The video below is an independent short film curated by The Atlantic. It is titled “Altimir” and depicts the eponymous village in north western Bulgaria that once was home to 3,500 people and is now a collection of ruined, empty buildings and a few elderly people remembering better days. The video is mainly quiet and slow moving, the only instances of energised movement is from the livestock that one of the villagers owns (calves, pigs, chickens and goats) and from two children who provide colour and gaiety as they play in the cavernous remains of factories that used to provide work for dozens of people.
In fact, there are many old decrepit factories like this in Altimir and the elderly guide of the film crew describes them in terms of the number of employees, rather than their output: 20 people used to work in this one; 50 people worked over there; 50 people worked over there next to that silent and cold chimney; 300 people worked in this one. Now they are all idle and the jobs that they provided are no longer in Altimir. The gas station is the only source of employment now: for six people and a bodyguard. It is no wonder then that the young people left the village for elsewhere – there is more employment in the cities and overseas.
What is left is a decaying town. Overgrown in parts, windows are smashed and walls are collapsing. The playground is empty and windows in the church appear to be boarded up. The few elderly people who are left in the village reminisce about the better days when the factories were working. They wistfully remember the days of communism when everyone’s paycheques were smaller but everything cost less. There were trips to Cuba, the USSR and Germany as part of Party-funded groups. There were Christmases where large groups of family members got together and ate as much as they could. Now, all the elderly people have to do in Altimir is talk to their children on the phone and distil brandy (the latter activity seems to be about to be cracked down on by the EU).
Now, in one sense, the Altimir video is unsurprising. Rural areas throughout the world are depopulating as jobs move to the cities. During this urbanisation villages and rural service towns will slowly die. Bulgaria is no exception to this process. What is exceptional though is that Bulgaria is facing urbanisation at the same time as it is facing probably the fastest rate of depopulation in the world.
The last years of communism in Eastern Europe saw the apogee of Bulgaria’s population. In 1989 the population was a touch over 9 million people. Since then it has declined at a remarkable rate to slightly above 7 million (a decline of over 20 per cent in thirty years). The next 30 years are predicted to see a similar rate of decline. By 2060 the country is expected to have a population of 5.4 million. The current population decline of -0.63 per cent a year is the highest in the world, double Japan’s rate of -0.36 per cent per year. Bulgaria has few births (8.5 per 1,000 population) and more deaths (14.5 deaths per 1,000). The fertility rate of 1.47 children per woman is one of the lowest in the world and lower than the EU average.
Bulgaria is leading the depopulation pack. But as the baby boomers start dying in larger numbers in the years ahead, more countries will start the downward population decline that Bulgaria is already experiencing — along with Japan and Italy and much of Eastern Europe. The decline might not be as fast as Bulgaria’s, but it will be real. And more villages and areas that were once population centres will start to look like Altimir, home to a gas station and a few elderly folks recalling the past.