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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lone Resident Keeps Tiny Village Alive

TYUTCHEVO, Central Russia — When the last inhabitant of Tyutchevo village dies, the electricity authorities will snip the wire leading to the last house and roll it up before the thieves get to it.

The flowers and grasses will thicken over the track to the village until it is lost.

Tyutchevo, located about 275 kilometers southeast of Moscow and once a settlement of about 73 houses, has shrunk to a single person in a crooked wood-and-clay cottage: Maria Lyovina, age 82. She is cut off by road for seven months of the year, when, depending on conditions underfoot, the cross-country trek through mud or deep snow can take visitors anything from 30 minutes to an hour and a half.

Her situation reflects a long-term contraction in Russia's rural population, a trend that experts believe is likely to accelerate in coming years, with huge upheavals predicted in the agricultural sector.

Three villages nearby have died in the last 20 years, and four others are clinging on with seven to 15 elderly people left.

"There were so many tractors here and so many combine harvesters," said Lyovina, whom the locals from Vednoye village, 11 kilometers away, affectionately call Baba Manya.

Vladimir Syomin, 48, head of Vednoye village administration, is responsible for many other villages of 100 people or fewer. "Those little ones are fated to die," he said.

In Vednoye, people fear that their own village of 367 people will shrink — and eventually disappear and have its name erased by Moscow cartographers.

In 1913, the Vednoye district had 1,900 people. Today, there are 698. With the near collapse of the local cooperative farm, the young are moving away and no one wants to learn how to maintain the temperamental machinery at the farm or to learn the old songs or the harmonica.

"So much has been lost in Russia already. What's a few more songs?" Syomin, who longs to pass on his harmonica skills, said wistfully.

To get to Baba Manya's in the Lipetsk region, visitors pass a sprawling graveyard of skeletal farm machinery and wend through the fields, taking the fainter track when the road forks.

Her house seems devoid of any right angle. The kitchen smells of earth, as if the ground is impatient to swallow up the place.

Faded candy wrappers serve as the wallpaper on one side. On another wall are two old tin clocks, one rusted into silence, the other ticking on importantly. Two turkey chicks fuss in a box near the window.

People keep pressuring Baba Manya to leave, but she shrugs them off.

"A man came and offered me a place in a nursing home. I said, 'Are you crazy? As long as I can walk I'll be here.' "Baba Manya's voice is bright and plucky, but her words are about loss. Her birthplace, Likhorevshina village, no longer exists. How far away it was she cannot tell.

"I don't know about kilometers. I just know you walk by the pond and it's there."

Her mother had eight children, but they scattered to the ends of Russia. Two of Baba Manya's grown children live in nearby villages or towns, and one lives in Moscow. A fourth died.

"Everyone is just gone," she said. "They just gradually left."

Her husband was a tractor driver at the collective farm. He died 42 years ago.

Baba Manya's father, a God-fearing man who read the Bible every day, was jailed for three years in Soviet times because he cursed under his breath when Communists destroyed the local church.

Standing by a well, Baba Manya gestures at the tall summer grass swaying all around.

"Look, so much grass! It is all being wasted! No one is cutting it. Everything is drying out, and the trees are dying.

"There are no spare parts for the combine harvesters. There's nothing left. When will there be such things again? When we're dead, probably," she scolded.

Maria Lyovina's 60-year-old son, Viktor, blames the fate of Tyutchevo on the policy changes in the Boris Yeltsin era. "We didn't think there would be all these senseless reforms and the village would disappear. Everyone started to leave for the cities because there was no salary," Lyovin said.

When he thinks about the future of Vednoye, Syomin feels a clenching fear. If the struggling cooperative farms in the region collapse, then, he believes, the villages themselves will convulse and die and no one in Russia will even notice.

Valery Patsiorkovsky, a professor at the Institute of Socioeconomic and Population Issues in Moscow, predicts major upheavals that will lead to a sharp contraction in the rural population, a change that he sees as necessary and inevitable for the sake of agricultural efficiency.

"We are in the Information Age, and the young people know it," he said. "I think in the Information Age we don't need millions of people in rural areas."

There has been no census since 1989, but according to a 1997 demographic report by the State Statistics Committee, about 27 percent of Russia's 147 million population live in rural areas compared with 73 percent in 1939.

Seventeen percent of the population work in agriculture compared with 4 percent in the United States.

In a study from 1993 to 1997, Patsiorkovsky examined the differences between villagers in Russia and farm families in Missouri.

The striking difference, posted in bar charts on his wall, was their outlook.

In the Russian villages, 65 percent suffered feelings of deep fear or depression, compared with 26 percent in Missouri. The most optimistic in Russia felt sadder and more pessimistic than the most depressed people in the U.S. state of Missouri.

In Missouri, the level of stress and depression was fairly constant through all age groups, except for higher levels among people in their 40s. In Russia, the numbers of village people who felt depressed or afraid grew steadily the older they got.

Ask Baba Manya about her happy memories, and she pauses, considers and shrugs. Ask her about her regrets, and she says that she lost some bees recently and that her body aches nowadays.

In her youth, she loved to dance, but her husband was "serious and strict."

To a patient listener, she releases the ancient secrets of her heart. It is not a happy story — her mother forced her to marry a tractor driver, whom she never loved, because his family was well-off.

Her one true love, remembered to this day, was a boy called Misha whose family was poor.

"He was handsome, he was interesting. We were deeply in love," she said. "But we had to face facts."