Between Moscow and St. Petersburg, a Disappearing Russia

At the edges of Russia’s two great cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, another Russia is present. This is the land of the broken road and poor residents. The New York Times, in a piece titled “The Russia Left Behind,” delves deeper, offering a look into this depressing state:

This will not be apparent at next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, nor is it visible from the German-engineered high-speed train. It is along the highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg — a narrow 430-mile stretch of road that is a 12-hour trip by car — that one sees the great stretches of Russia so neglected by the state that they seem drawn backward in time.

As the state’s hand recedes from the hinterlands, people are struggling with choices that belong to past centuries: to heat their homes with a wood stove, which must be fed by hand every three hours, or burn diesel fuel, which costs half a month’s salary? When the road has so deteriorated that ambulances cannot reach their home, is it safe to stay? When their home can’t be sold, can they leave?

A sad reality:

There are spots on this highway where it seems time has stopped. A former prison guard is spending his savings building wooden roadside chapels, explaining that “many souls” weigh on his conscience. A rescue worker from the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl is waiting, 27 years later, for the apartment the Soviets promised him as a reward. Women sit on the shoulder, selling tea to travelers from a row of samovars. Above them, pillars of steam vanish into the sky, just as they did in 1746, the year construction on the road began.

On the state of the M10 Highway, connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg:

The M10 highway looks normal enough at the southern limits of St. Petersburg, but then, with a jolt, it begins to atrophy. For the next 430 miles the surface of the highway, while paved, varies from corduroy to jaw-rattling patchwork. Sometimes it has four lanes, sometimes two, with few medians and frequently no lane markings at all.

Traffic creeps forward behind a procession of 18-wheelers hauling goods from the port of St. Petersburg, passing villages with names like Cockroachville, Teacupville and Chessville. It is the most heavily traveled cargo route in Russia, and yet for truck drivers complying with safety regulations, it takes 24 hours to travel between the two cities, said Viktor Dosenko, vice president of the International Transport Academy. On a good road, he said, the trip should take 10 hours.

From time to time, the dismal condition of the highway has made national news. After a snowstorm in November, about 10,000 vehicles got stuck in a traffic jam that extended more than 70 miles, trapping some drivers for three days in subzero temperatures. Valery Voitko, who heads a trade union of long-haul truck drivers, described his drivers that week as “not even angry any more, but in a state of dumb despair, that year in and year out the same thing happens.”

On Russia’s disappearing villages:

Between the great cities are hundreds of disappearing settlements: towns becoming villages, villages becoming forest. The Soviets cut off support for them during efficiency drives in the 1960s and ’70s, which categorized villages as “promising” or “unpromising.”

But the death of a village is a slow process. A geographer, Tatiana Nefyodova, calls them “black holes,” and estimates that they make up 70 to 80 percent of Russia’s northwest, where Moscow and St. Petersburg act as giant vacuum cleaners, sucking people and capital from the rest of the country.

A really well-done piece that illustrates the plight of the Russian poor.

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