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Then there were two: Rural Russian villages dying out

By Steve Harrigan
CNN Correspondent

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

Numerous villages in rural Russia are disappearing  

In this story:

A home without an address

Meat on the table, but no company


LEBYAZHY, Russia (CNN) -- The scenario for the U.S. television show "Survivor" is playing itself out all across Russia -- in real life.

In the village of Lebyazhy, near the city of Volgograd roughly 600 miles (960 kilometers) south of Moscow, 71-year-old Vitaly Vizovkin is the last man left.

But he gets no prize money, no Hollywood offers. It is all he can do to keep the wolves away.

"They've eaten all of my goats -- 26 goats, grazing around the house," he says.

The house is a one-story wooden shack without electricity that Vitaly shares with his 70-year-old wife, Irina. Dozens of other small wooden houses are scattered across the rich farmland near the Don River. But they are all empty. A village that once had 300 families, a store, electricity and a collective farm where everyone worked now has nothing, except for two survivors.

"There's no electricity, no jobs for young people. That's why everyone's left," Vitaly says. The Vizovkins' own three children are among those who have moved away.

A home without an address

Vitaly Vizovkin, 71, hauls potatoes as his wife Irina, 70, hauls buckets of water  

The scenario is growing increasingly common in rural Russia. Vershina, the village next to Lebyazhy, has a population of zero. There was no one left to bury its last inhabitant, so the man was taken to the graveyard in Lebyazhy and buried there.

Even though Vitaly and Irina are still very much alive, their village has been taken off the map. When you ask Vitaly his address, he laughs.

"You don't have an address?" I ask.

"Of course I do. I'm right here," he says. But he has a tough time telling you where to send him a letter. Not that he gets many. In fact, when my CNN crew and I were there in early October, the last news Vitaly had heard was more than a month old, about an August 27 fire that wrecked Moscow's main television tower.

The Russian population declined by more than 3 million people during the Yeltsin era, from 148.7 million people in 1992 to 145.3 million people today, according to Moscow University demographers, who say such a drop is unprecedented for a nation in peacetime. The sharp decline led Communists to accuse Yeltsin of genocide during failed impeachment proceedings in 1999.

The view around the village of Lebyazhy  

Alcohol and poverty have driven the average male life span in Russia to just 59.8 years, according to a report published by the State Committee for Statistics in 2000. The same report notes that in 10 regions or provinces of the country, deaths outnumber births by a 3-to-1 ratio. In the Pskov region in northwestern Russia, the ratio is 4-to-1.

The government report shows that rural Russia has been hit the hardest by the population losses and decline in economic standards.

This cycle is typical: First the state-owned collective farm goes bankrupt. The next casualties are electric power and the local school. Without a school, young families who are able to move away, do so. That leaves the old, who cannot move away. They stay until they die. Then the village disappears.

But there is no sign of despair from Vitaly and Irina. Both are visibly proud of their ability to survive in a place everyone else has abandoned.

"The hell with them," Irina says. "Let them go, that's their business. I'm fine right here. No schools, no light, all that stuff -- we don't need it. We're used to it. We don't need light. If we need it we light an oil lamp and we're just fine."

Irina Vizovkina, top, and her husband Vitaly say they are happy despite the difficulties of rural life  

And both appear to be in extraordinary health. My CNN crew and I witnessed Vitaly hoisting large sacks of potatoes, one after the other, onto an ancient tractor he rescued from the garbage heap. Irina lifts metal buckets filled to the brim with water out of their well with one arm.

"Your grannies would probably fall over if they tried to carry this bucket," she said, laughing.

Meat on the table, but no company

Vitaly and Irina are not merely surviving, they are doing better than many pensioners in the big cities, because they buy almost nothing.

"When I'm slaughtering a chicken," Irina says, "I know it's been well fed and healthy. If I need meat, I slaughter a bull calf and know it's fine, too. The same with milk, eggs and the rest."

Meat has become a luxury item for urban pensioners. Not for the Vizovkins, who use part of their monthly $40 pension to buy flour and sugar from a traveling store -- a bus that passes through the village weekly. Irina sits on a wooden bench in front of the house a few hours before its scheduled arrival, to make sure not to miss it.

It is a day's drive in the tractor over crater-filled dirt paths to the nearest neighbor. In the winter, weeks go by before the Vizovkins see another human. Vitaly says the toughest part is around the holidays, when there is no one to drink a toast with.

Irina says she does not need any women friends.

Irina Vizovkina worries about what will happen to the family graves after she and her husband are gone  

"I go out in the woods, see a fox cub and talk to it. I can talk to a crow sitting on a tree. I can talk to a moose when I see it."

Despite their upbeat vigor, the Vizovkins know the future, for themselves and for their village.

"After us there will be emptiness," Irina sighs, sitting out in front of the house, the fall leaves a burnt orange all around. On a hill in the distance is where all the Vizovkins are buried, some who fought in World War I, some who fought in World War II.

Irina's one worry is that after she is gone, no one will be left to take care of the graves.

RELATED STORIES: World Weather: Volgograd, Russia

CIA World Factbook 2000: Russia
Volgograd Online
Volgograd, Russia Commerical Report 1999

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