updated 6/2/2009 10:52:29 AM ET 2009-06-02T14:52:29

Russia has a long tradition of honoring it soldiers, scholars and scientists for outsized achievements. On Monday, it honored parents with outsized families with the "Order of Parental Glory" — part of a campaign to halt a dramatic population decline.

President Dmitry Medvedev gave couples with four, nine, 11 and as many as 16 children a hero's welcome in a gilded Kremlin reception hall, holding them up as examples to a nation full of families like his own — mom, dad and only child.

The world's largest nation by land mass has seen its population plummet since the 1991 Soviet collapse, with alcoholism, AIDS, pollution and poverty among the factors leading to early deaths and discouraging births.

The average Russian male lives 60 years, far shorter than in most European countries.

While Russians have been having more babies in recent years, demographers warn the population could still decline from 142 million today to 110 million or less by 2050.

Medvedev decorated the proud-looking parents with the Parental Glory medal he instituted by decree last year — a golden two-headed eagle on a red field backed by a blue cross.

Message: Having children a public duty
"You have created happy, unique families — big, friendly families — and I want to thank all of you," Medvedev said at the ceremony, featured prominently in state-run TV newscasts.

He joined families at tables set on the parquet floor and posed for pictures with boys in ties and girls with gigantic white hair ribbons.

Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, his predecessor and now prime minister, have urged Russians to have more children, whether by birth or adoption — sometimes suggesting it is a matter of public duty as much as personal choice.

"We must strive to make the humane treatment of children and the aspiration to create full-fledged, big families measurements of the development of our society, our state," Medvedev said.

The government has instituted financial rewards for parents starting with their second child. The Parental Glory medal comes with an award of 50,000 rubles, $1,630.

While the award ceremony and the medal evoked czarist pomp, treating prolific parents as heroes is a Soviet tradition dating back to World War II, when the country was depopulated by an estimated 27 million war-related deaths. Some women with many children were granted the title "Mother-Hero."

Medvedev said births increased strongly in the last two years, partly as a result of the state's efforts. Many families, however, say government subsidies are insufficient.

Kremlin critics say the government should focus more on improving conditions for Russia's children — and the rest of its citizens — than on making more babies. And demographers warn that the boom in births will not reverse Russia's population decline.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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