The Death of Pskov Oblast

September 4, 2014
"Pskov Region - Russia starts here," the sign on a bus reads. Photo: Howard Amos

Staunton, September 3 – Pskov Oblast, the region of the Russian Federation along that country’s borders with Estonia and Latvia, seldom attracts much attention from outsiders. It has been in the news lately because of the deaths of servicemen from there in Ukraine. But it merits attention as well because more than any other Russian region, it is dying.

This year, the city of Pskov marked the 1111th anniversary of its founding, but despite much hoopla, there is little reason for this small oblast to celebrate: Since the 1990s, as a result of its precipitous demographic decline, Pskov has had the informal and unwelcome title of “the capital of Russian depopulation.”

In an article posted online, two Russian commentators, Yu.A. Lisovsky and L.K. Fionova explain why that title is entirely justified and why it is likely to remain so, a situation that is especially shocking given improvements in life expectancies in neighboring countries.

Pskov and Moscow officials have been celebrating the fact that the size of the loss in population in Pskov oblast has fallen from 11,939 in 2003 to 5017 in 2013, the two say, but that decline is “not an occasion to be happy.” Instead, it is a direct result of the decline in the size of the population.

In 2013, the two point out, for every 10 births among the urban population, there were 16 deaths, and in the rural area of the oblast, the situation was even worse: for every 10 births there, there were 23 deaths.

But the depopulation of Pskov reflects not only these high levels of mortality but also the flight of young people who see no future for themselves there, Lisovsky and Fionova say. As a result of both, those who remain in Pskov are increasingly old and, because men die so much earlier than women, female.

Many explain this in terms by the high levels of alcoholism in the region. According to official figures, the two point out, 1847 out of every 100,000 residents suffer from alcoholism, compared to 1547 for the country as a whole. Of those, 78.3 percent are men. But the real figures are much higher.

Alcoholism, however, is only a symptom of the economic and social collapse of the region. The government there is bankrupt, and most branches of the economy are close to complete collapse. Agriculture has also been destroyed, with all measures of production showing dramatic declines especially over the last decade.

Because food production has declined so far, prices have skyrocketed even in the farmers’ markets. As a result, a horrific picture has emerged: even at the height of summer, Pskov residents buy bananas because they are cheaper than food produced locally, “a symbol of the complete collapse of the area and its colonial dependence.”

Incomes lag and are declining, unemployment is higher than elsewhere in Russia, and the investment climate is so bleak that no one thinks of putting any new money into an oblast where almost everything is wearing down.

Young people, even university graduates can’t find work in their specialities or with a salary commensurate to their training, and so they are fleeing. All who remain are suffering: there are only six central hospitals still operating, too few doctors, and social problems, such as divorce, are rising fast. Last year, more Pskovitians divorced than at any time in 70 years.

The environmental situation is bad and deteriorating: despite its rivers, there is nowhere people can swim because the water is so contaminated. The two writers continue: people simply ignore warning signs not to go in the water, saying “’if you don’t like it, go to Egypt!” a reference to the ability of the Russian rich to travel abroad.

“An indifference to problems and an extremely low level of potential for resistance are also characteristics of Pskov and an important reason for its dying away,” the two say. “Pover and unemployment are leading to the lumpenization of the population and the loss of a sense of its own dignity and self-respect.”

The human costs of this tragedy are enormous, Lisovsky and Fionova say, but there is another cost as well: to the national security of the Russian Federation. Pskov is a border area, which should give it economic advantages, but given its problems, it is becoming less a bulwark of Russia than a place where NATO countries like Estonia and Latvia can have influence.

Neither Russia’s traditional political parties nor its “imitation” democracy will be able to correct the situation, they say. What is needed is a wholesale renewal of the elites there, something that the population will have to demand if it is to avoid seeing the complete withering away to nothingness of their land.