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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 May 2007, 22:55 GMT 23:55 UK
Wealth gap leaves rural Russia behind
In the second of three special reports, Bridget Kendall, the BBC's diplomatic correspondent, reports from Russia on life and attitudes in the provincial city of Nizhny Novgorod.

Natalya Zasypkina, beauty clinic owner
There are plenty of customers for Natalya Zasypkina's beauty clinic

The VIP Academy clinic is the swishest place I have been to in Nizhny Novgorod: three floors of glass and steel, each room painted a different colour.

Past the powder-blue office, in a room decorated with orange and yellow tiger-stripes, I find the elegant owner, Natalya Zasypkina.

She and her husband started their business as an upmarket dental clinic, but sensed a change of mood in Russia.

Inside of a Russian beauty salon
Russians are keen to use the latest global beauty treatments

Now they have branched out into the beauty business.

"Once our clients have had their teeth done, they want more," she tells me.

The clinic offers botox, plastic surgery and liposuction and is expanding rapidly.

Not only in Moscow do oligarchs and their wives bask in luxury these days. In the provinces, too, there are plenty of wealthy businessmen.

But in Russia, there is a gaping chasm between rich and poor.

Away from the main cities, off the beaten track, it is another world.

Time machine

Driving out of Nizhny Novgorod is like going back in time.

You pass untouched marshy pools and fields, once part of collective farms, that now lie fallow. Further north, meadows of wild flowers give way to untamed forest, birch trees and pine.

Run-down Russian house
Rural Russians are those with nowhere else to go

After two hours, I arrive at the small timber-processing settlement of Krasny Baki.

It is a small cluster of grim grey buildings around two timber plants that have closed down.

Only a few smaller businesses are still operating.

Snaking round the buildings are bright yellow gas central heating pipes, newly installed.

But one lady I meet tells me they are useless: the authorities charge so much for the gas that no-one can afford it, so the pipes remain unconnected.

"There's no work here," she says, "All that's left are tramps and alcoholics.

"If only someone would put some investment in, maybe we could make something of the place."

Market mentality

At a weekend flea-market, people are buying vegetable seed and rummaging through piles of cheap clothes laid out on trestle tables.

A man comes up and tries to sell me his rabbits. Big, black, velvety creatures with twitchy noses, they look completely terrified.

I'd say in another 10 years, this place will probably be deserted

He explains he needs to sell them because his wife is ill and he can't afford to buy her medicine.

Another man tries to persuade me to buy his honey. He and his brother have a hundred hives in a nearby village. It turns out none of these men started out as market traders.

One had a good job at a secret military factory. Another worked on the river boats.

But when the Soviet Union disappeared, their jobs also vanished.

They moved out into the countryside, where life is cheaper. This is what rural Russia is turning into: a bolthole for those with nowhere else to go.

Anyone home?

On the map, I look for a road to take us to a nearby village.

It turns out all the populated villages these days cling to the main tarmac road or the railway. Anything more remote is marked on the map as "uninhabited" - a pattern repeated all over Russia.

Old woman walks down rural Russian street
Russians outside big cities are having to fend for themselves

An hour and a half further on, off the main road and down a puddle-strewn bumpy track which nearly maroons the taxi on a mudbank, we arrive at the tiny village of Fedotova.

At first glance, it looks abandoned.

Some wooden houses have collapsed in on themselves. Others are sloping dangerously, and many have neither roof nor glass in the windows.

In the distance, we see two old people lugging plastic buckets to a well: clearly there is no running water.

It turns out that 20 years ago, this used to be a thriving village with two shops, a club and 85 families.

But when the collective farm went bust, all the jobs went.

Now just 12 houses are inhabited and the only regular link with the outside world is a weekly bread van.

Otherwise the villagers, who live on their own produce, chickens and goats and by selling honey and berries at the market, have to walk the 4km to the road on foot.

Fine if you are young and healthy. The old and infirm find themselves stranded.

Forgotten pockets

The villagers are chatty, curious about these rare visitors.

One woman tells us she has learnt to give injections, as several of the older folk are diabetic.

Another boisterous woman, in a broad brogue interspersed with more Russian swearwords than I've ever heard in my life, tells me the story of how her 34-year-old daughter died.

An epileptic, she had a bad fit, and though they managed to get a phone call through to the local hospital - there are a few phones in the village still - they refused to send anyone out.

Water from the tap? You won't find that here
Woman in suburb of Pechori

"I should have called a taxi, not relied on the authorities, *** them," says the woman.

"Mam, don't swear like that, not in front of company," says her son.

And they go back inside their tumbledown house, leaving a chorus of dogs and geese in the long grass to see us off their territory.

I'd say in another 10 years, this place will probably be deserted.

Russians often say their countryside is dying. It's places like this they are talking about: forgotten backwaters, while Moscow and other bigger cities carry on expanding and getting more affluent.

But even in the cities, there are neglected corners.

Tap water?

On the way back into Nizhny Novgorod, we swing up a little road by the steep bank of the River Volga to the picturesque suburb of Pechori.

It is not even really a village - it's only five or six tram stops from the city centre.

Eight years ago, I remember my surprise when I found out that the locals still had to collect water from a stream.

It is water from a holy well, but even so.

Hummer driving down a street in Russia
Imported cars for some, hardship for others

Several times a day, the old ladies had to balance their pails on a wooden yoke and make their way precariously along the slippery path with the heavy full buckets.

Surely eight years on, I think, that will have changed.

"Water from the tap? You won't find that here," says a woman I stop to ask. "There's no running water in Pechori."

Down at the end of the street, the slippery path is still there. So is the stream.

No change here, then. And all this in the shadow of the city centre with its glitzy restaurants and gleaming new tower blocks of luxury flats.

Putin's Russia is getting richer, but only if you live on the right side of the tracks.

Bridget Kendall's radio report from Nizhny Novgorod will be going out on Radio 4's Today programme at 0730 BST on Wednesday 30 May.

Should you miss it, or want to listen to it at a later date, then you can find it at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/today/

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