Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Only Radical Changes Will Keep Most of Russia from Being Depopulated, Gontmakher Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 21 – The Russian population is increasingly concentrated in a few major cities leaving much of the country with ever fewer people and thus ever fewer economic possibilities, Yevgeny Gontmakher says, the result of the country having ended Soviet controls but not having established sufficiently free political and economic arrangements.

            In Soviet times, the regime simply directed people to where it needed them for economic development, by the use of prison labor under Stalin and by the assignment of people on school and university graduation to where they were needed in subsequent decades, the Moscow economist says (

            But both of those compulsory measures are gone, and Russia has not replaced them with the freedoms of economic activity and political arrangements that might compensate for them and retain or even increase the number of people in many parts of the country rather than have an ever larger share of them flood into a few cities.

            Russia as a whole has a population density of about nine people per square kilometer which means that it ranks 181st among the countries of the world. “Below us,” Gontmakher says, “are only some desert-area African countries, Mongolia, Australia and Canada.” And in parts of Russia, the density is far lower than the countrywide average.

            Sixty-five percent of Russia’s territory is in the permafrost zone, out of which population has been declining for almost half a century.  Living there is hard, and only by moving people from elsewhere in and out can the population be maintained and the economic benefits of their being there be maintained.

            Another means of improving the situation, Gontmakher continues, is expanding the rights of the indigenous peoples to administer these lands. “Now, these rights are decorative and constantly being reduced via the liquidation of autonomous districts, which has already occurred in Krasnoyarsk Kray and in Kamchatka and was recently announced of the Nenets District.”

            The remaining 35 percent of Russian territory has another and equally serious problem: the population is leaving most of it to move to a few major cities. Moscow and St. Petersburg are growing, but Tver Oblast in between them is losing population to both.  Its density now is comparable to Algeria or northern Finland.

            This trend entails enormous negative consequences: “the worsening of the quality of life of the population in broad degrading territories … a breaking apart of the single all-Russian social space … and a lowering of the quality of a significant part of Russian ‘human capital’” which makes investments in much of the country difficult if not impossible.

            This raises the question: “can a society which declares itself to have a democratic character, to respect the rights and freedoms of the individual, and acknowledges the inviolability of private property seek to regulation the dispersal of people throughout the territory?” The answer will require something Russia does not now have: “an active regional policy.”

            Obviously, the government must create conditions in which investment in the regions will be attractive but that will require “significant shifts in the political system” that are not now in evidence. Among them are a greater openness to the outside world, a shift to genuinely free enterprise, decentralization of political power, and increased social spending outside the capitals.

            And Gontmakher concludes that “any attempts to declare changes in the spatial development of Russia without fundamental reforms of a magnitude equal in size (and often in content) to those which occurred in the early 1990s are useless and only fill the paper on which they are described.”

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