When they decided to have their first child, Alexander Gorlov and Laila Simanova discovered that something new was afoot in post-Soviet Russia: a baby boom.
Simanova, 31, now five months pregnant, said she was surprised by how many of her friends were becoming pregnant as well. When she signed up with the Pre-Natal Medical Center in Moscow, she found it swamped with expectant mothers.
"The doctors said when they opened two years ago, we could have played football in the halls," she said. "Now there are queues. When you call you can't get through. The line is always busy."
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's population plummeted, and until recently was shrinking at the rate of about 750,000 people a year.
So the Kremlin made kids a priority. A 2007 law expanded maternity leave benefits and payments, and granted mothers educational and other vouchers worth $10,650 for a second child and any thereafter. More important, perhaps, Russia's surging economy has made it possible for young couples to plan for their future.
Population still in decline
The population decline hasn't halted, and demographers warn it could plummet again. But today births are on the rise, from 1.4 million in 2006 to 1.6 million in 2007 — their highest level in 15 years.
Both Gorlov and Simanova, who lived together for years before their recent marriage, say their decision to start a family was deeply personal. But Simanova noted the public service ads on television every night that showcase big families and praise the virtues of adopting children. And she suspects this may have played a role in her current plan to have three children and adopt a fourth.
"They are promoting families, they are promoting babies, and somehow this message is getting through," she said.
Her husband, Alexander, a 30-year-old lawyer, wasn't so certain that government policy influenced his decision.
"It's not that we want to raise a lot of Russians to raise the booming economy," he joked after soccer practice one recent evening. But he did say that Russia's economic resurgence over the past decade has made it easier to raise children.
Emptied villages, labor shortage
For Russia, the increase in births is more than a signal of a society recovering from decades of poverty and social upheaval. Because of falling birthrates and rising death rates, the number of Russians dropped between 1989 and 2008 from about 148 million to 141.4 million. Villages emptied, the pool of military recruits shrank and a labor shortage loomed.
Some experts have estimated that the number of Russians could fall below 100 million by 2050, making one of the world's most sparsely populated countries even more so and — some fear — threatening its very existence.
President Vladimir Putin says the baby boom is just one sign of a turnaround in the country's long demographic decline, and credits increased state spending on health and social programs.
"We have checked the falling birthrate and rising death rate," Putin said in a Feb. 8 speech in the Kremlin. "Many doubted that the state investments this program called for would be of any use. Today I am happy to say that they have been of use."
Putin also noted, however, that deaths still outpace births and that Russian life expectancy is the lowest in Europe. "This is a disgrace," he said. "Our population is declining with every passing year."
The 750,000 annual loss of previous years shrank to just 223,000 in the first 11 months of 2007, compared with 521,000 over the same period of 2006.
Between 2005 and 2006, life expectancy for males increased by 1.6 years, according to the Russian state statistical service, roughly a 2.7 percent jump.
Men in Russia today can expect to live to just over the age of 60 — about 15 years less than males in Europe, but still more than during the rest of Russia's post-Soviet history.
Demographic experts were impressed.
"In a normal country with a normal history, during one year, life expectancy can grow .02, .03 percent," said Yevgeny Andreev, a Russian researcher with the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany. "More than one percent is extremely high growth."
Russian women can expect to live to be about 73 on average, much longer than men but still about seven years shorter than the European Union.
Trapped in 'demographic pit'
While Russia's population decline has slowed, experts are divided over when and if it will ever grow again. The country may still be headed for a population crash, says Murray Feshbach, a prominent Western expert on Russia's population crisis.
Feshbach, who is with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said the number of women aged 20-29, their prime childbearing years, will start to decline around 2013. Moreover, he predicts a sharp rise in deaths from AIDS, tuberculosis and hepatitis C over the next five to 10 years — a result, for the most part, of authorities having paid too little attention to preventing these diseases after the Soviet collapse.
Russia, he said, finds itself in a "demographic pit" that may be difficult to escape.
After almost two decades of low birthrates, Russian society can seem less child-friendly than other industrialized nations.
Employers rarely grant paternity leave, Simanova and others say. Working mothers-to-be also face job discrimination, because of a widespread belief that pregnant women lose their memory and become "weak-minded."
No more stigma
On the other hand, being pregnant no longer seems to carry a stigma, at least in Moscow. Simanova and others say subway riders now offer their seats to pregnant women, and avoid pushing or shoving them on the chronically overcrowded trains and platforms.
Previously, Simanova said, the attitude of many passengers was: "It's your fault, so suffer."
The roots of Russia's demographic implosion reach deep into the Soviet era, but the current crisis started as the Soviet Union began to break apart in the late 1980s. Couples stopped having children and the birthrate plummeted by 50 percent between 1987 and 1999.
Putin recently called for raising life expectancy to 75 by the year 2020 — a staggering increase.
Andreev of the Max Planck Institute said it was possible, but would need new curbs on alcohol and tobacco, better medical services, and other initiatives requiring both money and "political will."
"These will not be popular measures," he predicted.