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Last Updated: Monday, 22 August 2005, 13:06 GMT 14:06 UK
Moscow's infant obstacle course
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

The final straw was the railway station's parenting room - and not because in Moscow it was announced as a "mother and child room" and I was a mere father hoping to change his baby's nappy.

Baby May by the Pushkin monument, Moscow
Moscow is still better at stern statues than baby girls

It was the fee - 300 roubles, or about $11 (6; 9 euros). To me that was a lot compared to a few pence, or no fee at all, at UK stations.

And if I, a Western holidaymaker, found it steep, what about Russian mums? Even the single mothers on maximum child benefit get just 80 roubles ($3) a month per baby.

So I went off to the nearest green space and changed Baby May on the grass, to the amusement of the local drinking community.

Any parent wanting a coffee after hearing the cost of the parenting room could easily have parted with a month's local child benefit by just buying one in a station cafe.

This high cost of living is undoubtedly the main reason why most Russians choose to have no more than one child despite an alarming death rate.

However, my family's travels with a baby there this summer, followed as they were by a holiday in Italy where the bambina is queen, made me wonder just how sincere the Russian authorities are in encouraging more lyalyas into the world.

Prestige problems

"We need to raise the prestige of motherhood and fatherhood and create conditions that encourage people to bear and raise children," President Vladimir Putin told the Russian parliament this year.

minimum monthly cost of rearing a child: $77, child benefit: $2-$3
9.8 births to 14.52 deaths per 1,000 PA - UK: 10.78 to 10.18
health issues: tendency against breastfeeding, malnutrition, domestic violence, orphaning
sources: Russian government, Unicef, CIA factbook

Gazing into the frowning faces of passers-by as I steered Baby May's buggy through central Moscow, I did not feel particularly prestigious.

Foolish was more like it, since ours was often the only buggy or pram in sight.

And anxious, every time there was a road to be crossed. Not only did the kerbs not dip as a rule, and were often at least as high as the buggy's wheels, the traffic exuded real menace.

Moscow is now a city where few regard the traffic lights and the only fairly safe way to negotiate one of its broad avenues is to wait for a crowd to gather at the crossing, then push forward together.

Having traffic police headquarters around the corner from where we were living made no difference that I could see.

Service with a stare

Naples is trapped in a traffic nightmare of its own but its attitude to parents and babies who venture into the streets could not be more different.

While Muscovites never stopped to say hello to May, we could hardly go from one street to the next in the Italian city without children running up to see the bambolotto (dolly).

Baby May at the Colosseum
Italy's fondness for babies is as famous as its monuments

Once what looked like three generations of a large family flocked out of a dark alleyway to alight around the buggy, whooping and shouting with delight.

Waiters would sweep us in past crowded tables and I am still intrigued by the well-used little chair one Roman restaurant clamped onto the end of our table for the baby.

In Moscow cafes, waiting staff would be shocked at the sight of a couple wanting to take a buggy in, and would hardly think of holding the door open, let alone finding a table with parking space.

One reason why you might want to brave them with a baby anyway is the glaring lack of public toilets.

The six-hour afternoon express train we took from Moscow to St Petersburg did not charge for baby-changing facilities... because it did not have any.

Our carriage steward looked genuinely puzzled by the question as I went off to rig up a changing station on a seat aboard what is meant to be one of the country's best trains.

St Petersburg turned out to be quite child-friendly compared to the capital. Fathers with papooses strolled along the canals in the evenings, coffee houses with wide entry doors were quite happy to have a buggy around and the kerbs in many areas actually sloped.

Another surprise after Moscow was visiting the city's Russian Museum art gallery and having the "pretty one" fussed over in nearly every room by the attendants, usually elderly women.

Baby zones

If they are largely missing from public view, where do Russia's babies go?

Not far from our Moscow flat is the university's Botanic Garden, an enchanting park invisible from the street because of the block of businesses built in front of its main entrance.

In summer, shielded along with the delicate plants from the roar of the cars and bustle of the streets, are mothers and grandparents - though rarely fathers - out pushing prams over the paths and around the ponds.

Such islands of peace are rare in the urban sea. Where you will spot babies being wheeled about is in courtyards of apartment blocks in the evenings, if they have not already been packed off to the countryside.

With the appearance of babies now so rare in this city, perhaps they are regarded as more precious, to be hidden away from the hazards of the streets?

