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 Vyshny Volochok-A Crisis of Population Decline

The road from St. Petersburg to Moscow.
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We've been on the road for a week, and we've covered about 200 miles, which puts us about half way to Moscow. Kostya, the driver, just pointed out a rainbow in front of us. Perhaps this bodes well for the rest of the journey.

Having just said that, the car's broken down. We appear to be overheating. Luckily, Kostya can fix anything, especially his own Zhiguli, so we have our fingers crossed.

To pass the time while Kostya works on the car, we listen to a tape of folk songs. Radishchev wrote: "He who knows the melodies of Russian folk songs must admit there is something in them which suggests spiritual sorrow."

The source of Russian melancholy has long provided writers with food for speculation. Kostya's current melancholy is not a subject for metaphysical debate; it is bad Russian engineering and shoddy spare parts.

We limp to our next destination, Vyshny Volochok.

This was a marvel of commerce for Radishchev, but apart from some beautifully restored churches and monasteries, Vyshny Volochok has seen better days. When you ask anyone about life here, one of the first things they mention is the low birth rate. In the last few years the population has shrunk from 75,000 to about 60,000, and by all accounts it's likely to continue to drop.

Svetlana Sorokina, a teacher at the local school, says that on salaries of less than $100 a month, Russians simply can't afford to have more than one child now.

"I would love to have more children," she says, "but I couldn't support them. Higher education has become expensive."

The population decline has become a national crisis. The government has warned that if it is not turned around, the economy will soon be affected and Russia's status in the world further threatened. The decreased average life span has accelerated the problem.

Outside the local theater on Lenin Street—its name hasn't changed—brides, grooms, and guests wait in a line that stretches down the sidewalk to a parking lot.

Katya, a store clerk, is in a long white gown with flowers in her upswept hair. This 20-year-old can expect to live until she's 72, but her groom, Alexei, being a Russian male, can only expect to live until he is 59. While this is a great deal better than in Radishchev's day when the average Russian died at 30, it is worse than it was under the communists, just 15 years ago.

After waiting impatiently for an hour Katya and Alexei are finally ushered inside where, in a brief ceremony, they are pronounced husband and wife.

The registrar wished them "peace, happiness, and lots of kids."
Alexei says the registrar wished them "peace, happiness, and lots of kids."

The champagne flows, and to the chants of bitter, bitter, bitter the bride and groom kiss… and kiss, and kiss. The longer the kiss, the sweeter the champagne will be and—it's said—the longer the couple can hope to live. They then go to a party at Katya's parents' small apartment, where they will reside for the foreseeable future. There's not much room for lots of children.

Kostya, by now our regular commentator, is struggling to bring up a son in a cramped one-room apartment in Moscow, and he scoffs at official coaxing to have lots of children.

"Who knows what will happen in the country, what prices will be?" he asks. "There's no confidence in the economy. Everyone is afraid to have kids. We could all suddenly have nothing."

We get back on the road. At one of the shiny new gas stations, Kostya stops to fill up the tank. When he gets back, he's fuming. The pumps were rigged, and he was cheated of several liters of gas. He has a solution:

"You know red square," he says, "the place there where the Tsars used to punish people? If you were to take just one person who takes bribes—someone from a high position, a big cheese. If you were to condemn him to death and show the execution on television, so the whole of Russia could see, the next day theft and corruption would stop. Show what happens if you take bribes. Otherwise, in Russia, there will never be order."

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