Friday, February 12, 2021

Are There Few People in Russia’s Regions because There are Few Rail Lines or Are There Few Rail Lines because There are Few People There?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 11 – Russian economists have long engaged in a chicken-and-egg debate concerning the impact of the country’s rail system on the demographic situation outside of Moscow: Are there few people in Russian regions because there are few rail lines or few rail lines because there are few people?

            The debate has been sparked by the different density of rail lines in Europe and the Russian Federation and especially by variations in that measure between Finland and Karelia, both of which have similar climatic conditions, Genrik Penikas of the Higher School of Economics says (

            Finland has a dense network of rail lines and has succeeded in promoting development in its regions and holding the population there, the economist points out, while Karelia has only a couple of main lines and few branches. As a result -- or perhaps of it -- the rural economy of the Russian region has been in decline and its population has continued to fall.

            According to Penikas, “approximately 80 percent of the railway network of Russia (and not just in Karelia) was laid down before 1917. That is, more than a century ago!” The tracks have been replaced and the system modernized but it has not been significantly extended despite everything else that has changed.

            As a result, the economist continues, “the territories are not developing, access to them remains low, and as a result, so too does that of the population. The regional economy suffers,” and people leave, thus providing additional justification for those opposed to extending the rail network.

            The Higher School of Economics expert does not say but a similar logic affects Moscow’s decision-making about other forms of transit including highways and air routes. But unless this changes, Russia will remain on the road to rural impoverishment and population decline while countries that have made other choices will not.

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