Have a Baby, Win a Car

From free appliances to summer camps that encourage procreation, the Russian government is pulling out all the stops to get its citizens pregnant.

The final week of November was a bad week to find yourself accidentally pregnant in Novorossiysk. From the 24th to the 28th, the Russian port city on the Black Sea held an official “Week Without Abortions.” During those days, doctors in Novorossiysk were not allowed to terminate pregnancies except in “the most extreme cases.” City universities screened films showing the detrimental effects of abortions. Psychologists and gynecologists prepared pregnant women for motherhood. “Doctors will do everything they can to stop women from doing the irreparable,” a city administration representative told RussiaToday.com.

It was the latest effort in a series of initiatives to stop the freefall of Russia’s population. With a density of nine persons per 22 square miles, it’s the most sparsely populated country in the world. Demographers believe Russia’s population of 144 million will decline to 115 million by 2050, and one expert said it could fall as low as 77 million. Part of the problem is low life expectancy—most Russian men won’t live to see 60, due mainly to factors like alcohol, drugs, suicide, and a reluctance to buckle up. But the other half of the equation is Russia’s plummeting birth rate, which in the past two decades has fallen from an average of two children per woman to barely more than one.

Camp Nashi, a youth movement run by the Kremlin, encourages young people to pair up in red heart-shaped tents for two weeks on the shores of Lake Seliger.

“We must, at least, stimulate the birth of a second child,” then-President Vladimir Putin said two years ago in a national address. They weren’t idle words—in recent years, Russia has embarked on a multipronged campaign to get its citizens to start procreating.

In addition to initiatives like the one in Novorossiysk, Putin offered 250,000 rubles, or about $9,200, to women who have a second child.

And Camp Nashi, a youth movement run by the Kremlin, encourages young people to pair up in red heart-shaped tents for two weeks on the shores of Lake Seliger, 200 miles from Moscow. At the conclusion of the two-week session, mass wedding ceremonies are held. “Most people who married at Seliger were very young,” said Maria Drokova, the leader of Camp Nashi since its formation in 2005. In the last three years, couples have averaged 20, 22, and 24 years old.

“Two years ago, a couple got married, and last year they came with their new baby boy named after Vasile Sturza, a former leader of the Nashi movement appointed by Putin,” Drokova said. Upon the couple’s return, the camp held a celebration of the birth.

Camp Nashi is free, subsidized by the government, and provides the campers with all they need for their two-week stay—though not condoms, according to camper Irina Maziezi.

Maziezi, 21, has attended Camp Nashi three years in a row, and says the mass marriages that take place at the camp are beautiful and legally binding. “Girls are in white dresses, music plays, they dance the waltz,” she said.

Other incentives to procreate include an official Day of Conception, declared by Ulyanovsk Governor Sergei Morozov on September 12, 2007. Couples were given time off from work for the day to have sex, and mothers who gave birth exactly nine months later, on June 12, 2008, Russia Day, were awarded cars, cash, kitchen appliances, and other prizes.

Putin also announced an increase in childcare to support young mothers, part of his ten-year national program, designed to encourage women to have more children. And 2008 was declared the “Year of Family” by the government, accompanied by new restrictions on advertisements for abortion clinics in the media.

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Last year, Mikhail Zurabov, the Russian minister for health and social security, had good news at the opening of the World Social Security Forum in Moscow: The population of Russia, he said, had increased by 6 percent since 1996. Most of the increase was due to a recent rise in life expectancy, but UN statistics show that Russian birth rates have been inching upward as well since their historic low in 1996, from about eight births per 1,000 people to just over ten.

But it’s been pointed out that this uptick is probably only an echo of a small baby boom in the 1980s, and may not sustain itself.

“To increase the production of children, we would need to be assured that Russia is on the right track to prosperity,” the Russian author Viktor Erofeyev wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year. “Do what you will, you can't order people to make babies.”

Michelle Vyadro is a junior producer at The Daily Beast.