officials not inclined to both travelling to these villages to try to ensure that Moscow’s rules are enforced.
The more isolated the villages are, the sociologist says, the less people in them rely on anyone but themselves – many are fishermen or hunters -- the more they cooperate with each other against outsiders and nature in order to survive, and the slower their numbers decline, the Moscow sociologist says.
“The main enemies” of these isolated villagers, Pozanenko continues, are government control agencies like the police, sanitation officials, and government agencies charged with restricting hunting and fishing. Many villagers are obviously in violation of the law, but with rare exceptions, officials don’t show up in these villages to enforce the rules.
Generally, he says, “the authorities do not help and they do not interfere – they do not give anything, but at the same time, they don’t check constantly. What emerges as a result is a kind of anarcho-communism. [Residents of such villages] life practically like one family and highly value their relationships.”
Such people have “a sense of absolute freedom, the opportunity to exploit resources as they want, to live the way they want, and to maintain communal relations which they do not want to lose.”
According to Pozanenko, there is only one government institution on which they are “absolutely dependent,” the school. If it is closed – and the government has been closing many small schools in recent years – then the villages begin to die because young people have little choice but to leave.
But adult residents do not feel similarly compelled. Instead, many of them highly value their isolation and oppose ending it. Recently, for example, the Murmansk governor offered to build a road to one such village, and the villagers voted overwhelmingly against that project. “They’ve become accustomed to isolation, they see its advantages, and they want to preserve it.”
Obviously, there are problems for the health care of such people, but funding for hospitals even in district centers is now so low that they do not lose much. The police seldom come, but there is little crime as everyone knows everyone else – and the possibility of getting away with anything is small.
But despite their physical isolation, the villagers are tied into the wider world: “television is everywhere,” although not every village has a mobile telephone network, although most have at least some telephone connections. And social pathologies like alcoholism are less noticeable than in better connected towns and cities.