By Paul Goble
The Russian government is currently conducting a trial census in advance of the full one planned for 2020. It suggests that when the results come in from the latter in two to three years, they will show “a Russia without people” in the rural areas, with the population concentrated in the major cities but declining in number.
In Novyye izvestiya today, journalist Irina Mishina says that the trial census by the new questions it is asking and the old ones it is dropping suggests what the authorities care about and what results they expect after 2020 (newizv.ru/news/society/14-10-2018/rossiya-svobodnaya-ot-lyudey-chto-mozhet-pokazat-perepis-naseleniya).
Among the new questions being asked in the trial census are how far respondents live from their workplace, how long they have lived abroad, and how ready they are to take new jobs even if they aren’t currently looking for them. Among those dropped are queries about second jobs and academic degrees.
Nikita Mkrtchyan, a demographer at the Higher School of Economics, points out that “a census is important for defining the ethnic composition of the population of Russia and of the people constantly living in our country so as to understand migration processes. But its chief goal” is elsewhere.
That goal, he argues, is “to collect data about the state of the workforce today. The question about a second job has disappeared apparently because earlier no one answered it because they wanted to conceal additional income. As for the question on academic degrees, this indicator by all appearance is not important for the leadership of the country now.”
The most dramatic changes the 2020 census will show, he and other experts, is the collapse in the size of the population in rural areas – since 2000, it has been falling by 500,000 every year – and the growth of cities to which many rural residents are moving. It will also show the slowing impact of migration which no longer can keep the overall population from falling.
Demographers say that the census results will show “a Russia without people” beyond the cities. In Oryol Oblast, 132 rural population points have lost all their people over the last decade; and its officials currently predict that “more than 800” additional ones will disappear from the map in the next several years.
Much of this decline has been driven by Putin’s “optimization” program in education and health care which has led to the closure of schools and medical points in villages. As a result, there are no schools to hold young people in the villages, and they and their parents leave even if the latter do have jobs.
“Another consequence of the optimization of rural schools,” Mkrtchayn says, “is the outflow of rural teachers and the actual liquidation of cultural life in the villages. Clubs disappear, move theaters close, and people do not have anything to occupy their time. As a result, many take to drink.”
“If people do leave for the cities, large or small, they most often remain there,” the demographer says; and that means the rural population has no way of maintaining itself.
Natalya Zubarevich, a leading Russian specialist on regional geography, says that people are leaving the villages because there are no jobs as agriculture of the traditional kind has died. The new agro-industrial concerns don’t need workers, and so the villages can’t hold people. And this leads to a decline in population reproduction as urban residents have fewer children.
Some of this is going to come out because of the preliminary census being conducted now. All of it almost certainly will come out in 2020 or 2021, sparking a new debate in which Russians are likely to ask questions extremely inconvenient to the powers that be, including but not limited to “who killed the Russian village?” and “what should we do about him?”