From Russia with love

Be fruitful, and multiply, Putin tells Russia's people

August 06, 2006|By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Twenty-four-year-old Yevgenia Chaika has tired eyes - a sign of things to come - but a conspicuous contentment over her newest role in life, one she has imagined since she was a girl.

She just became a mother.

And though she hasn't yet named her 7-pound-11-ounce son, born a day earlier in the obstetrics department of the Moscow Medical Academy, she is already contemplating the next addition to her family.

"I think it's boring to just live for yourself," says Chaika, standing outside the hospital's newborn ward in a loose-fitting nightgown and slippers, envisioning a family of five. "What kind of a family is it if there's just three: Mom, Dad and a kid?"

Faced with a population that is shrinking at a rate of 700,000 people every year, Russia desperately needs more women like her. Which is why none other than the country's most prominent father-of-two, President Vladimir V. Putin, offered a gentle order to the masses in his state-of-the-nation address in May: Be fruitful, and multiply.

Childbirth has become a top new priority in Russia, as outlined in an ambitious 10-year plan designed to raise the birth rate and, by so doing, reverse a demographic crisis Putin himself calls "critical."

The proposal, which centers on a package of financial incentives, including a $9,200 payment for having a second child, prompted expected praise from deputies in the State Duma, who are likely to appropriate money to implement it beginning next year. Vice Speaker Lyubov Sliska, who is in her 50s, even said - jokingly, one must assume - that she intended to do her own part to help stem the population decline. Asked when, she replied: "As it must be: in nine months."

But many doubt such incentives alone, likewise used during Soviet times in an attempt to boost the birth rate, will fill the nation's chronically under-funded and ill-equipped maternity wards and prompt a Russian baby boom. While most Russians believe the "ideal" family has two children, surveys show they are not planning to have that many themselves - nor to be changing diapers any time soon.

Only 13 percent of respondents in a poll conducted last year by the Levada Center in Moscow said they intended to have a child in the next two to three years. About a quarter said earning a higher salary might prompt them to change their mind, but 38 percent said nothing would.

While falling birth rates are a trend in other countries, from Germany to Japan, the problem in Russia is particularly acute, as it is paired with a high death rate. That has left the nation staring down an unsustainable reality: Russians are not multiplying fast enough to replace the numbers dying off in large part due to high rates of cardiovascular disease, alcohol abuse and other illnesses. Russia is the only industrialized nation where life expectancy is falling.

The birth rate here dropped sharply over the last 50 years, from 2.58 children in 1959-1960 to 1.34 last year. In 2004, according to the Federal Statistics Service, for every 1,000 people there were 16 deaths and only 10.4 births (in the United States, 14.1 people are born for every 8.3 who die). The same year, abortions -- though there are far fewer now than in the Soviet era -- still outnumbered births, giving Russia one of the world's highest abortion rates.

The marked decline of births during the 1990s was a direct result of the social and economic instability that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union. Job prospects were bleak, the health care system collapsed and, suddenly, having another mouth to feed might mean the difference between making ends meet and not being able to.

"People were so poor they were afraid to have more children," said Dr. Andrei Nikonov, head of obstetrics and gynecology at the Moscow Medical Academy.

The economy has since stabilized, allowing a middle class to begin to emerge, which experts say has helped push the number of births up slightly. But many families contemplating children are not without continued concerns about their prospects for the future; the average monthly income in Russia still is just over $300.

Said Putin in his address: Many families have "doubts as to their own ability to ensure the child a decent level of healthcare and education, and - let's be honest - sometimes doubts as to whether they will even be able to feed the child."

His proposal, which aims to encourage women to have at least two babies, includes a doubling of government subsidies paid to parents with children up to 18 months, as well as longer paid maternity leave and assistance paying child-care costs.

Mirroring trends in the West, many Russians who are having children are doing so later in life. Nikonov said half the patients at his hospital, where 3,000 babies are delivered each year, are over 30.

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