The United Nations predicts Ukraine, Russia and Belarus will lose up to 50 percent of their people by the year 2050 due to declining birth rates, low life expectancy and emigration. All of these factors are clearly evident in many villages of the former Soviet Union. VOA Correspondent Peter Fedynsky recently visited one such village in Ukraine.
Trees are gradually overtaking the fertile fields around the Ukrainian village of Stariy Sokil. The village is located about 100 kilometers north of Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, and just outside the 30 kilometer exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Like many rural areas of the country, Stariy Sokil also occupies a still uncertain place between collectivized Soviet agriculture and private farming. Here, privatization has not brought enough investments to make up for the collapse of the Soviet rural infrastructure, including machinery, markets and social services.
The mayor of Stariy Sokil, Valentyna Mashkivska, says the village's aging population simply does not have the physical strength to maintain the fields. "Today, the people have nothing with which to plant and cultivate even half a hectare. There are no tractors. Long ago, horses provided the energy for work, so we may as well return to horsepower, because there is nothing to work the land with."
Liubov Drozd is one of millions of Ukrainians who received a share of private land. Hers came to about three and one half hectares, a plot she says is too small to raise a profitable crop, and too big for one person to cultivate. And because Ukrainian law forbids the sale of land, Drozd is effectively held hostage by it. "What benefit does the land give me? None! I have the documents, I registered everything appropriately. But it gives me no benefit."
Village resident Alyona Rusakova says, "I want to go anywhere, away from this village. As far away as possible. To get away, to study."
The dire situation of the Ukrainian village is not lost on 13-year-old Aloyna Rusakova and the dwindling number of young people in Stariy Sokil. Aloyna's older sister already lives in Kyiv. The local school, built just 20 years ago, is closed and children are bused to a neighboring village.
Mayor Mashkivska says there are 20 deaths for every birth in the area. The population in Stariy Sokil and three neighboring villages has plummeted by more than 50 percent, from 700 residents to 320. The mayor says that, unlike Western Ukrainians, young people here do not leave the area for jobs in foreign countries. Mashkivska says a sense of hopelessness drives many of those who remain to alcoholism and an early grave. "It's sad to watch young people being buried. Their parents and grandparents are alive, but the children are being buried. It gets worse with each passing year," she said.
Middle-aged men are also trapped between unemployment and difficulties finding jobs in the big cities. Viktor Antonovych is one year from retirement and does odd jobs to make ends meet. "You go for a job to the big city, to Kyiv, and they immediately ask, 'How old are you?' If you're 50, they tell you to hit the road."
Many of the people in Stariy Sokil survive on meager pensions and subsistence farming. The hardships here and in much of rural Ukraine coincide with rising global demand for grain. Ironically, much of that demand is being filled by large corporate farms, similar in size to former Soviet collective farms. But unlike Soviet collectives, corporate farms are highly mechanized and rely on few people. Meanwhile, these rural Ukrainians are stranded on small, private plots of land that they can neither farm at a profit, nor sell.