Family: Support Long Overdue

Vladimir Putin's decision to declare 2008 the year of the family may on one level seem strange. For most of the year he will no longer even be head of state, having left office on March 2. And, while making family a priority during a certain year may be a good publicity move for a president seeking reelection, it is certainly not for one leaving office.

But making family a priority in Russia is in fact long overdue. There is no institution in Russia suffered more during the last tumultuous 90 years of Russian history than the family.

One should begin by mentioning the ruinous events of the civil war and Stalin's repressions, which not only destroyed individuals, but divided whole families. In 1917-1922 alone, 1.5 million Russians were forced into emigration, and many couples were separated by state borders.

The Second World War (or "Great Patriotic War" here in Russia) also bore a heavy toll in unmarried women and unborn babies besides the direct loss of a staggering 27 million lives.

And then, in the early 1990s, the "demographic echo" of World War II was augmented by a period of hyperinflation and job uncertainty, which made many families postpone childbirth. This produced a generally negative demographic picture of the 1990s, with birthrates falling to little more than 50 percent of the level of 1987, the peak for Soviet demographics.

Last year's figures seemed to reverse the worst of a fiercely downward trend, with Russia posting the best birth statistics for the last 20 years, with 1.6 million new baby arrivals. By way of comparison, in the post-crisis year of 1999, only 1.25 million babies were born.

At least some of the recent improvement in birthrates can be attributed to the 1987 generation reaching child-bearing age. According to Viktor Perevedentsev, scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences, this and the recent economic stabilization helped, "but the general negative demographic trend continues".

Indeed, even optimists acknowledge that Russia's population will not show signs of baseline growth for some time yet. Even the most ambitious plan on increasing birthrates, proposed by the influential business NGO Delovaya Rossiya (Business Russia), sets an aim only of stabilizing
Russia's population at 142 million by the year 2015.

A government task force, headed by president-to-be Dmitry Medvedev, has also came up with its own plan of demographic development until the year 2025. And the foundations of 2025's demographic growth are laid in today's families.

This would appear to be the reason why the government has started sponsoring a nationwide TV channel for children; why the governing United Russia party has started an ambitious program of reviving community sports' facilities; and why Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov has begun to talk about privileged access to kindergartens for families with a single parent.

"From the demographic point of view, a husband and a wife are not yet a family, while a single mother and a child are a family which needs support most," said Olga Makhovskaya, a researcher from the Institute of Psychology, Russian Academy of Sciences.

In this regard, it is difficult to argue with Luzhkov's logic.

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