Putin wants to reverse Russia’s demographic decline. The coal town of Kemerovo shows the enormous challenges.

KEMEROVO, Russia — Maria Ivanko decided on the size of her family long before the coal mine where she works filed for bankruptcy and a pandemic threw her into even greater uncertainty.

Fifteen years ago, she had her first child and knew it would be her last.

Evgenia Petrova, who also works in a coal mine near the Siberian town of Kemerovo, said she also intentionally had a child. And sitting to Petrova’s left in a roadside cafe, Elena Ponkratova, a local journalist, nodded in agreement. She has one child, a 25-year-old daughter.

Small family sizes are indicative of Russia‘s stagnating birth rates and population collapse, compounded by the pressures of the pandemic. President Vladimir Putin has said Russia’s shrinking “haunts” him. So he has made reversing Russia’s population contraction a national priority, trying to get Russians to have bigger families by 2024.

Kemerovo and the surrounding steppes, about 2,600 miles east of Moscow, show what stands in its way.

The region’s population has shrunk by around 100,000 people over the past decade to 2.6 million, according to Russia’s Rosstat statistics agency.

Overall, Russia is expected to experience its largest population decline since 2006, accelerated by the closure of borders to migrants and coronavirus deaths which currently stand at more than 36,000. The government expects a population decline of 352,500 this year, according to a report by the RBC news website, with an estimated decrease of 1.2 million people between 2020 and 2024.

Visitors enjoy a panoramic view from a hill in Kemerovo, Russia, on November 14. (Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

A monument to Lenin stands in Kemerovo. (Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

Tankers sit near a chemical enterprise in Kemerovo. (Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

TOP: Visitors enjoy a panoramic view from a hill in Kemerovo, Russia, November 14. (Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: A monument to Lenin stands in Kemerovo. (Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post) BOTTOM RIGHT: Tankers sit near a chemical company in Kemerovo. (Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

An independent demographer, Alexey Raksha, predicts that Russia’s population, now around 146.7 million, could fall by 700,000 this year, a possible decline of almost 0.5%.

The American population should grow by 0.72% in 2020.

Regions of Russia like Kemerovo offer other contrasts. The coal industry, which boomed during the Soviet Union, is now a burden. The city’s most famous landmark is a monument to miners, jobs that now symbolize decline and hardship.

“If we had had money to support our children, of course it would have been different and we would have had more children,” said Ivanko, who plans to leave Kemerovo because her husband was able to find work. work in a mine. in the neighboring city of Novosibirsk.

“We would leave”

Mining was already struggling when the pandemic hit. The slowing economy has lowered demand for coal, forcing more layoffs among miners who are typically paid less than $400 a month, about half the region’s average wage. Those who kept their jobs say wages were sometimes withheld for up to three months at a time.

“The whole family lived off my father’s pension and my mother’s salary,” said Ivanko, whose father and brother-in-law worked in mines before the recent layoffs. “We are three sisters, but there are only three grandchildren.”

From left to right, miners Evgenia Petrova, Oleg Popov and Maria Ivanko, seen on November 13. (Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

Young people tend to migrate to other Siberian cities or Moscow – another blow to the local birth rate. A mining program at a local college had about 90 students per term. There was only one last year.

“A lot of people would like to leave,” said Ponkratova, the local journalist. “Everyone I talk to here says we would leave if we could.”

A United Nations demographic report last year calculated that the “pessimistic” outlook for Russia is that the population will fall to 124.6 million by 2050 and 83.7 million by 2100.

Raksha, the demographer, expects a bigger drop next year from another potential consequence of the pandemic. An indicator: marriages registered this year until July fell by 23% compared to the same period last year, according to Rosstat.

The pandemic has made things “unpredictable, and in such situations people delay childbirth,” said Raksha, who worked for Rosstat until this summer.

Putin’s solution: promising tax breaks for large families and allowances for those with children.

