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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 February 2007, 16:05 GMT
Russia bids to boost birth rates
By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Moscow

Irina Mironova is an exceptional woman in the modern Russia, at the age of 27 she already has two children.

Two women who have just had second children at Samara hospital
Young mothers do not trust the Government

"I was an only child and always wanted a big family," she says as we sit drinking tea in her tiny one-bedroom apartment in the city of Novokuibushevsk.

And now her love of children looks set to bring her a major financial reward.

Under a new scheme introduced this year she can apply for a government hand-out of $9,000 - equivalent to about two years' income for most Russians - simply because she has more than one child.

Population plunge

The scheme is the Russian government's response to what appears to be a catastrophic decline in the population.

Irina Mironova
I feel the authorities live in a totally different world and don't understand how difficult it is to raise children
Irina Mironova

A combination of low birth rates and high death rates mean that this vast sparsely-populated country could lose 40 million people - almost a third of its current population - by the middle of this century.

According to some experts the decline could accelerate because official statistics predict that the number of women of child-bearing age will fall by about a half by 2050.

Irina Mironova was the first person in her city to fill in the application form for the so-called baby-money now being offered by the authorities.

Although she's very happy about it, she is not convinced it will succeed in persuading many more women to have bigger families.

"People cannot get this money as cash," she says "many are saying it is only for higher education. So what about food and clothing?"

'Sad and upsetting'

The money is strictly controlled. It can only be used for university education, the mother's pension or towards buying a home. And it will only be made available once the second child is three years-old.

Until more people starting thinking more optimistically, most will stop after one baby
Yulia, Samara

"I feel the authorities live in a totally different world and don't understand how difficult it is to raise children on the little money we are provided," says Irina.

"I want my child to go to a good nursery and it costs $120 a month. I don't have that money. It's sad and upsetting."

There was an equally cynical view in the maternity ward of Samara's main regional hospital where we found two more women who had just given birth to their second children.

"People still don't trust the government and rely only on themselves to provide for their children," said Yulia.

"Until more people starting thinking more optimistically, the majority of families will stop after having one baby." Hospital officials who showed us around the wards insisted they had seen an increase in the birth-rate recently and in the number of women having more than one child.

This they believe, is linked to increasing prosperity and stability.

But the numbers are still very low.

'Totally ruined'

If it is questionable whether the scheme to increase the birth rate will work, the government has not even begun to deal with the other major problem, the high death rate.

Sergei and Valera
If I run out of vodka, I can make my own alcohol

The death-rate is currently estimated to be almost a third higher now than in the late 1980s.

The result is that average life expectancy for Russian men has gone down to less than 59 years.

In the European Union, it is more than 75.

We travelled to a small village about an hour's drive outside Samara city to find out why Russian men are dying so young.

It did not take long to discover what is probably one of the most important reasons.

Inside one squalid house, we found Sergei and Valera staring at an almost blank television screen.

The house and garden were littered with empty vodka and beer bottles.

Valera spoke to us surrounded by festering pans, plates of old food and cigarette stubs.

"If I run out of vodka, I can make my own alcohol out of jam or drink surgical spirits used for cleaning wounds or as fuel," he said.

"If it's cold what else to do? You come in from outside, drink some of this and you're warm."

Vladimir Alexandrovich
Vladimir Alexandrovich has seen whole villages disintegrate

Alcohol-related deaths have become increasingly common, taking a toll of tens of thousands of people every year, particularly men. Poor health and suicide are also major problems.

In the same village we were invited into the home of Vladimir Alexandrovich, a pensioner who retired here in the late 1980s.

He has witnessed the population shrink from more than a hundred people to less than twenty, many of the elderly have died, the young have left.

This he says has happened in all the surrounding villages, "everything's totally ruined".

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