Moscow Planning Centre and Maternity home

With a characteristic twinkle and smirk, Vladimir Putin paused last week, in the midst of his most important speech of the year, to outline Russia’s new strategy for population growth.

“Our women know what to do, and when,” he said.

It was the type of policy, packaged as earthy folk wisdom, which Russians have come to expect from their president.

Mr Putin was trumpeting the fact that whatever Russian women do, they were doing it better than in previous years. In 2012, for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, births had narrowly edged out deaths in Russia. The population had grown more than 200,000 from January to September, he declared.

“The demographic programmes enacted in the past decade are, thank God, working.”

Many countries, including some of the world’s most advanced economies, have recorded falls in their “natural” populations. But few are as sensitive to the issue as Russia, where the declines have been catastrophic – the population fell about 4 per cent in the 20 years after 1991.

Premature deaths brought on by the economic turmoil of the post-communist period numbered 10-20m, said one demographer, Yuri Krupnov. By comparison, Russia lost 20-30m in the second world war.

Throughout more than a decade of his rule, Mr Putin has been uniquely preoccupied by demography. Even after declines started to level off in the middle of the past decade, he proposed a policy, known as “mother capital”, of paying women up to $10,000 to have second children.

In a speech last week, he proposed additional incentives in 50 low-birth regions for women to have three children. “The three-child family should become the norm in Russia,” he said.

The Kremlin’s interest in demographics is hard to separate from the overall direction of political rhetoric, which has taken a nationalist turn in recent years.

In his state address, Mr Putin referred in vague terms to some fast-approaching struggle for global primacy, in which victory would “depend, above all, on the will of each nation – its internal energy”.

The concern with dwindling numbers of Russians appears to be part of a broader preoccupation with ethnicity and identity, themes that have reverberated in political debates over “nationalities” policy and a law passed on Friday by Russia’s lower house of parliament that would ban adoptions of Russian children by US parents.

Mr Putin has not indicated whether he will sign it, however. Mike McFaul, the US ambassador, appealed to him to reject it, saying the new legislation “will needlessly remove the path to families for hundreds of Russian children each year”.

Nationalists see the issues of adoption, ethnicity and demographics as inter-related aspects of the same national tragedy: the decline of the Russian people.

“We are paying our mothers to have more kids, and then we are sending those children to other countries: what a fine demographics policy!” said Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic party, in parliament this week.

A new “strategy for state nationality policy”, agreed this week by Mr Putin, refers to all nationalities of the Russian Federation as united by a single “cultural civilisational code”. The president referred to the federation in his state address as a “state civilisation fastened together by the Russian people, Russian language and Russian culture”.

The measures he has implemented to grow the Russian people can be credited with some success. However, Russian demographers say most of the levelling off of the population decline is caused by a transitory phenomenon – births exploded during Russia’s perestroika years of restructuring in the late 1980s, resulting in the largest generation in three decades.

Mr Krupnov, director of the Moscow-based Institute for Demography, Migration and Regional Development, estimates that 70 per cent of the recent increase in births is due to the fact that it is this robust perestroika generation that is now having children. Soon, however, the downward trend will resume, statisticians say, as the “tiny generation” of the 1990s, when birth rates fell drastically, begin to reproduce.

Vladimir Iontsev, the chairman of the demography department of Moscow State University, said: “I am sure the president has more up-to-date figures than me, and so, yes, this year, there may be growth. But in the long term, all the polls show continued decline in population.”

The last available long-term prediction by the state statistics agency Goskomstat, made in 2009, shows Russia could soon be losing population at the rate of almost a million a year under the most pessimistic scenario. Even under the most optimistic, the “natural” rate of decline will be about 400,000 a year, starting in the middle of the next decade – but will be made up for by immigration.

“I have the impression that the president is getting only partial information,” said Mr Iontsev. “He is being duped.”

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