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Last Updated: Friday, 31 March 2006, 10:07 GMT 11:07 UK
Russia looks to its fathers
In the latest in our series about the role of the state in encouraging couples to have more children, Patrick Jackson in Moscow looks at how a rising birth rate is bringing cheer to Russia but mortality rates among adult males remain dangerously high.

From 8.7 births per 1,000 people in 2000, Russia has gone to 10.4 in 2004, state statistics show.

Galina Sidorenko
Now there is a shortage of kindergartens and people sign up for them years in advance
Galina Sidorenko
mother of Syoma, born 1993

Such figures compare favourably with other countries, notes leading Russian obstetrician Vladimir Serov: Germany recorded a rate of 8.3 births per thousand last year, while for Japan it was 9.5 and, in the UK, 10.8.

Current long waiting lists for kindergartens bear testimony to a boom in parenting after the barren 1990s when the post-Soviet economic and social crisis hit family life hard.

While feeding, clothing and educating these tiny new citizens remain a daily struggle for most, the revival of the economy and a new sense of social stability appear to be having a positive effect.

However, a healthy birth rate is only one side of the demographic coin: on current mortality trends, many of these new babies' fathers will not live to see pension age.

After the stress

"The 1990s were a disaster - it scares me even to think about it now," recalls Russian businesswoman Galina Sidorenko.

Olga Shchedrinskaya with (from right) Vanya and Irisha
Olga Shchedrinskaya is already a mother twice over at 21
Sitting in the comfortable surroundings of her Moscow antiques gallery, she remembers how she gave birth to her son, Syoma, in 1993 as the economy was falling apart.

"Every day the dollar rate was going up, then there were the defaults, unemployment was massive and having babies was the last thing you'd be thinking of," she says.

When Syoma was growing up, he would attend school classes in Moscow designed for 30 children. However, there would only be half that number and many preschool facilities finally closed down.

"In fact, it's a real nightmare because now there is a shortage of kindergartens and people sign up for them years in advance," Galina says.

Parenting in modern Russia is still far from plain sailing, she stresses. There are practically no free sport facilities or clubs for children in the capital and children cannot be let out on the street alone.

Yet Galina detects a real return of confidence in the future among her friends and acquaintances.


At 21, Olga Shchedrinskaya is already a mother twice over. She and her husband Arseny, 27, have a two-year-old boy, Vanya, and Irisha, a girl aged three.

BBC graph

I accompanied them briefly on Moscow's public transport system, hopping off a bus and on to the metro, the little ones wrapped up snugly against the sub-zero temperatures and clearly enjoying the morning sunshine and bustle of the capital.

Starting a family so early is rare in Russia where first mothers are typically aged 20 to 25.

If Olga and Arseny have further children, they will be joining another select minority: families with three or more children make up just 4-5% of the population.

The trickledown effect of oil and gas prosperity is undoubtedly one of the key drivers for the rising birth rate but the state has also been encouraging Russians to have more babies.

Maternity hospitals remain free of charge and pregnant women now get vitamins and iron supplements, which they did not receive in the past, according to a spokeswoman for Moscow's federal obstetrics and perinatology centre (NCAGIP).

Just as importantly, especially when child benefit is pitifully meagre, some progressive employers are keeping women's jobs open for them when they go on maternity leave.

Stable rate

Few people are better aware of the upsurge in births than Professor Serov, who is the NCAGIP's deputy director.

Vladimir Serov
I used to joke to my students that if men gave birth, the human race would have died out a long time ago
Professor Vladimir Serov
former chief obstetrician of Russia

For a quarter of a century he witnessed population decline as Russia's chief obstetrician.

"In Soviet times, the USSR depended on its Asian part for its birth rate," he says.

"When the USSR fell apart and the Asian regions broke off, Russia's low birth rate came to light."

The rise in the rate which began in 2000 may already have peaked, with 10.2 births per 1,000 people reported in 2005 by the Russian government - down slightly from the previous year's figure of 10.4.

But the NCAGIP is not surprised. It is expecting the rate to remain stable for some time now as the number of women of childbearing age appears itself to have stabilised.

New role

Russia has no tradition of involving the husband in the course of the pregnancy and the concept of both prospective parents attending consultations is still relatively alien, the NCAGIP says.

Men here live to 59 - when they have difficulty getting work and providing for their families, alcohol beckons
Professor Serov
But fathers are being encouraged to play a greater role early on and an old prohibition on husbands attending the birth has been relaxed.

Professor Serov paints a picture of constant stress for the typical male trying to make a living in Russia today.

"Men here live to 59," he says. "When they have difficulty getting work and providing for their families, alcohol beckons."

Russian women, by contrast, can expect to live to 74 - a reasonable expectation for males in Germany and Japan.

A falling birth rate is a good thing. The planet is already overpopulated
Claire, London

The result is that for every 10 Russians born, 15 will die, and that is what alarms sociologists.

The Russian Government has responded with a national plan to raise male life expectancy to between 66 and 67 initially.

Professor Serov is cautiously optimistic about the chances of Russian men changing their lifestyle - though the obstetrician appears to be generally more impressed by the willpower of the mothers he has seen over the decades.

"I used to joke to my students that if men gave birth, the human race would have died out a long time ago," he says.

"Women have a selflessness that men just do not possess."

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