Ghost Towns in Russia
Russia is a land of big statistics; the world’s largest country, sweeping nearly a third of the way around the world and has many ghost towns and villages born out of political ideology, disease, warfare and economic decline.
Its sheer size means that its population, the tenth largest in the world, is spread out so much it has very nearly the lowest population density in the world.
Its geography has affected its development both economically and politically. From its nascence to today, it takes strong government to rule over a country with 10% of the world’s land mass.
Originally its inhabitants were nomadic, moving animals around vast areas of the countryside, living in tents and surviving off the land. Soon though, the people recognised the fertility of the land and began farming crops – today Russia has 10% of the world’s arable land.
Initially comprising of small rural settlements and communities, its first city Kiev, grew to prominence in the 9th century and was seen as nominal capital of the Russian lands. Its influence was almost uniquely centred around the city and the distance people could travel in two days. The lands beyond this were lawless and subject to raids from all corners of Europe and Asia. Attacks from Turkic tribes in the 11th and 12th century led to a mass migration of the population northwards to safer forested land and the style of agriculture changed.
In the 13th century the Mongols swept westward across the plains pillaging and destroying as they went. They razed Kiev and for the next century used Russia as a source of supplies, pillaging the country for their needs.
Following their defeat in the 14th century Moscow began to rise as a major city but still with a limited sphere of influence.
At this time severe climatic conditions and plagues devastated the population, the 14th century saw ‘The Little Ice Age’ when for many years, temperatures remained below freezing for over eight months of the year.
Plague returned every five years between 1350 and 1490 but didn’t have the same devastating effects as in western Europe as the population remained spread out across the country and in the main, only the cities suffered. Still, many villages and towns lost their populations, some being abandoned for fear of the diseases returning.
In 1571 Moscow was destroyed in a fire and a century later civil war broke out. Populations were displaced, thousands of people died in the fighting or as a result of economic disruption and again many abandoned villages and towns were left to the vagaries of time.
The 18th century saw the bad times put behind them and the Russian Empire grew stretching from Poland in the west to Alaska in the east. St Petersburg grew to become one of the most beautiful and architecturally significant cities in the world and peace and prosperity ensued.
It was not to last long and the 20th century proved cataclysmic for the people of Russia.
The Bolshevik Revolution and civil war left the economy and infrastructure severely damaged again leading to misery and starvation for many. Thousands were killed for their political leanings and the new government set in motion a revolution that ,although leading Russia to becoming a great industrial power, came at a great cost to its citizens.
Thousands were forcibly moved to work in factories; others were moved off their land into collectives where they were expected to work hard for little reward to feed the revolution. This period saw the greatest transition of the population in the country’s history leaving whole towns emptied and agricultural communities evacuated to others. Many of these towns and villages still lie empty on the vast steppes of the Russian countryside, sad reminders of a cruel and ill thought out plan.
The revolution continued and in the 30s, millions were deported or exiled for their political views. Gulags, effectively concentration camps were developed to house subversives who were turned into slave labour to farm or extract raw materials for industry. Millions died in the appalling conditions and again today these camps, now deserted, can be visited by the curious who leave emotionally drained after witnessing living conditions.
The Second World War was equally disastrous for Russia. Its leaders decided that the best approach was that taken in the Napoleonic wars of destroying everything as they retreated so as not to give succour to the advancing Germans. Cities, towns and villages, farms and farmland were destroyed in trying to stem the advance and whilst successful with the defeat of the Nazis at Leningrad, it came at a terrible price for the Russian people. 26 million died in the war, by far the largest numbers of any participant and left the country reeling economically at the end of the war.
Today, modern, capitalist Russia has slowly recovered and its people have some sort of stability. Its population declined rapidly in the 90s as high death rates, many from alcohol abuse, outstripped high birth rates.
For visitors to the country, its political past, present and future fill the mind but leaving the cities with their wealth of culture and history you can marvel at the scale and beauty of the country. From the sweeping farmland of the windswept steppes to the majesty of the Caucasus and Ural mountains with Mount Elbrus the highest peak in Europe at 18,500 feet and Lake Baikal, storing one fifth of the world’s fresh water. Moving east there’s the desolation of the taiga and Siberia, home to so many of the camps that were to be the death of dissidents. At its Pacific edge you find Klyuchevskaya Supka, Eurasia’s highest active volcano at 15,500 feet. The climate varies from the unimaginably cold Northern Siberia where temperatures plunge in winter to nearly minus 80 Celsius to the shores of the Black Sea which enjoy a subtropical climate of warn winters and hot summers. 100,000 rivers feed the myriad lakes of the country and whilst visiting the abandoned settlements of centuries past you’ll never cease to be amazed at the vistas that meet your eye.
Visits to Russian ghost towns will be tinged with sadness as the inhumanities inflicted on the former residents, wonder that people lived in such places hundreds of miles from the next town and a commune with the tranquillity that now pervades the towns finally at peace.