If Vladimir Putin was right about the "prestige of parenthood", it is a badge worn very discreetly in Moscow.

Your comments

We have recently visited Karlstad, my wife's home town in Sweden. It is a small city around 300 km west of Stockholm with impressive infrastructures. We took our pram with us, and were delightfully surprised when we tried to catch a bus - it was free for the pram and the parent who accompanied it! We later visited other parts of Sweden, and were uniformly delighted by how kind and considerate the Swedish cities were towards families and children. After all, my wife is on her one year paid maternity leave from her Swedish university, and that's certainly a target of envy here in Oxford.
Wuge Briscoe, Oxford, UK

In the good old UK last year, I was asked to leave a fastfood restaurant for breastfeeding, was given the opportunity to feed my baby in a toilet in a chemists, and was tutted and sighed at on a bus when he cried. I fed him as a result and was tutted and sighed at for breastfeeding him again. The UK has a long way to go before it can pour scorn on Russia.
Lisa Remmer, Rome, Italy

Our baby has made a real difference to the way the Russian people in general react and relate to us
Richard Naylor, Moscow
Having lived and worked in Moscow for 5 years and having just had our first child, we find that our baby has made a real difference to the way the Russian people in general react and relate to us, as foreigners in their land. They are very pleasant and extremely helpful and cheerful with our daughter. Some of the expectations of non Russians are very high and wealth dependent.

For my family we have accepted this as part of our way of life and have adapted accordingly. We have a pushchair, carrier and all that we need and all the things your baby would need can be found very cheaply in Moscow. For visitors to Moscow lacking local knowledge it may be very different from some places in the world. We have also just taken our baby to see family in Ghana and there are many differences there too. In general we would say that people are very friendly to babies and families with young children in all the places we have been.
Richard Naylor, Moscow, Russia

I am a Russian mother living in London, and I don't see much difference between attitudes towards babies in London and Moscow. OK, facilities might be better, but there are plenty of people like Steve here making parents feel uncomfortable. Children are a hard work, and all parents ask for is a little kindness. That is what Steve will expect from today's children in 40 years' time when he is old and sick and they treat him and run the economy that pays his pension. Surely having to give way to a pram occasionally in the street is not a high price? In the meantime, it is an Italian holiday for my children this year. Again.
Galina, London

I used to live in Moscow and it is fair to say that this is the wrong time of year to find any children there - for the summer everyone packs off their children and their grandparents to their dachas (like country houses, which even many of the relatively not so well off have access to) and then visits at weekends. Moscow is a working capital city and in the hot summers its best to get away to the countryside if possible. That said it's not too welcoming to children in the winter - then everyone just stays indoors or only ventures as far as the courtyards outside their apartment - even though Moscow's parks are lovely when covered in fresh snow.
Nick, London, UK

My youngest daughter was born in Moscow and spent her first year there. Whilst I agree, getting around, can be tough, we found the people helpful. "Parent and Baby Rooms" are a bit of a luxury in a city where the average monthly salary is less than US$500 but people were always ready with an alternative solution. As for cafes and restaurants - never a problem.Where are all the kids? At the Dacha with grandma for the summer.
Simon, Kuwait, Kuwait

We live on the outskirts of Moscow and have nice walks along the Moscow River, a creek teaming with ducks and a large lake. Babies and toddlers are plentiful here including our own 20 month old daughter. The playgrounds are great, 5 or 6 with sandpits and all the usual apparatus within a few minutes walk from home. But don't ask us to use public transport - it's totally baby unfriendly!
Neale Rudd, Moscow, Russia

The best place I know for babies is Indonesia - just about anywhere is good, though my experience was mainly in Jakarta. Women especially like children, and in many restaurants the waitresses will gather round to fuss over your little ones - and if you're lucky they'll take them off your hands for ten minutes or so. But many men also take to young children. There was one occasion when my wife and I were returning to Jakarta with my son (then about a year old), who was making a fuss at the back of the immigration queue. A uniformed official stepped out of an anteroom, gave my son a big smile, took us into the little room, stamped our passports and had us on our way in just a couple of minutes.
Duncan Barr, Miyagi, Japan

