“Having tucked into his first bottle of vodka earlier than usual, Anatoly Zhbanov goes on an afternoon stroll to buy another one along the dirt road through Lopotova, a dying village on Russia’s western edge, in the region of Pskov. It is mid-April, and clumps of snow are still melting at the roadside where Zhbanov, a local artist, stops to peer inside a lopsided cabin, the home of a local bootlegger. In the window stands a plastic jug filled with murky liquid, its neck sealed with a rubber glove that seems to be waving hello. “That’s how you know it’s ready,” Zhbanov says. “The gas released from fermentation makes the glove inflate. We call that the Hitler salute.”
In the past few years, the region of Pskov has become famous in Russia for two interconnected blights: moonshine and depopulation. In 2006, a brew tainted with chemicals killed at least 15 people and poisoned hundreds, marking the first time a Russian region had to declare a state of emergency because of vodka. Last month, when the federal government released the census data collected in 2010, Pskov earned another claim to fame: it is dying out faster than any other region in Russia’s heartland … more than 6,000 villages have turned into ghost towns, or as the census calls them, “population points without population.” About 2,000 of these are in Pskov.
In just eight years, the region has lost 11.5% of its population, a rate of decline more often seen in times of war and famine. This might have been expected in Russia’s permanently frozen north, like the region of Magadan, once home to the Gulag prison camps, where the population dropped 14.1% in that time. But Pskov lies on the border with the European Union, and the city of St. Petersburg, Putin’s birthplace, is only 100 miles (161 km) away.
In Soviet times, huge collective farms and machine works were based in Pskov. Village life thrived, and the main city was famed for noble things like fending off the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century. But traveling the region’s backroads now inspires the creepy feeling that a plague has just passed through. Every few miles a cluster of huts emerges from behind a hill, and most of them turn out to be abandoned, their floorboards warped and splintered, releasing a smell of decay. The fields are overgrown, and old grain elevators tower over them like enormous ghosts — landmarks to Russia’s demographic catastrophe.
“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.