The Russian Region That's Dying on Europe's Doorstep

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Yuri Belinsky / ITAR-TASS / Newscom

The Pskov region of Russia

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On April 20, Putin announced a plan to spend more than $50 billion through 2015 on projects to alleviate the demographic crisis. A huge portion of the money would be used to try to encourage families to have more children by offering them onetime payments. But having a baby requires that parents feel secure in their overall standard of living, from medical care to education and employment, says Galina Vyatkina, head doctor at the main prenatal hospital in Pskov. "So offering handouts can only do so much," she says. "It has to be a complex approach."

The new earmarks are also unlikely to change the government's broader policy of urbanization, which is driven by the fact that basic services are much easier for the state to provide when the population is massed in huge apartment blocks. Most villages have thus been left to fend for themselves until they either disperse or die out, says Lev Shlosberg, a political activist in Pskov. "It is a semi-official death sentence for rural communities."

The regional governor, Andrei Turchak, concedes that many more villages will have to disappear. There are more than 4,000 of them across the region with a population of less than 10 people, he says. "That usually means just one or two old folks living in the backwoods ... We cannot provide for everyone."

But Turchak's connections have brought Pskov at least some relief since he was appointed by the Kremlin in 2009. A baby-faced ex-wrestling champion, Turchak, 35, is the son of one of Putin's old friends from St. Petersburg and shares the Prime Minister's passion for judo. Both of them are black belts, and in the clan politics of Russia, this tie can help a lot.

Already Turchak has gotten the Kremlin to promise a new state university for Pskov, as well as the region's first cardiovascular hospital, which is a godsend for a place where 67% of the men die of heart disease years before retirement. But the trick will be finding people to work there. With no place to train doctors, the hospital will have to bring in some 400 specialists from other regions, and it has been hard enough, Turchak says, to find farmhands willing to work in Pskov, let alone heart surgeons.

"People know that working a tractor means getting up at 5:30 in the morning, washing yourself, getting dressed, staying sober the whole time and working a full day at the wheel," Turchak says. "The mentality here is such that people ask themselves, Why would I humiliate myself like that?"

That doesn't seem far from the truth in Lopotova. Around sundown, one of Matveev's friends passes by, drunk and stumbling, having finished a day driving a combine a few towns over. "There goes one of our working stiffs," Matveev calls out to him, and the rest of the young men burst out laughing before they settle back onto their log.

Sober again, Zhbanov shakes their hands and starts the walk back to his cottage, which doubles as his studio. He turns on the lights, takes a long drink of vodka, and begins to dig through his paintings. At 67, he has already outlived the average man in Pskov by nearly a decade, which he has spent recording images of life in Lopotova. In one of his works, a bleary-eyed woman sips vodka and smokes beside a baby in a cradle. In another, Putin floats over a village hellscape wearing his judo suit. And in several of Zhbanov's paintings, a jug of moonshine hovers in the background, giving the Hitler salute.

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