November 8, 2004 by AK

Rural depopulation in Russia (revisited?)

Seablogger links to a BBC report, “Life ebbs away from Russian villages.” Its first paragraph reads:

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, birthrates and male life expectancy have suffered sharp declines. The effects are particularly visible in rural areas, where populations have been dying off or moving to towns and cities.

I’m afraid the BBC correspondent is confusing himself and his readers. He’s mixing up the decline of the Russian countryside, which has its roots in Stalin’s collectivization, and the nationwide decline in births per capita, which is mostly an urban problem. To begin with, villages in Central Russia, the area the most negatively affected by Moscow’s economic policies, started to bleed manpower as early the 1960s, perhaps even in the 1950s, when ethnic Russian city-dwellers were still procreating at a healthy rate. Already in the 1970s, an influential group of Soviet writers called derevenschiki (“village-life writers”) — most of them deeply conservative, blood-and-soil minds, two or three remarkably talented — bemoaned the decay of the Russian countryside in their prose. (Or was it posthumous existence they pictured?)

In two words, the Russian peasantry as an ancient social group was weakened during and after the Civil War through food requisitions and repression, and destroyed during the 1930s through the Collectivization. Millions of peasants had to move to the cities — Moscow was rabidly industrializing the country; millions were sent to exile and the Gulag or got their nine grams of lead straight away; those who stayed, forced to join kolkhozes, became second-class citizens. They were no longer allowed to move or even freely travel to cities; they were paid in kind, not roubles; they were not entitled to old-age pensions. When Khruschev abolished these restrictions (introducing new ones), life became more tolerable for the peasant, but mass exodus was inevitable.

Let us look at this from a resource allocation angle. Someone had to pay for Russia’s industrialization: to undertake massive investment, central planners had to cut consumption, and export as much as possible. Consumption could not be reduced uniformly for all groups; the peasantry, reduced to serfdom, was to subsist on the most meagre ration. After WWII, the communist empire required investment in the military-industrial complex as well as the economies of backward Central Asian republics and some of the European satellites. Again, the Russian peasantry had to tighten its belts. Later, Khruschev and Brezhnev turned their august sights to the agriculture’s sad predicament and attempted, in the best Soviet style, to remedy it by massive investment into huge farms and food processing plants. A classical waste of resources.

That’s how Stalin’s macroeconomic policies, the Soviet Union’s imperial overstretch and Moscow’s wise investment decisions helped bring down rural Russia. But capitalism, under certain conditions, has a tremendous power to reallocate resources so as to maximize the efficiency of their use. The author, one of whose leitmotifs is “capitalism destroyed Russia,” neglects to mention that capitalism brought about a reverse trend: well-off Muscovites buying and rebuilding houses in both close and remote villages.


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