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14 November, 2011  ▪  Olena Dmytryk

Empty Villages

Every week a village disappears from Ukraine's map

I met Bohdan at a bus stop in village Borodianka, Kyiv region. Bohdan is used to riding the old bus which (on a lucky day) makes several trips to this village. He has taken the bus to all kinds of places his entire life: first to school, now to a vocational college where he is studying to become a tractor driver. In his native village of Stara Buda there is no school and virtually no young people. Lacking even elementary infrastructure, residents of most Ukrainian villages have little choice: move or merely survive.

VILLAS AND BROOMS

The villages in the vicinity of Stara Buda are almost dead. Even the bus driver refuses to go to Velyky Lis or Koblytsia farther down the road. He says that the entire population of Velyky Lis is two old people – the rest have moved elsewhere. Another driver counters by saying that, on the contrary, the “dead” villages are now showing more signs of life. Summer cottages, villas and even clubs are being built there by wealthy Kyiv residents. But he still does not recommend taking a bus there, because it does not reach a village like that. If you do not have a car, you will have to travel on foot, and risk spending the night in the open air.

There are no villas in Stara Buda. But its residents do not grumble – they consider themselves lucky because other villages fare much worse. Old timers remember that the village used to be much bigger. Now it only has two streets and 80 households. “The youngsters are running away; there are no jobs, so villages are dying off. If there was good pay, people would stay and work,” Kolia, Bohdan’s uncle, complains. In the eight years that he has lived here the population has increased a bit. But the growth is not due to children (there are just a few of them here), but to people who come from elsewhere and cottagers. “Old people and pensioners are moving here. The village is quiet; there is a forest nearby where people can pick mushrooms and berries.” “That's money, not berries,” Kolia’s wife Halyna interjects. Many villagers sell mushrooms and berries while others come up with their own ideas for earning some money. Kolya and Halyan's neighbor Mykola opened Stara Buda’s only store – not so much to profit from it as to help his fellow villagers. “It’s a good thing that we at least have a car. We can go and buy products. But what can an old woman do? So Mykola opened his store. He has brought a lot of products, so now we have everything,” Kolia says with approval. But then he inhales from a handmade cigarette and sighs: “But still no tobacco goods.”

We walk past a house and see three families working together: both the old and the young are weaving brooms in the yard. They will later sell them in town. “People survive while the season lasts, but when the snow falls, there will be nothing. If we get 1.7 hryvnias per broom, we’ll take it,” the women say.

SAVED BY THE HIGHWAY

Selling brooms is a typical source of additional income for peasants across Ukraine. They also sell milk at UAH2 per liter to intermediaries who then resell it to milk plants at UAH 6-8. Serhiy Pavlenko from Lehedzyne in the Chernivtsi region, is very pessimistic about the future of villages: “Those that are located 30-40 km from cities will survive for a while, but the rest will grow over with weeds.” When it comes to his native village, his answer is terse: “The highway saves us.” It allows people to get to work in Uman or Talny and to the district center, where they have to go to solve every little problem.  It is a 2.5-hour trip by commuter train or by bus from Mala Berezanka to Kyiv, where people can find jobs. Local women work in Kyiv as hospital nurses and men work as guards and street cleaners. The country folks have no other choice – they say that their villages are dying before their very eyes. After husbandry farms have closed, the youth prefer to more to the cities, where pay is stable even if rent is high, rather than to struggle trying to find a job in the countryside.

NO WINDOWS, NO DOORS

“There are good people in the villages, but they are strangled by vodka,” Halyna says. She is known as a folk healer in Stara Buda, and the sick come to her from nearby villages. But neither she, nor the nurse in the first-aid station (equipped with bandages and iodine) can cure the scourge of alcoholism. The disease has taken 10 lives in Stara Buda alone in the past seven years. Both men and women succumb to alcohol. Halyna points to the houses around: “Look, the houses are like empty holes because of vodka. They squander anything they earn on drink. How can they carry on with their lives like that?” The death of old parents, lack of support, the seasonal nature of work and no confidence in the future cause people to escape into drinking. However, many are convinced that the situation in cities is even worse: peasant women trading at markets in Kyiv are used to local alcoholics begging for “20 kopiykas.”

Children in Stara Buda have their own answer to the well-known riddle "what has no windows and no doors” – the village club. The building which used to buzz with activity stands empty now with threadbare walls and a heap of bottles on the floor. That is why children are dreaming of going to a city or a larger village where there are discos and movies.

THE DOMINO EFFECT OF MIGRATION

According to the State Statistics Committee, Ukraine’s rural population dropped by 0.7% in the past year alone. As of August 1, it comprised 31.4% of the total with urban dwellers accounting for the remaining 68.6%. One reason is migration, which is caused mainly by high unemployment and a low standard of living. A KMIS study, commissioned by the UNDP’s Crimea Integration and Development Program, has shown that in the Crimea, where 77% of the population live in the countryside, half of the households can supply their basic needs, while one in five people polled were unable to even provide decent food for themselves.