I can't see what all the fuss is about? I get quite fed up with these "show-off" parents who brandish their children in such a way as if to say "Look what I made, aren't I clever?" and then deign to look all offended if you aren't interested. Most of us have the ability to procreate, so just get over it and get on with it. Babies are sweet yes - but they're pretty boring! Why should the world stand and applaud you simply because you did what mother nature equipped you to do? Moscow sounds the ideal place to live!
Nicky, London, UK

I'm very sorry to hear of your unfortunate experiences during your visit to Moscow with your child. I am a UK citizen, living and working in Moscow and have spent 3 years living here with my Russian wife and young family and, while Moscow does certainly have it's peculiarities, I must say that I find it at least as 'child-friendly', if not more so, than London, where I also lived for several years. Moscow, in common with London, Paris, New York, is a huge bustling city where no-one would be particularly interested in running over to a baby to say 'cuchy-coo', just as they can't be bothered in speaking with anyone they don't personally know. What would be the reaction if I wheeled my 18-month old daughter down Oxford Street in her pram? Pretty similar, I should imagine. Comparing Moscow to Naples is a bit like comparing London with a village in the Cotswolds!
Gethin Jones, Moscow, Russia

The classic Brit abroad. "Why is everything not like it is in Britain?" Russians in the UK are often surprised at how much little love British families show their children. For Russians, pushing a baby around a busy city with dangerous roads and dirty air would be irresponsible and evidence of bad parenting. The writer looks for children in Moscow. He only hit the nail on the head at the end. They are either at home, or gone to visit Granny in the countryside where the air is better, and there is freedom to run around and not sit in a buggy all day while the parents pursue their own self-centred life. As in the case in Russia, family life is entirely child-centred, while impersonal city life is not.
Richard Lockhart, Edinburgh

It appears some adults would prefer that parents of babies (1) should not be out in public roads, (2) should not eat in restaurants, (3) should not fly in commercial airliners when accompanied by their babies. It is amusing to note that some people feel they should not have to change their lifestyle because some others would like to have babies or "feels the need to procreate" as one gentleman would like to put it. Don't they realize the irony of being able say the very things they are saying as an adult, namely that if their parents did not feel such an urge they would not be here (and making such comments) ?
Bhagya Konwar, Munich, Germany

After living in Odessa Ukraine for a while on two separate occasions I think it comes down to different cultures and the ways "Russian/ Ukrainian" peoples live compared to other countries. You don't get many if any people in the Sydney city swarming toward prams or babies maybe just the occasional glance as people scurry off in their hectic daily play of life. Maybe the same in Moscow considering it is the business capital of western Russia.
Matt Maisey, Sydney Australia

Moscow is known for its fast way of life, high life expenses and busy businessmen. As one who belongs to this lifestyle I find it amusing how now everywhere I go there a crying babies. I like children and adore my godson, but I would never try to mix urban city life and children. There are some cities that are for adults only and a caring parent should understand that it is also for the better of the children to bring them up in a more friendly atmosphere. Then the businessmen and women also have friendlier one - double expressos without double strollers.
Lilja, Prague

We went to France for holiday this summer. My son Pascal, at 19 months old, had a fantastic time. In general, the French loves babies although they do not like have buggies in museums. We moved from London to Dubai when my son was 6 weeks old. You will not find a better place than Dubai to have babies. Nearly all restaurants are baby friendly; all shopping malls have free of charge changing AND feeding rooms, the most important thing is that children can run on the grass which a lot of the parks in the UK now ban.
Christine Knowles, Dubai

It's such a sad story. People don't want kids these days - they are a nuisance. In some countries like India people don't want girls; in China they can't have more than one; in Russia you can't afford to have any! Someday people will have only dolls(robots!) to play with!
Zulfi, Bangalore

How about a child-free city where the rest of us don't have to put up with the little darlings. Just because someone feels the need to procreate, I don't see why I have to change my lifestyle - earplugs on aircraft, dodging prams on the pavement, etc. And just how am I supposed to react to 'baby on board' stickers? Drive differently?
Steve Roach, Sydney, Australia

To Steve Roach - Are you forgetting that someone obviously felt the need to procreate in order to bring your delightful self into this world? People with children also have to change their lifestyles to accommodate people like you. They are often turned away from restaurants/shops etc where there are no child facilities or the management just want to keep them child free. And, by the way, the "Baby On Board" stickers are just to make you aware of the situation. It's entirely up to you how you react to them, no one forces the issue.
Anon, Port Glasgow, Scotland

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