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The Guardian (UK)
1 January 2003
Russia: Falling rolls, falling villages
Nick Paton-Walsh, Moscow

In the Russian village of Buichki, Sasha Nenashev, 7, is particularly precious this New Year. In this failing agricultural settlement near the Ukrainian border, he is at the top of his class at school.

This achievement is not much to do with academic prowess, but more to do with the fact that he is the only pupil. The depopulation of Russia has meant that Buichki only has one 7-year-old to send to this school. In the two school years above it is the same: Sasha Romenski is top (and bottom) of the second grade. Natasha Lunyeva is the best (and worst) pupil of the third. Their "school" - a place where six teachers work with about 10 children - is a sad sign of how Russia's population is dying, and taking villages like Buichki with it.

Buichki, 300 miles south of Moscow, fell apart when the Soviet agricultural structure collapsed in the 90s. The birth rate plummeted in the middle of the decade, as workers fled the farms, and began ferrying goods back and forth from China. Such work makes ends meet, but means that the people moved to the nearby town of Kursk, where they could sell the goods on. "We've gone back to the time of tsars," joked one teacher to local media. "Each child has his own personal tutor".

The village is symptomatic of perhaps the biggest problem facing Russian today - a greater threat to the federation's existence than Chechen rebels or international debt. The nation's declining birth rate has been repeatedly singled out by President Vladimir Putin as one of Russia's biggest hurdles in the coming years. In his annual televised question and answer session with the public, he announced that the latest census would show the population standing at 145 million, a drop of more than 3 million in a decade.

Poor living standards, sexually transmitted diseases and the decay of Russia's regions, often former Soviet industrial towns considered obsolete by Moscow's wealthy political elite, fuel the decline.

So desperate is the situation that the region of Ahtubinsk, not that far from Buichki, recently offered young couples, who could prove they were not alcoholics, a new house if they had three children in five years. Such desperate moves are deemed the only way for Russia to recover.

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