In the 2000s, Russia experienced the phenomenon of counterurbanisation, i.e. migration from urban to rural areas. There have been few studies of this trend in Russia, and no clear explanation is available of why some people chose to abandon their urban lifestyles and move to the countryside. But in many other countries this research topic is quite popular, said Maria Neuvazhaeva at a seminar hosted by the Laboratory for Studies in Economic Sociology (LSES).
She found that Russians may have a variety of reasons for moving from cities to villages, including the economic and other challenges of living in a big city. Their motives are usually different from those in other countries, where a change in values and a desire for self-actualisation in rural life is often the main reason for such migration.
Neuvazhaeva's research* involved a series of surveys with a large number of respondents.
First, the researchers interviewed 220 experts (195 regional and 25 federal experts), including government officials at various levels, CEOs of agricultural enterprises, and academics and journalists with expertise in agriculture.
Second, they used a representative nationwide sample of respondents to survey 1,000 urban residents on their thoughts about potential relocation to the countryside.
The qualitative part of research included interviews with 13 men and 17 women who had moved from urban to rural settlements in 13 Russian regions, including Altai, Trans-Baikalia, Irkutsk, and Khakassia.
A rural settlement was defined as one with a population of no more than 3,000 to 4,000 people. The interviews focused in particular on the settlers' own assessment of their new situation and whether and how they have influenced the rural community's development.
According to the 2010 National Census, 26% of Russia's population (more than 37 million people) live in 154 thousand rural settlements, of which 40% have less than ten residents.
Some 40 years ago, other countries – such as the U.S. – witnessed the beginning of couterurbanisation, i.e. people migrating from the cities to the countryside. This fairly unexpected move caused a lot of debate in the academic community. While some said that counterurbanisation was a good thing, others argued that urban to rural migrants 'colonise' the countryside, raising real estate prices and hiring villagers as servants.
Nevertheless, many Western researchers into counterurbanisation insist that it has a positive impact on the socio-economic development of rural areas and they emphasize the importance of the economic, social, and human capital that new rural settlers bring. «Migrants from cities serve as a link between the rural and the urban, the local and the global, by generating new experience, bringing in capital, understanding the rural residents' real needs, and having a realistic assessment of resources available in rural areas,» says Neuvazhaeva. «In addition, migration serves a distributive function and helps to level out demographic differences between rural and urban populations.»
The main motive behind counterurbanisation in the West was a change in values. «Counterurbanisation should be understood not only as a physical relocation from cities to villages, but as a change in how people perceive themselves and their choices,» the study says with reference to Western literature on the subject.
It was different in Russia. When counterurbanisation emerged in the West in the 1970s, few people in the USSR ever considered relocation to the countryside. The situation changed in the 1990s.
Traditionally, push and pull factors are used to explain why people choose to migrate. In the case of urban to rural migration, economic constraints may be a push factor, while perceived new opportunities may be a pull factor. The researchers’ assumption was that after the collapse of the USSR, push factors such as non-payment of wages, unemployment, and others forced people to move to the countryside. Upon looking more closely, however, they found that most new rural settlers in the nineties were immigrants from other CIS countries who would spend some time living in the countryside before moving to big Russian cities – their ultimate destination.
But the counterurbanisation that occurred in in Russia in the 2000s is a real and as yet unresearched phenomenon. «The importance of this process can hardly be overestimated in the context of desertification with its far-reaching geopolitical consequences,» Neuvazhaeva notes.
Russians who have moved from the city to the countryside are relatively few in number, and scattered over the country's territory; according to the study's author, this group is rarely captured by large quantitative surveys. Therefore, the researchers compiled their own database, including qualitative and quantitative data, for subsequent analysis.
The study found that most rural settlers who agreed to be interviewed had moved to the countryside after 2009 due to the 'push effect' of the economic crisis. They were definitely not 'the urban poor', as virtually all had university degrees and considered themselves middle class.
But the economic crisis was not the only reason behind this wave of migration. The researchers identified four groups of urban to rural migrants: pensioners, government-supported settlers, runaways, and seekers of better quality of life.
Russian pensioners were driven to the countryside by dwindling incomes and an inability to maintain their lifestyles. Neuvazhaeva notes that unlike Western pensioners, they cannot be expected to contribute to rural development, e.g. by taking up farming or volunteering.
Some people had moved to the countryside with support from state resettlement programs or had taken subsidised loans to buy housing or set up agricultural businesses in rural areas. The study describes them as «those who do not choose a place to live; rather, the place chooses them.»
Runaways are a special group. These are often successful people who are tired of urban life. They associate the city with idleness, psychological discomfort, fatigue, stressful and boring chores, a lack of meaning, and excessive consumption. They move when they realise that the big city and their urban lifestyle run counter to their goals and values. They are willing to sacrifice wealth for personal harmony. Neuvazhaeva refers to the anastasians, a Russian movement combining environmental and religious aspects, as an extreme example of city runaways.
Yet another type of resettlers are those who hope to find better quality of life in the countryside, such as organic food, not having to commute long distances, genuine social contacts, and more quality time with their family.
Neuvazhaeva believes that Russian migrants from urban to rural areas are driven primarily by selfish motives. The new villagers look forward to enjoying organic food, clean air, and quiet surroundings, but have no intention of contributing to rural development and thus give back nothing to their new home.
According to Neuvazhaeva, this attitude has something to do with the fact that rural residents still depend on the city for many basic things – nearly all respondents buy food, construction materials, seedlings, livestock feed, and much more in the city.
The study found out what could bring more Russians from cities to the countryside. The full list of requirements mentioned by many respondents – 29%, or 25 million working adults – is quite unrealistic and includes full government support of relocation, such as compensation, subsidies, discounts on buying or renting a home, and tax breaks, as well as the ability to maintain the same salary level and enjoy the same type of infrastructure as in the city. According to Neuvazhaeva, if the above conditions were met, seven million Russians would be prepared to relocate to rural areas and to find employment in the agricultural sector, but less than one million would agree to relocate if agricultural facilities remain outdated, and while rural salaries and infrastructure stay far below the urban standards.
The interviewed experts are skeptical of the idea of using incentives to populate rural areas and believe that other strategies should be used to maintain agricultural lands and support rural businesses. They see newcomers from the city only as seasonal workers and non-agricultural sector employees.
The study suggests that counterurbanisation in Russia is in many ways different from that in Western countries. The study's author believes, however, that rural residents wishing to move to the countryside should be supported, because they could help trigger the process of rural modernisation.
*The project was implemented under the guidance of HSE Professor Svetlana Barsukova and supported by a presidential grant from the Institute of Public Projects.