STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
The country with the largest land area in the world has a population that is getting smaller. Russia's population has been falling since soon after the end of the Cold War. The country now has 141 million or so people. That makes Russia a good deal smaller than Nigeria, Bangladesh or Brazil. United Nation's forecasters see decades more of decline, and the change is especially dramatic in Russia's vast rural areas. NPR's Anne Garrels had a look at the Western Siberia region of Tyumen.
ANNE GARRELS: The crunch of snow is nothing new for 36-year-old Alexander Yakovnyankov(ph). He feels totally at home in the remote village of Butusava(ph) after immigrating here from frigid northern Kazakhstan.
Yakovnyankov is just the kind of person Tyumen authorities are looking for, an ethnic Slav with experience as a farm manager who's married with children.
To persuade him to move here, a private dairy farmer offered housing and a decent salary. The Russian government kicked in with moving expenses. It eliminated the usual red tape and quickly issued the family Russian citizenship. Yakovnyankov says all this, plus concern about his children's future back in Kazakhstan, clinched the deal.
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ALEXANDER YAKOVNYANKOV: (Through translator) There is a problem. Schools now use Kazakh, not Russian. It was getting harder and harder to deal with official documents, which are also only in Kazakh.
GARRELS: But there aren't a lot of Yakovnyankov's out there. In the last two years, only 130 families have resettled across this region, which is larger than Alaska and Texas combined. The government wants another 1,000 Russian- speaking families from the former Soviet Republics, but few are interested in the harsh rural life. Most don't have the skills Tyumen wants.
With the end of communism, state and collective farms fell apart, livestock inventories declined by one-half, fields lay fallow. The young and able fled.
From a high of 200, the local school now only has 34 students, and the numbers continue to decrease. Administrator Lydia Karaladivna(ph) says Butusava is a shadow of what it once was.
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LYDIA KARALADIVNA: (Through translator) In the '90s, the state farm included six villages. Only three are left. And in one of them, there's only one family.
GARRELS: Low fertility, high death rates and poor infrastructure have all combined to condemn Russia's rural areas. Alcoholism gets worse here, not better.
Many of those now living in Butusava are unwilling to do little more than eke out a living with a few animals, their vegetable garden and a hefty dose of vodka.
The government has recently tried to modernize this community. Impassable roads have been paved. Natural gas has been piped in at last to replace wood-burning stoves. There are more phone lines, and with them, the possibility of Internet access. More and more of the quaint wooden houses with gingerbread window frames have running water, though by no means all.
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OKSANA SEPUNANA: (Foreign language spoken)
GARRELS: For all the shortcomings, 27-year-old Oksana Sepunana says Butusava is better than other villages which offered her a job. She's a veterinarian and another recent immigrant from Kazakhstan. Before he lured her here, the private farmer who's trying to resuscitate local agriculture had not been able to find a vet for three years.
YAKOVNYANKOV: (Foreign language spoken)
GARRELS: But his new manager, Alexander Yakovnyankov, says the dairy farm needs still more competent, experienced workers if it's to expand and succeed. The immigration program has helped, but it's not enough.
Ms. Karaladivna: (Foreign language spoken)
GARRELS: Local administrator, Lydia Karaladivna, says ultimately, local young people have to be persuaded it's worth staying here. They need decent housing. They have to believe there's a future. The region needs a baby boom. Despite improvements and incentives, that's not yet happening.
Anne Garrels, NPR News.
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