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'Contrary to Putin’s claims of population growth, rural areas — long considered the wellspring of Russian culture and identity — are dying. With Russia’s natural population growth entering an extended period of decline, villages are disappearing from across the country’s continental expanse. Russians are dying faster than they are being born. Life is unpredictable, so people have fewer children. Aside from fewer births, mortality rates in Russia have improved markedly in the last decade, yet remain stubbornly higher than in most Western countries. High vodka consumption and uneven health care still cut life short; he agriculture minister, caused a stir this summer by saying that the trend toward drinking more wine and less vodka would improve the demographic situation.'