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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chuvash Village at Home With Putin

MTChildren playing on a mound of snow. Cheaper mortgages for young families aim to stop an exodus from the village.
SHEMURSHA, Chuvashia -- For the incumbent in a presidential race, going on the stump in the countryside could be considered a risky gambit, as rural settlements across the country are dying on their feet -- plagued by poverty, unemployment and a dearth of investment from local and federal governments.

Hundreds of villages exist in name only, places on the map that are turning into miniature ghost towns, with few villagers and precious little else.

Unless the village in question happens to be a model one, of course.

When President Vladimir Putin and the television crews flew into Shemursha in southern Chuvashia by helicopter last month, his visit shone a light on the rare exception: a rural community 700 kilometers east of Moscow that, if not completely thriving, has a rare sense of purpose and industry -- even though, by rights, it should probably be struggling as much as the rest of rural Russia.

Or as Putin more diplomatically put it: "Most indicative is that even though the Chuvash republic, unlike other regions, does not have oil, gas or metals, but nevertheless, it has achieved positive development."

Vladimir Filonov / MT

Putin, his security men and a Rossia television crew dropped in to see the Matveyevs at their home in Shemursha, Chuvashia.

Shemursha is a village of 4,000 people, 150 kilometers south of the capital of Chuvashia, Cheboksary, on the border with Tatarstan. The administrative center for its district, with a total population of about 17,000, the village is home to an easygoing mix of Russians, Tatars and Chuvashi.

Potemkin village it may not be, but Shemursha certainly appears to be making an effort to spruce itself up, and is clearly getting a helping hand from somewhere.

Neat, solid-looking brick cottages and concrete apartment blocks are in evidence all around Shemursha's main street and surrounding areas.

Most homes are separated from the road by gates and sidewalks, and the roads have that rare quality of being almost, but not quite, even. Nearby, workers can be seen fixing the roof of the local House of Culture.

For most of the last two decades, district head Valery Fadeyev and his deputy Alexandra Bochkaryova have led the local administration, and it was their efforts over the last six years that brought the president here.

Through a series of programs the village has entered a more modern world with the Internet and mortgages, as well as better supplies of gas and electricity.

Gazifikatsiya and elektrifikatsiya are the big buzzwords in Shemursha. Bochkaryova, who came to Chuvashia from the Vladimir region as a schoolteacher over 30 years ago, boasts of how many kilometers of pipes and wires have been laid to supply gas and electricity to homes in the district in the last year.

Doctors have also been enticed back to the more rural parts of the district by offering them accommodation in newly built houses.

But by far the most impressive development in the village is a cleverly structured mortgage program -- per head of population, Shemursha probably has more mortgage holders than Moscow or St. Petersburg -- designed to favor young couples, which residents say has helped to stop the exodus of younger residents to big cities.

On his visit to the village Putin -- plus camera crew and security detail -- dropped in on one young couple, Igor and Tanya Matveyev, for a cozy chat in their new home, bought under the mortgage program.

The cottage is big, even by village standards -- let alone Moscow's -- with two bathrooms, two bedrooms and a comfortable 110 square meters of living space.

Usually the mortgage program provides 10-year loans at an annual rate of 15 percent, but couples with small children can get special zero-rate mortgages, and qualify for extra grants if they work in the area's poorly developed agriculture industry.

Vladimir Filonov / MT

Tanya Matveyeva smiling as she shows off the present of a china set Putin gave her.

With Igor Matveyev working as a veterinarian on a local farm, and with their two children, the couple got a big discount, so that instead of paying off the full mortgage cost of 900,000 rubles ($32,000), they will pay just over half the total.

In remarks carried by Rossia television, Matveyev even joked with Putin that, since each new child would get them more interest-free credit, they could put off payments indefinitely -- and the president quipped back that they would soon have to build an extension.

The mortgage interest rate was quickly cut by 1 percentage point to 14 percent after Putin asked Chuvash President Nikolai Fyodorov why it wasn't in line with standard national bank lending rates.

Finance for the program of more than 20 million euros is coming from the federal government and a Hungarian investment company. Shemursha also has its own construction program, and has built 42 new family homes, totaling nearly 3,000 square meters, over the last year.

Local businesses have been tapped for their help in prettifying the village, Bochkaryova said, with each enterprise now responsible for making sure that there's a neat gate and a presentable yard out front.

Bochkaryova says the area owes part of its success to winning a series of tenders from the Chuvash regional government for funds, such as that for the mortgage program.

The town also won the right to host the annual Chuvashia Day celebrations last summer.

On his two-hour swing through Shemursha, Putin found time to visit the village's pride and joy -- the library with its own Internet room.

At the first sighting of a journalist, the chief librarian broke nervously and somewhat stiffly into a recitation of her prepared speech, no doubt the same one prepared for when Putin came to town.

His presents, three books and videos of 50 classic Soviet-era movies, take the place of honor on the library shelves.

In the next room sat 7-year-old Sergei Sorgin, on one of the four Internet-linked computers in the library, busy drawing a tank on the screen.

He said that Putin talked to him during the visit, as he looked with his grandmother on the Internet for a drug that would help her with an allergy.

The day after Putin's visit, Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper reported that Sergei and his grandmother, Nadezhda Sorgina, had been waiting for hours in the library to talk to the president.

But even before Putin's visit, Bochkaryova and Matveyeva already knew they would vote for him. Now they visibly glow when they recall his visit.

"Things have only gotten better," Bochkaryova said of Putin's presidency.

Apart from official notices of the date, few would guess that an election is coming in the village. The only campaign poster seen in Shemursha or in Cheboksary was for the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, but Putin is undoubtedly the most popular candidate.

Pictures of the president visiting the village are already scattered around the administration's offices in Shemursha, as well as a number of plaques commemorating everywhere the president went.

Vladimir Filonov / MT

7-year-old Sergei Sorgin, center, talked to Putin in the village library's Internet room.

A small two-piece china set, a present from Putin, remains unused in its box on a shelf in Tanya Matveyeva's kitchen.

Other local residents may not exactly glow when they talk about Putin, but most see no other choice.

Shemursha may have better chances than many other towns, but it still suffers from problems. Official wages in the agriculture sector are the highest in Chuvashia, but still don't top 700 rubles ($25) a month.

Neglect and a lack of investment means that they have a long way to go, but last year, for the first time, 90 percent of the district's agricultural enterprises made a profit.

Local residents, who were unwilling to give their names, were positive, although not overly positive, about the local administration.

"They pay us on time. I've got no complaints," one pensioner said.

Even a local farm worker, while complaining that life on farms had deteriorated drastically in the last decade, said that the local government was doing a good job.

"It's stability," Bochkaryova said, adding that the continuity in the district's administration has helped it to be one of Chuvashia's best. In contrast, she said, other districts had chopped and changed their administrations, and this had held back improvements.

Looking ahead to next Sunday's presidential election, it's a sentiment that the village's most famous visitor would no doubt agree wholeheartedly with.