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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 February 2008, 23:50 GMT
Muscovites count the cost of Valentine's Day
By Duncan Bartlett
Business reporter, BBC World Service, Moscow

You could almost feel the love in the Coffee House cafe in Moscow's university district.

Most tables were occupied by young couples smooching over frothy cappuccinos and fancy cakes.
Sasha and Katya
Sasha and Katya hope to move in together soon

It was there I met Katya Kuznetsova, a beautiful and confident advertising executive with a weakness for strawberry ice cream, although you would hardly know it from her slim figure.

Katya, who's 22, is dating Sasha, a drummer in a heavy metal band. This will be their second Valentine's Day together.

Last year he took her to see a romantic foreign film, which was rather more her cup of tea than his.

She also likes watching the TV comedy series "Sex & The City" about the seductive antics of some very liberated New York women.

There's a Russian equivalent, in which Katya says the characters want more than hot dates and casual sex. They're looking for marriage.

It's a silly programme, she says, but in a way very Russian.

Speaking of her parents' courtship back in the days of the USSR, Katya says: "They took everything very seriously back then. If you met someone, marriage was the main aim."

It seems that's changed. According to Katya, young women in Russia have a lot more power and independence than their mothers. "We know what we want," she explains.

"We don't need to find a man to earn money for us and get us a home and a family. We have relationships just for fun."

Costly fun

Having fun can be expensive, though, especially in Moscow which has one of the highest costs of living in the world.

Flower inflation is red hot

It also has a soaring 10% inflation rate although that's nothing in comparison to the hyper inflation in the flower business, which occurs in the run up to Valentine's Day: an economic burden grudgingly borne by men.

However, it makes Nadezhda, who owns a little florist's stall in the underground station near the coffee shop, a fan of the free market economy.

She's expecting 2008 to be her most lucrative year.

"In Russia we have a saying: every flower has its buyer," she says.

Some men have even asked her to put rings and jewels in the bouquets.

"It certainly wasn't like this under Communism," says Nadezhda, who's been in the business 20 years.

"Back then, hardly anyone seemed to buy flowers. Now we have to work from seven in the morning until 11 at night just to keep up."

She would like to buy a store in a more glamorous district, but at 49, she thinks she's too old move upmarket to somewhere chic.

"You'd have to be young and thin and beautiful to work in a place like that," she laughs.

Birth incentives

For romantic Russian men, the next few weeks will involve a great deal of additional expense and bother.

Women's Day falls on 8 March and men are expected not just to buy gifts but to do housework and cooking.

In theory, it sounds like a chance for their partners to relax, but many women dread the idea of having to eat burnt sausages made by men who haven't been near the cooker for a year.

But has all this romance brought about the thing Russia badly needs - babies?

The birth rate has fallen drastically since the demise of the Soviet Union. And abortion rates are the highest in the world.

Many women choose to terminate their pregnancy rather than bear the expense of bringing up children without much financial help from the state.

The child care allowance is 200 roubles ($8) a month - about the same as the money it costs to buy a single orchid from Nadezhda's flower stall.

The government has become so worried about the falling birth rate that it's come up with a scheme.

When a woman's second child reaches three years of age, she receives a payment of 200,000 roubles ($8,000) and, if she manages to bring more three-year-olds into the world, she'll get a payment for each one.

All very well, say the mothers, but the first three years of a child's life are very expensive and it is hard to go out and earn money with two more young children to look after.

Thriving families

Back in the coffee shop, Katya and Sasha aren't thinking about babies just yet although they reckon they'll move in together soon and Katya makes it clear that if she were to become pregnant, she is against abortion and would like to keep the child.

Such a heavy responsibility seems a long way off.

But if the Russian motherland is going to have a thriving family, women like Katya may have to consider letting go of a few of their precious new freedoms to care for its children.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 14 February, 2008 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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