LEMESHOVO, Russia // A pair of bulldozers rumbled back and forth along a makeshift road of frozen mud, landscaping a hillside under an expensive country home that stood perched above a snow-covered field and icy river. The estate would have seemed unremarkable - in recent years luxurious dachas have sprouted up like Russians' beloved wild mushrooms in Moscow's outlying regions - if not for a peculiar patch of enormous concrete blocks and rusted metal grates next to the property.
Floodgates from a dam, perhaps, historian and writer Alexei Karakovsky hypothesised, pointing at the concrete as he trudged up the snowy hill. "This was supposed to be a giant reservoir, but things didn't work out. All they had here were a few puny rivers." Mr Karakovsky, 31, is part of a small community of history buffs and sleuths across Russia's 11 time zones who devote their free time to unearthing information about the tens of thousands of towns that have vanished from the Russian map over the centuries.
Featuring haunting ruins - deserted farmhouses, libraries, sports halls, boxy Soviet apartment buildings - many of these Russian ghost towns resemble a set from a Hollywood post-apocalyptic saga. The ruins Mr Karakovsky discovered on a recent afternoon on these rough plains 30km south of Moscow are less dramatic. They appear to be remnants from a settlement called Gidrostroya, established by the Soviet government in the 1970s, including those of a planned dam that would have created a recreational reservoir for residents, according to local accounts.
The project's most significant structure remains, just a few kilometres from the country homes, as a monument to the Soviet Union's often wild and capricious attempts to tame its natural landscape: An enormous concrete dam some 30 metres high with dangerous drop-offs and a labyrinth of tunnels. For unclear reasons - some say the water from the planned reservoir was simply seeping into the ground - the government halted what locals called the "Podolsk Sea" project, named after the nearby city of Podolsk. The 1972 decree ordering the construction of the dam has never been cancelled, a local official said. Nonetheless, Gidrostroya has long since disappeared.
Of the 155,000 rural villages in Russia, some 13,000 are ghost towns with no residents whatsoever, according to data from Russia's 2002 census. The towns die off for different reasons: demographic decline; natural disasters; nearby farmland or natural resources becoming exhausted; Soviet-era enterprises going bankrupt. On his website, Dead-cities.ru, Mr Karakovsky has tracked at least 15 Russian and Ukrainian towns relegated to the underwater world in Soviet-era reservoirs like the one planned at Gidrostroya.
The desertion of small Russian villages continues to this day, though updated figures for the number of ghost towns will likely only be available following a nationwide census scheduled for next year. Top Russian officials have addressed the dilemmas associated with dying towns in recent months, seeking to assuage the fears of residents living in economically depressed areas. For some Russians, the disappearance of towns and villages is a source of visceral pain, provoking bouts of nostalgia and wistful reflection on idyllic small-town life.
Schoolteacher Yevgenia Timokhina says losing one's hometown is "just as painful as losing a close friend or relative". "It's a pain that stays with you for your entire life," Ms Timokhina said. Ms Timokhina is one of several teachers in Russia's northern Karelia and Murmansk regions that have launched a project called "Russia's Vanished Villages" with the goal of cataloguing the respective histories, populations and declines of ghost towns across Russia.
So far the project has collected almost 100 entries in a "book of condolences" for Russian ghost towns posted on the website Letopisi.ru.. There are entries covering ghost towns in the far north-western region of Pskov all the way to the north-east Chukotka province, nine time zones away. "We can help rescue the memory of our small hometowns for our future generations," said Ms Timokhina, who teaches in the Murmansk region's eponymous capital. "If we don't rescue it right now, it will be impossible to do so in the future. And Russians will inevitably develop an interest in their historical roots, just as it happened in European countries."
Mr Karakovsky maintains a more sober, diagnostic approach when studying these vanished villages. "There's no need to over dramatise the disappearance of villages," he said. "It really is an inevitable process." People who have seen their hometowns vanish often contact Mr Karakovsky to supply him with information about the village or correct inaccuracies on his website. "They don't get too emotional about it because they've had to get used to it," he said.
The number of villages in Russia decreased by 11,000 between the 1989 Soviet census and the 2002 Russian census, but this was by no means a remarkable figure, said Anatoly Vishnevsky, a leading demographic expert and head of the Centre for Demography and Human Ecology at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Over the course of the last century, a majority of Russia's population ºmoved from villages to cities, he said. "At the beginning of the 20th century, 85 per cent of the population lived in farm villages," Mr Vishnevsky said.
As of January 1, 2009, 73 per cent of Russia's 141.9 million people lived in cities, while 27 per cent lived in rural areas, according to Russia's State Statistics Service. "This is a very normal process for a country as large as Russia," Mr Vishnevsky said. "Many villages simply can't continue to exist. There is nothing unsurprising or unnatural about it. It's strange that it evokes any sort of panic, but nostalgia can be very persistent."
The total number of urban settlements in Russia declined by about 300 between the two censuses to 2,940, though the number of cities increased by 60, to 1,098, as people migrated to urban centres. The viability of towns and cities has been a source of concern this year for the Russian government, which is clearly worried about possible civil unrest in so-called monogoroda, or "one-company towns", whose local enterprises are struggling to survive in the current economy.
Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister, said in his annual televised call-in show earlier this month that he had ordered the creation of a special government commission to oversee the situation in these one-company towns. A majority of Russia's ghost towns are located in its North-west, Central, and Volga federal districts, Russia's erstwhile chief statistician, Vladimir Sokolin, said after the 2002 census.
It is hardly surprising that farming towns in these colder areas die out, said Pavel Smertyukov, a teacher in the Karelian city of Kem, who co-co-ordinates the "Russia's Vanished Villages" project at Letopisi.ru. Higher production costs can prevent such areas from competing with farms in Russia's more temperate southern regions, he said. "In the Soviet planned economy that wasn't an issue, but in market conditions it leads to the closure of loss-making farms," Mr Smertyukov said.
"After that comes the sad but natural scenario: the able-bodied population moves to the cities, then the school closes, and after that the post office, grocery story, the feldsher station [health clinic]. And the village disappears. Only the elderly remain to live out their lives." Sometimes a village teeters so precariously on the edge of extinction that a simple hammer is enough to wipe it from the map.
In February, Alexander Lebedev, 22, broke into the home of the Anoshkins, an elderly couple in the village of Vinogradovka, 550km south-east of Moscow in the province of Mordovia. Lebedev grabbed a hammer from the home and smashed in the pensioners' skulls, killing them both and making off with 4,000 roubles (Dh479) and a mobile phone, authorities said. The double homicide, for which Lebedev is serving a 16½-year prison sentence, ended not only the lives of the Anoshkins - Olga, 70, and her husband Anatoly, 71. It also effectively made Vinogradovka a ghost town.
"They were the last two people registered there," a local official said by telephone. email@example.com