Why Aren’t Russians Having Babies?

Moscow women
Two Moscow women unlikely to have children anytime soon sit in their kitchen after injecting a mix of drugs (Photo: AFP/Getty Images).

According to statistics, in the past decade in Russia, a million more people die every year than are born. Such figures give various sociologists, politicians, and economists a reason to speak of a demographic crisis in the country. They’re saying that Russian women must be forced by any means to have not just one child but two or more.

Specialists believe that the reduction in the number of children per family is a logical consequence of improved standards of living—the “civilized life.” But Argumenty i Fakty has conducted its own investigation into the question of why Russian women aren’t having babies and has come to the conclusion that civilization has nothing to do with it. In principle, the overwhelming majority of Russian women are not opposed to having children—they’d definitely like to have one, and maybe two. But that’s just talk and wishful thinking that does not always coincide with actual opportunities. According to the Ministry of Health, 5 million to 6 million Russian couples are unable to have children.

Gennadi and Ludmila S. of Rostov have spent seven years in and out of doctors’ offices, investing their last savings on medical treatment. Finally, they reached the moment when the doctor pronounced the long-awaited words, “Congratulations! You will soon be a papa and mama!” The future mother beamed with happiness, and the husband was walking on eggshells. Suddenly, all their hopes were dashed. The doctors learned from a test that the pregnant woman had an infection. Indifferently, they told her, “You have to go get ‘cleaned out,’ otherwise you will have a deformed baby.”

After the abortion, it took three months for Ludmila to recover. And then, once again, she went to first one doctor, then another. And suddenly she learned that the diagnosis of the infection should have been checked at other laboratories—many people find results are not confirmed upon a repeat analysis. What’s more, these doctors told her that her first abortion was a final sentence—now she could never have children. As for the first doctors, they simply threw up their hands, saying, all the responsibility is on your shoulders, Mom, our job is only to warn you, but you yourself make the decision.

Not only health problems get in the way of women becoming mothers. Out of those who somehow manage to get pregnant, only one in three women will eventually give birth. While one in 10 pregnant women have miscarriages due to health problems, 60 percent of those pregnant women opt to have abortions. Almost half select the operation due to financial difficulties. Another 20 percent willingly reject the opportunity to have children because they don’t see how they can secure a future for them in Russia.

Future moms are decidedly disliked at local clinics. A pregnant colleague of ours who went to her local clinic to register was met with the following words: “Why do you think you’re going to have a baby? Look at yourself—bags under your eyes, scrawny. You’ll have a miscarriage in the third month for sure.” After such an introduction, the desire to meet with the Obgyn evaporates.

In Moscow, prenatal care from the early stages of pregnancy until delivery costs on the average of US$800-$1,000, about $200-$400 in regional centers, and about 3,000-5,000 rubles ($99-$165) in the provinces. The government provides only a one-time payment of 300 rubles [about $10] to assist those who seek treatment at a medical facility in early pregnancy—up to 12 weeks’ gestation. The birth itself costs almost as much as the prenatal care. And there is no guarantee that after you’ve paid the money, you will get the highest-quality care.

Actress Mariya Golubkina, wife of the well-known showman and racer Nikolai Fomenko, is not a poor woman. But after having her first daughter in an elite birthing facility in the capital, she preferred to have her second child at home in the old-fashioned way of her grandmothers—her negative memories about her first childbirth and caring for the baby turned out to be stronger than fear of having the baby at home, even without the help of a midwife.

The stories of how mothers were left in cold rooms at the state birthing homes after their labor, or how cotton balls were left in the abdomens of women after Caesarean sections, or how babies were discharged with a bundle of infections contracted in the nursery could be told by half the women who have given birth in Russia.

Nowadays, the aid to children of low-income families is 70 rubles [about $2] a month. At the Department of Children, Women, and the Family of the Ministry of Labor and Social Development, Argumenty i Fakty was told that for three years, the staff had been trying to double this sum(!). Why is there no result? The budget has no room for such costs.

And, of course, even the 70 rubles is hardly enough to feed a child if a woman does not breast-feed her baby (30-40 percent of Russian infants are put on formula). “We have long been campaigning for breast-feeding,” says Svetlana Konova, an official of the Health Ministry’s Directorate of the Organization of Medical Treatment for Mothers and Children. But the campaign boils down to providing a few tips to young mothers while they are in the birthing home or the clinic, teaching them how to put a baby to the breast. If they don’t produce breast milk, they have only one option, to go to the milk kitchen. All the milk kitchens are financed out of local budgets, however, and local officials usually don’t think about mothers who have to feed their infants.

A no less painful issue is employment for the young mother. As Irina Korina of Novosibirsk wrote to the “Letters to the Editor” section of Argument i Fakty, “I worked as a bookkeeper at a fairly large and well-known company in our district. When I got pregnant, I worked until the last minute. My bosses assured me that they were eagerly awaiting my return, and I didn’t want to delay my maternity leave more than three months. But my daughter was born with problems, and for two years, I took care of her, staying at the hospital day and night.

“When the danger had subsided, I went back to work, since I had spent my last savings on medical treatment for my child. Then our chief bookkeeper, avoiding eye contact, said she would take me back—but for a miserable salary, and only because she knows me well. I agreed to take the job, since, after all, my husband’s salary wasn’t enough to support our family. To be honest, I’m in shock—no matter where you go stick your head with your problems, you’re not wanted. And to think I dreamed of having three kids!”

We went to Galina Karelova at the vice prime minister’s press office to inquire about how the government is addressing the demographic crisis. We were sent back to the ministries of Health and Labor. We had already heard their answer to the question—the government does not provide enough funding. It turns out to be a vicious circle, which no one can break.

Meanwhile, government officials go on talking with concerned expressions on their faces about the demographic crisis. The ministries and agencies of Russia have designed numerous programs to solve the demographic problem. Only a few of them are financed, and not in full.