What’s Vladimir Putin got on his mind ahead of next year’s elections? Babies. In a speech last month, the prime minister pledged $51 billion for “demographic projects” meant to raise the country’s birth rate by up to 30 per cent in less than five years.
Russia’s population has dropped by 2.2 million people in the last eight years, to just under 143 million. Putin calls the decline Russia’s gravest problem. The billions will fund incentives such as free land for families with three or more children, and increased child-benefit payments. It will also support existing schemes, such as one-time $13,000 payments for mothers of two or three children, and medals for women with many children (a Soviet-era practice Putin rekindled in 2007). In the past, youth roused by Putin’s message set up “sex tents” at summer camps and wore T-shirts declaring, “I want three children.”
Though Russia’s birth rate is comparable to those of many Western countries, it’s compounded by a high death rate. Drug and alcohol abuse has increased sharply since the collapse of the Soviet Union, taking a toll on men in particular.