09 July, 2007

Russia is in a family way--or at least Kazan is

I read that, in the United States, scads and scads of brides wanted to marry on Saturday past, what with it having a magical date and all: 7/7/7. I don't understand the appeal myself, but it appears to extend past American borders. Here in Kazan last Saturday, the silence I noticed on the streets was apparently due to a run on ЗАГС, the government ministry in charge of marriages.* When my wife and I visited the Kremlin in the evening (the old fortress) we saw so many couples that I lost count. My wife told me that she had read that each district of Kazan had a minimum of 30 weddings on Saturday, and in some districts there were 60. A normal weekend has only 10.

Back before Western Society decided that having children was a hobby rather than a responsibility, this would have implied a glut of babies in a year's time or so. These days we've gotten sophisticated, so the average Western family isn't large enough to maintain the Western population. Family that chooses to have 3 children is considered weird, while those with 4 or more are typically treated with the implication that they are verging on irresponsibility. I have personally heard remarks running the gamut from "Gross!" to "If you can't feed 'em, don't breed 'em!" to fellow graduate students' puzzlement about my remarks on a society's need to encourage people to have children.

The reality is that, while large families present society with a number of challenges, small family sizes imply a number of unpleasant consequences that no one wants to talk about seriously. Sex without consequences is loads more fun, after all. Very well, I won't talk about them seriously, either. But in a country like Russia, where a man's average lifespan (and lifestyle) means that many men drink themselves to death before reaching retirement age, and where a strong sense of national identity shows occasional signs of growing into extreme nationalism, the collapse of the Russian birthrate has been worrying leaders since the late Soviet era.

Whatever defects the current Russian administration may have, they aren't entirely stupid, and they do happen to be awash in oil money. (Not all the dough we Americans are blowing on Hummers is going to corrupt Middle Eastern regimes.) So the Russian Duma passed a law promising that any family producing more than one child would receive a bonus for each additional child, starting in the year 2007.

This may bring to mind the laughably small tax deduction for American taxpayers who have children. No, Russians have that already. Rather, the Duma has promised upwards of 250,000 rubles (approx. $10,000) for each child born. Even in the United States, that's not exactly a sum of money worth sneering at. In Russia, receiving 250,000 rubles from the government is like hitting the jackpot. Consider that the previous bonus was 5,000 rubles, about $200.And unlike the American government, the Russian Duma promised to increase this amount each year to keep up with inflation.

This could explain why both my wife and I have noticed a large number of young children and pregnant women walking about. Neither of us remembers seeing so many women pushing strollers about town. Yesterday we even saw a father carry his half-naked baby into a Russian church. (Bottomless!) Is this fecundity a consequence of the government's program, or is a mirage prompted by the fact that my wife and I, as (relatively) new parents, notice lots of children? People may find out in a year's time...

If Russians have all these new children, will they ever see this money? This isn't a trivial concern. Governments in Russia have a habit of promising their citizens the moon, then invoking fine print that one doesn't remember seeing on the contract once the bill comes due. The government of Tatarstan**, for example, promised people that they would build new housing for anyone who put in a deposit. It didn't matter where you lived: small village or large city, once your turn came, you could choose a house. Realizing that many people who needed better housing could not afford the skyrocketing housing prices, they set a decent minimum. Higher priority would, of course, go to people who paid more money into the system.

The government collected gobs and gobs of money, or at least enough to start building housing, and a few high-priority payers received their housing. After that, well... the result is a photo in the newspaper of women protesting their children's lack of housing. The rules have changed, and the government stopped building housing, but they are still collecting money.

So, even supposing that Russians do receive the $20,000 promised by Moscow's government, the ones who live here may lose a substantial portion of it to Tatarstan's. Sadly, I will probably never learn the result.

*Yes, Russia has a government ministry in charge of marriages.

**The Republic of Tatarstan is an "autonomous republic of the Russian Federation", whatever that means. It is also awash in oil money, and has its own oil company, along with the requisite corruption: the oil company is headed by a son of the republic's president. Another son heads the republic's bank. Nepotism has never been a dirty word in some parts of the world. Even in Italy, children typically expect their extended family to find jobs for them. It's all about connections.


Clemens said...

Nepotism, like almost all corruption, is a family value, if you look at it as an historical phenomenon. At least, that's what I tell all my history classes, so it must be true.

Thanks for the info - I have wondered if the changed political situation, a sense of growing stability, and a return to nationalism would effect the birth rate. It's probably a complicated equation.

I am going to link to this since I think it is so interesting. Let me know if you would prefer that I not.

And keep up the posts.

jack perry said...

Feel free to link to anything I write. Some of the things I have written a long time ago embarass me now, and a lot of the things I write now will embarass me in the future, but I guess that's the way of the weblog.

At least, that's what I tell all my history classes, so it must be true.

I'll buy it! Actually I think you're right; in Italy (or parts of it) nepotism is considered to be a responsibility and children who don't take advantage of it are regarded as risking their futures.