The Washington Post reports on the continuing destruction of the "real" Russia -- that is, the vast country outside of Moscow where the overwhelming majority of the population resides, languishing in desperate poverty as Moscow drinks the nation's blood like a leech (as it has always done).
DALEKUSHI, Russia (Reuters) - The radio signal fades to nothing on the road to the village. The dirt streets lined with boarded-up houses are deserted. Those that are inhabited have skewed window panes and broken gates.
Dalekushi is typical of huge swaths of the Russian countryside -- except that in this village, a young priest, his wife and their three young children last month burned to death in their home.
It was the second time in two years a house occupied by Andrei Nikolayev had burned down. While the cause of the first fire remains unknown, most local villagers say the repeat was arson. National media said local drunks were behind it.
As investigators work out the facts of the family's death, Russia's media have found in it a signal of deeper nationwide malaise.
"It is time to recognize the fact that rural life...has died. Spiritually and physically," the popular Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper said in one of many editorials that appeared in the Russian press after Nikolayev's death.
The 31-year old priest and his family were seen as a beacon of hope in the grim reality of joblessness, decay and alcoholism that characterizes rural Russia.
"Something has to be done with the Russian countryside. If there are no country people left, that will be the end of Russia," the Komsomolskaya Pravda editorial said.
In a society that until as recently as the 1930s was predominantly rural, many view the countryside as the wellspring of the national identity.
Some of Russia's most revered writers such as Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev often focused on rural life. Today, folk music, traditions and characters -- such as lazy but lucky Ivan the Fool -- retain a strong presence in everyday culture.
The death of Nikolayev and his young family was a stark reminder that this part of the country's makeup is in danger.
In Moscow, the latest Mercedes limousines whiz past well-dressed pedestrians and chic bars as the capital enjoys a boom fueled by huge energy revenues.
But recently in Dalekushi -- 280 km (175 miles) northwest of Moscow and by the standards of Russia's huge expanses just a short drive from the capital -- the only vehicle in evidence was a broken-down tractor.
"Only old people live there. There are no youngsters," Alexander Belyakov, 67, from a neighboring village, said of Dalekushi. He was carrying a bucket of water to his house.
Many villagers in Russia do not have basic amenities such as water and some still heat their homes by burning firewood.
Country-dwellers account for almost a half of Russia's unemployed, yet only about a quarter of the total population.
While in summer villagers can work on the land, there is little or no work in winter. Many turn to drink. Ambitious young people move to the cities.
Nikolayev, who appears in photographs a tall, well-built man with a mane of black hair, was portrayed as campaigning against the rot.
"He was actively fighting alcoholism...in his sermons he said it would destroy the Russian people," a spokeswoman for the regional diocese told Reuters.
News reports suggested he was killed by local drunks who were trying to steal icons from his church to sell for drink. Nikolayev had told superiors in his diocese there had been attempts to steal the icons.
"He guarded the church himself at night," the diocese spokeswoman said.
But villagers say no local would have harmed Nikolayev and reject media claims of lawlessness and alcoholism in their village as untrue or manipulated.
"Some (journalists) came, got one guy drunk and started filming him," a local shop assistant said.
Some 200 people from local villages and towns came to Nikolayev's funeral and many wept, said Nadezhda Chertoroga, who works in the church where Nikolayev's funeral was held.
The family's grave is laden with wreaths from his neighbors, parish and local churches.
At the burnt-out site of Nikolayev's house, red carnations are strewn over the rubble. A makeshift shrine of an icon, flowers and toys stands tall in the middle of the site.
"He was a good guy," said Alexander Pavlov, 51, a farmer in Dalekushi. "He had no enemies among local people."