The so-called maternity capital was successful when it was first introduced in 2007, Raksha said, but the one-time payment of around $6,000 for a second child is well below what many many Russians need.

Elena Kalinchenko holds her baby in Kemerovo on November 15. (Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

This year, Putin decided to pay families this amount, even for the first child.

Three of the five maternity hospitals in the Kemerovo region have recently been converted into coronavirus treatment centers. Just before the change happened, Sergey Evgenivich Baranov was born in September – the rare fourth child in his family.

Her parents are recipients of maternity capital, but they deplored the inconsistencies and bureaucratic headaches that go with it. For example, to have three children, they received a one-time allowance of about $7,800 under an old payment program, but then only received a one-time payment of $300 with no additional monthly allowances after having had their fourth child.

The family was also supposed to receive a plot of land from the government as a reward for having the third child, but four years passed without receiving it, mother Elena Kalinchenko said.

“You must pay [around $500] just to prepare the documents for the field, so what kind of government support is that? she added.

Their cramped two-bedroom apartment is so close to a coal mine that their house shakes every three days from underground explosions.

Fresh graves in Kemerovo on November 15. (Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

fresh graves

In just one small section of the Kemerovo cemetery, 25 plots were freshly dug on a recent Sunday morning. The rows of graves around them were new, with death dates of September, October and early November.

Russia officially claims fewer than 40,000 coronavirus deaths, but Raksha suspects the real figure is significantly higher based on comparisons to the country’s past death statistics. Regions of the country – many of which are located thousands of miles from Moscow – have particularly struggled during the pandemic, running out of hospital beds and available medicine.

In Kemerovo, respiratory diseases and cancers were already widespread, attributed to severe pollution. The death rate remains among the highest in Russia – 14.6 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants in 2019 compared to 9 births per 1,000.

“Ask anyone here, and they’ll have a loved one who died of cancer,” said Maksim Uchatov, a local activist.

In the regional town of Kiselyovsk, a large mine towers over the small town center like an earth mound skyline. A tattered and faded sign reads: “I love you, my city, Kiselyovsk.”

Last year, 15 residents of a nearby village sought asylum from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a video address because their homes are located a short walk from an abandoned underground mine which they say is still radioactive. . A plot of land is delimited by “Stop no entry” signs.

A view of an open pit coal mine in Kiselyovsk, seen on November 13. (Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

Signs warn against entering former mining grounds which nearby residents say remain radioactive. (Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

Vladimir Gorenko stands in his home in Apanas, Russia, on November 13. (Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

TOP: View of an open pit coal mine in Kiselyovsk, seen on November 13. (Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: Signs warn against entering the old mine, which nearby residents say remains radioactive. (Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post) BOTTOM RIGHT: Vladimir Gorenko stands in his home in Apanas, Russia, November 13. (Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

The Canadian government later responded that residents’ applications could only be considered if the applicants qualified as refugees under immigration law.

Vitaly Shestakov, who lives down the road from the abandoned mine, moved to the area with his wife and young daughter six years ago.

They considered having another child, he said. But two years ago, Shestakov rushed his wife and daughter to hospital after they suddenly fell ill. He said doctors later identified the cause as carbon monoxide poisoning, although gas heating in the area was turned off over the summer.

Residents have asked the government to relocate them. Shestakov went on a nine-day hunger strike to bring attention to the issue, but local authorities largely ignored it, he said.

An hour away, Vladimir Gorenko and his wife, Svetlana, live on the edge of the taiga forest in an unpaved village lined with signs asking the coal industry to stay away. The couple have two adult children, including a son who has three children of his own.

The son moved his young family from the Kemerovo region to Krasnodar on the Black Sea.

“To live there is death,” Gorenko said of Kemerovo. “He wanted his three children to grow up healthy.”

Vladimir Gorenko and Svetlana Gorenkova stand near their house in Apanas. (Arthur Bondar for the Washington Post)

Natalia Abbakumova contributed to this report. Photo editing by Chloé Coleman.