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#6 - JRL 7176
The Times (UK)
May 10, 2003
Lone Russian at home in silent land
By Clem Cecil in Nikolskoye

It is a lonely life, being the sole inhabitant of a village four miles from the nearest road, but Nikolai Afanasyev believes that he has no choice.

"I was born here and my father before me. If I leave, the house will fall into ruin," he said, sitting in the shadow of a copse of birch trees sprouting the first pale leaves of spring.

Nikolskoye is only 180 miles south of Moscow, but it feels like another world, another century. There are no telephones, no sounds of traffic; only one man and his chickens, which run freely in abandoned houses and barns.

Rural Russia, celebrated by Tolstoy and a rich source of imagery for Soviet propaganda, is officially in decline: preliminary results of the 2002 census disclose that the countryside is emptying as people head for the cities and a better life.

Mr Afanasyev lives in one of the country's 34,803 villages that have fewer than ten inhabitants. Of the total of Russia's 155,290 villages, 13,032 are deserted and 37,337 contain fewer than 50 people.

Mr Afanasyev, 49, an educated man and a former electrician, left Moscow after his father died four years ago and returned to Nikolskoye to dedicate himself to the upkeep of the family home, a tiny brick bungalow. The school next to his house, which he attended until the age of 12, closed more than 30 years ago. The nearest shop is a four-mile journey on skis in the winter and by bicycle after the thaw.

Water comes from a well 300 yards from the house and the electricity supply is becoming erratic as local people steal cable to sell as scrap metal.

Mr Afanasyev's dedication to the house is rare: 29 of the 30 houses in the village are empty for most of the year, and only three of them come to life during the hot summer months, when pensioners from Moscow retreat to the village. Over the past ten years many inhabitants have moved to villages on roads near by, where houses are centrally heated.

Mr Afanasyev has become almost self-sufficient. He finished planting his potatoes this week, which will produce enough to last him through the winter. His cellar, in the cool basement of a barn beside a pond, is hung with cabbages and stacked high with jars of marinated cucumbers and tomatoes. He keeps bees, and a flock of geese followed him around the empty village that has become his kingdom. "I talk to them when I feel like company," he said.

When he was a boy, the village buzzed with life. Once the local farm, a former kolkhoz (collective farm), employed everyone living within a 15-mile radius. Now it employs only 30 people, who work long hours for a pitiful wage. "Of course people go to the city," Mr Afanasyev said. "What's the point of killing yourself to milk cows all day if you are only paid 250 roubles (Pounds 5) a month?"

Nikoloskoye, hidden in a valley and accessible only by foot or rough-terrain vehicle, was once a favourite among summer-house owners from Moscow, who kept vegetable gardens. But city-dwellers have become richer and there is no need to grow vegetables.

As poverty blights the countryside, crime is rising and it has become dangerous to keep a dacha, or summer house, in remote areas as almost inevitably they are burgled during the winter. Whereas many villages near Moscow are kept going by dacha-owners, those in remote areas simply turn to dust as government subsidies dry up and agricultural production declines. The Russian population has shrunk by 1.3 per cent since 1989 to 145.2 million.

As summer warms the fertile soil of the Odoyevsky region, it is hard to imagine why people flee to the stifling traffic jams of the cities. As he laid a table with marinated cucumbers and birch juice, Mr Afanasyev explained why:

"Nobody wants to do the back-breaking work it takes to produce this food," he said. "The peasant life is hard. This village will die with me."

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