MOSCOW -- Not so long ago, this nation hailed a woman who bore many children as a Hero Mother. Now, neighborhood gossips assail her as plain stupid.
The birthrate has been plunging so rapidly that there are now more deaths than births in Moscow. Reluctant parents and demographers blame the economy: Children have become a luxury item.
"Morally, I couldn't afford to have a child now," said Marina Pakhomkina, 25. "All of my friends are waiting. We feel the instability. We don't know what lies ahead. We're afraid to have children."
Her friend Julia Ibragimova nods in agreement. "It's only the economy," she said. "If I had a husband who could support me well, I would like three children."
The two young women typify the trend toward fewer births, demographers say. A country that dotes on young children has been frightened by a combination of poverty and an uncertain future.
"Most layettes [the basic clothes, diapers and blankets] cost several thousand rubles," said Svetlana Bestuzheva-Lada, a well-known demographer. "That makes children a luxury, like a car or dacha -- and who can afford it?"
A diaper, which cost 2 rubles a year ago, now costs 80 rubles. Sandals for a 2-year-old cost 40 rubles last year; now they're 120.
Expenses aside, many young people feel it is wrong to bring a child into a world that is so uncertain. They wonder how long their country will hold together. They wonder how long they will have jobs. They wonder whether they will be able to find milk even if they have the money to buy it.
Russian officials recently reported that only 4 percent of the nation's children are completely healthy. For many children, health is impaired by poor diet and a poisonous environment.
And the stress of life here -- the endless search for affordable food -- leaves many young people sapped of the energy parenthood requires.
"All parents want to give their children as much as they can," Mrs. Pakhomkina said. "It is very hard to do. I have to stand in line to get milk -- with Pasha waiting with me. The time and energy of shopping with a small child takes your good mood. I return home irritated and frustrated."
Statistics bear out the changing circumstances. Five years ago, there were about 2.5 million births a year in Russia. Now there are about 1.7 million, a birthrate just slightly higher than the death rate.
With little access to birth control, many women resort to abortion. There were 4 million abortions last year in Russia. In Moscow, there are three more deaths per 1,000 people than there are births.
In the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union, birthrates remain high. But in the big cities, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, child-oriented services are in trouble.
Only last year, endless lines snaked out the doors of Children's World, the big children's store in Moscow, waiting to snatch up whatever clothes or toys appeared. Now, a car dealership has taken over the first floor of the store.
In St. Petersburg, a maternity home where an average of 25 babies a day were born last year now goes four or five days a month without a birth.
After years of living according to government instructions, foregoing the consumer niceties of the West, many people want to spend what little money they have on themselves.
"People want to live for their own pleasure now," Mrs. Pakhomkina said. "They can't afford to have a baby, too. Prices here are equal to dollars, but salaries are 100 times lower."
Mrs. Pakhomkina and Mrs. Ibragimova have one child each. Mrs. Pakhomkina's son, Pasha (the name is a diminutive of Pavel), was born two years and five months ago, one day before Mrs. Ibragimova's daughter, Karina. Both were conceived in the more optimistic days of 1989. Both were thought of as the first child; now they have become the only child.
"I wanted to have two babies, one after another," Mrs. Pakhomkina said, "but I realized I wouldn't have enough for both. I think now people don't want to have any children at all."
In most other countries, both women would be relatively prosperous. Mrs. Ibragimova is a trained librarian, her husband an economist.
Mrs. Pakhomina has a graduate degree in computer science and earns 1,000 rubles a month at the institute where she studied. Her husband is a mathematician who now finds it more profitable work as a clerk in a joint-venture company that sells computers. He earns 2,500 rubles a month.
They are extremely lucky. Before Pasha was born, they bought a two-room cooperative apartment on the 11th floor of one of Moscow's ubiquitous high-rise buildings for 11,000 rubles. Today, it would cost more than 1 million rubles.
Pasha is energetic and healthy, a happy child. Mrs. Pakhomkina gives up cheese and fruit so that he can have two 40-ruble bananas for breakfast. She and her husband, Andrei, have a wide circle of friends, all of whom help each other out. They don't waste time thinking about what they don't have.
"I enjoy what I have," Mrs. Pakhomkina said.