The migration of the workforce produces a domino effect that causes even more people to move. Schools are the most obvious example. The school in Mala Berezanka used to have three groups of first-year students, while now they open a first-grade class only if there are at least two children. But even this is not certain to last – schools with few students are being closed as the state finds it too burdensome to keep them. However, it is precisely the absence of a school in the native village (or the poor quality of education in a neighboring village with a mere 40 students from all across the surrounding area) tips the scales when people decide where to live. One-time rural residents migrate in search of better education opportunities for their children, better access to transportation and health care and, above all, jobs.

Rural residents dread the day when agricultural land will be put on sale. People are convinced that the state will not be buying land and claim small farmers will lack funds. “A man bought a tractor, but it broke, so he had to borrow UAH 2,000 to buy a new one. And then he’ll have whatever harvest he gets,” Serhiy from Lehedzyne complains. “Legal entities, which already have a lot of land, will buy even more and become landlords.” Many people in the villages share Serhiy’s beliefs. Even now, machinery means business investors have nearly no need for local workers. Peasants are convinced that short-sighted and poorly planned legislative initiatives will force them to abandon the land which has fed them for so long. Meanwhile, the land is the main thing keeping them in their villages.

A VILLAGE IS A VILLAGE, EVEN IN EUROPE?

Mass-scale urbanization drives up unemployment and makes cities overcrowded. Ukraine is not the only country in which the rural issue is on the agenda. An ageing Europe is also fighting both a demographic crisis and a decrease in the number of villages, a side effect of urbanization. Strategies to fix the trouble vary from one country to another. Bulgaria and many other Balkan states are trying to reorient their rural population to sources of income other than agriculture. Stuart Burgess, the head of the British Commission for Rural Communities, said nearly 200,000 young people in the UK have moved to cities. The main reasons include a lack of jobs and affordable housing and — surprise — the lack of high-speed internet. However, the British government plans to have broadband internet in every house by 2012.

Poet and photographer Tom Pow has traveled to withering villages in Spain, France, Italy, Germany and Russia in an effort to preserve and revive them at least in poetry and photos. “Villages are dying. They have always died when they saw no more reason to exist. What certainly goes with them is a myriad of different world views,” the artist says. However, science is often more optimistic than poetry. Scholars are trying to outline prospects for villages in the 21st century and call their compression “inverted growth.” Andrew Cartwright of Central European University says that talk of decline and dying may divert attention from the links which still exist between villages and towns. He emphasizes how important it is that villages are often revived thanks to cottagers and “urban peasants,” those who regularly visit their relatives in the countryside. This helps overcome the sense of isolation, distance and loneliness.

Even though Ukrainian peasants often feel they are the “last heroes,” they have enough energy to survive. In Lehedzyne, local amateur director Vladyslav Chabaniuk is shooting his movie Kazka pro Chornoho kozaka (Tale of a Black Cossack). The main protagonist is played by Naomi Uman, an American director and now resident of Lehedzyne, who has chosen to live in the Ukrainian countryside. All the villagers will be able to test their acting abilities and later, when the movie is completed, get together and watch it in a local club. Perhaps it will also be shown in the revived village club in Stara Buda where Bohdan, the optimistic 16-year-old future tractor driver, plans to stay.

MODERNIZATION IS THE SOLUTION

The Ukrainian Weekasked Oleksiy Pozniak, head of the Department for Migration Studies at the Ptukha Institute of Demographics and Social Research, why villages are vanishing.

Ukraine’s rural population is too big by European standards. Agriculture is not mechanized and automatized enough: it takes an entire collective farm in Ukraine to do the work accomplished in Europe by a farmer and two to three hired workers. If villages are modernized, migration to cities will not be a threat. In the EU, this kind of migration is not very pronounced. Having access to well-developed transport infrastructure, people often live 50-70km outside the city where they work. In Ukraine, this way of living is much more expensive due to poorer infrastructure.

Ukraine’s population is dropping. An increase is only observed in some communities where the average age is younger – in western regions and suburban areas around large cities. But you cannot really say that there are any cities that are growing fast. Suburban communities usually grow a little faster than the cities themselves: Brovary and Irpin outpace Kyiv, and Illichivsk is growing faster than Odesa. Dnipropetrovsk, Lviv and Zaporizhia are shrinking, while in a number of their suburbs the population is increasing. Kyiv and its suburbs, as well as in the greater Kharkiv and Odesa areas will likely grow in the next 5-10 years, while the rural population will be shrinking faster than the urban populace. Prospects for rural development hinge on agricultural modernization.

Recorded by Dmytro Tkach


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