Page last updated at 15:01 GMT, Thursday, 15 January 2009

Moscow Diary: Population worries

While gas dominates debate in Russia, the government is also confronting a more serious long-term issue - the country's dwindling masses, the BBC's James Rodgers reports.

His diary is published fortnightly.


It has been a week of snarls, and a few smiles.

A Russian couple in Moscow
The Kremlin has high hopes for them

The Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, has been on top, tough-talking form, setting out Russia's view of the gas crisis with Ukraine.

President Dmitry Medvedev has added some stern words of his own, but his public appearances have focused more on the gentler side of life.

Depending on your point of view, that either means Mr Medvedev appears presidential, and above the angry exchanges - or that it is Mr Putin who is taking the real decisions.

Mr Medvedev's presence at a church service for Orthodox Christmas featured prominently in television coverage. Then he was back on TV again - hosting a reception in the Kremlin for the winners of the "Parental glory" awards.

He was giving state honours to parents who have seven or more children. It was the first ceremony of its kind, and followed 2008, which was declared "year of the family" in Russia.

The proud parents had come from right across the country. One couple wore the traditional clothing of the native people of Siberia; the next father wore a cardigan with the word "Extreme" emblazoned on the front.

It could have been some kind of covert political protest - but I'm sure that would never have got past the Kremlin spin doctors.

'Hero mothers'

Russia's 24-hour news channel even found a gap in the gas row to carry the ceremony live.

"With your attitude to child-rearing you set an example to the whole of society, and continue the special traditions of parental service which have been developing for centuries in our country," President Medvedev told the participants.

For the last couple of decades those traditions have been disappearing. The Soviet system did its best to promote them, even rewarding the "hero mothers" who had big families. The collapse of that system ushered in a less heroic age.

"Beginning from 1992, mortality in Russia has consistently exceeded fertility: the loss of population has amounted to approximately 12 million individuals," the United Nations said in April.

The UN did add that the loss had been partially compensated for by 5.5 million due to migration, but warned that if current trends continued, the Russian population could be as low as 100 million by the middle of this century. For comparison, Russia's state statistics service said the population in 2008 was 142 million.

So while Mr Putin's words and actions on the gas crisis are of vital importance to Russia's present and immediate future, Mr Medvedev's gentle attempts to address his country's drastic decline in population are of vital importance in the longer term.


After two mild winters, and record high temperatures in the first half of December, we had some good, old-fashioned, frosts in and around the Russian capital during the New Year holiday period.

Moscow night scene
Moscow now faces the dangers of freeze-thaw

At the end of last week, it was minus 15C in the morning - and only a few degrees warmer in the middle of the day.

Now the temperatures have jumped - bringing with them the physical and medical problems that come with a thaw, when melting snow turns to ice overnight.

Moscow media reported that people who had suffered injuries from slipping on ice made 79 calls to the ambulance service in the 24 hours between Monday and Tuesday mornings. Sections of the capital's pavements are fenced off to stop pedestrians straying into the danger zones beneath falling icicles. Doctors have been talking to the media about the adverse effects of such sharp changes in temperature, and the alteration in air pressure which comes with it.

It's not all so scientific. One less-than-sympathetic radio host dismissed a caller's lack of desire to return to work after the long holiday period not with quackery, but something closer to cruelty: "It's a hangover".

Your comments:

Considering that the world is severely overpopulated it is ridiculous to consider the Russian situation "drastic." In fact, it could be argued that the Russian people would be better off with a lower population. Canada's population density is much lower than that of Russia, which allows for the resource wealth to grow.
Brian Lander, Montreal, Canada

It seems to me that a drop in the world population towards a more sustainable number would do us all a lot of good. Is the encouragement to produce more people yet another symptom of nationalism and grow-or-die economics?
Chris, Tokyo

I do not understand. There are over six billion people in the world. Why do we want more people consuming energy, causing pollution and contributing to global warming? Encouraging someone with several children to have another that will use more oil than I could possibly save by getting a hybrid vehicle, make no sense to me.
Cecil Chesser, minneapolis, minnesota, usa

There are almost seven billion people crowded onto this planet, does Russia really want to add to the problem? If the country believes it needs a larger population, perhaps it would be better to do more to encourage immigration.
Alexandra Travis, Leicestershire, England

If the government officials want hero mothers, they should stop the sex slave trade of Russian women to European brothels. It's a tragedy of national proportions - an entire gene base is being killed, drugged and raped into thin air, and the government is denying the very existence of slave trade. Moscow alone has 80,000 prostitutes, which is 8-10% of the population. It would be interesting to read about that in your blog - and the reactions of Muscovites to the rise in sexual violence against Eastern European women since the break-up of the USSR.
Olga, formerly of Voronezh

Rather than encouraging large families, President Medvedev should be encouraging immigration to Russia. Allowing in Chinese and Indians would help Russia connect with these emerging strong economies.
Jim Wild, London

Why is a declining population bad? We're always being warned that the earth can't support so many people. Instead of trying to increase their populations, countries with declining populations should focus on supporting their elderly and be glad that they're helping global resource sustainability.
Tasha Cady, Phoenix Az USA

After hearing only extremely negative comments on Russia from BBC reporters, even the slightly negative comments by James Rodgers seem refreshing. The fact that Russians manage to work in such extreme climatic conditions speaks volume about their mental and physical stamina. Even Eskimoes and Scandinavians take long winter breaks to get over harsh winters.
Sid, Delhi, India

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James Rodgers Leaving for good
Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow

MAY - OCT 2008

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