Gone for generations, Russians welcomed home
Vasily Reutov had never set foot in Russia until a few months ago, but the moment he did, he knew he had finally made it home.
His ancestors, members of an ascetic offshoot of Russian Orthodoxy known as Old Believers, fled this region in the 1920s after the Communist Party violently suppressed religion. They settled in cloistered villages in South America that they turned into Little Russias, as if by preserving the ways of the past, they would somehow, someday, be able to return.
The government is trying to head off the country's severe population decline by luring back Russians who live abroad as well as their descendants. Mr. Reutov and several dozen other members of his religious community from Uruguay have become among the most striking examples of this policy.
Moscow has spent $300 million in the past two years to get the repatriation program started, and officials estimated that more than 25 million people were eligible, many of them ethnic Russians who found themselves living in former Soviet republics after the Soviet collapse in 1991.
But the government is not limiting itself to Russia's neighbors, sending emissaries around the world to sell the program. One even went to Brazil last month to meet with residents of several countries who, like Mr. Reutov, are Old Believers, whose followers have some similarities in lifestyle to the Amish. Diaspora Old Believer communities exist worldwide. In the United States, they can be found in places like Alaska and Oregon.
Mr. Reutov, 36, was not at the meeting in Brazil because he was already here, having decided to enroll in the program and move with his wife and five children from Uruguay. Others from two villages there are to follow soon, he said.
Their story is one of the last unfinished chapters of the Russian Revolution, and it speaks to the changes in Russia in the post-Soviet era. Even with the global financial crisis, Russia is more stable and prosperous than at any other time in its history, and Mr. Reutov said that only now was his community confident enough in the country's future.
Yet their return also points to Russia's disquieting population drop. The United Nations predicts that the country will fall to 116 million people by 2050, from 141 million now, an 18 percent decline, largely because of a low birthrate and poor health habits. (The government is trying to increase the birthrate by paying families to have more children.)
So far, only 10,300 people have moved back under the government repatriation program, which has faced criticism that it is overly bureaucratic and unpersuasive. But the Russian Foreign Ministry said the program needed time to generate interest, and officials said they hoped that many more would soon take advantage of relocation and employment assistance, which can amount to several thousand dollars a person.
The program is not open to just any descendants of Russians. In general, applicants must speak Russian and be comfortable with the country's society and culture.
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