It was the gleaming silver gong every idealistic Soviet matron desired: the “Hero Mother” medal conferred on women who bore at least 10 children to serve the nation.
Now, 18 years after it was discontinued, Russia has revived its policy of rewarding fertility in an attempt to reverse a potentially disastrous demographic decline.
To great fanfare, broadcast live on state television, President Dmitry Medvedev brought eight families into the gilded halls of the Kremlin and presented them with the blue-ribboned silver star of the Order of Parental Glory.
“You are setting an example for all society and you continue the tradition of parental service which has been customary in our country for centuries,” Mr Medvedev told the gathering.
A sharp fall in birthrates, combined with increasing poor health, has prompted a demographic collapse which the United Nations predicts could reduce the population from 146 million today to just 80 million by 2050–a fall in numbers which could also spell social and economic disaster.
Now the country’s leadership is striking back through a publicity campaign urging people to have larger families. Posters line Moscow’s streets and metro stations, reminding people of their duty to have children.
The Order of Parental Glory is reminiscent of Joseph Stalin’s campaign to boost birthrates following the country’s staggering human losses in the Second World War, as well as the dictator’s own purges.
He introduced the Hero Mother award in 1944, to celebrate women who gave birth to, or adopted, at least 10 children.
The Order of Parental Glory has more modest ambitions: parents need only four children to apply, but they must also satisfy a host of other requirements to show that they are bringing their offspring up in a healthy atmosphere.
Eight families, representing different parts of Russia, were chosen through local competitions to receive the award, which also comes with a 50,000-rouble stipend (£1,000).
Some, like the Maximov family from the eastern region of Yakutia, came in traditional Siberian dress. Others wore military uniforms and priestly garb.
Nikolai Levyokin, 37, was chosen to represent the Moscow region. He and his wife, Ksenia, have six children, aged one to 13. He said the ceremony left him–and his children–nervous but proud. “We’re doing this not only to lift Russia’s demographics, but to lift the status of Russia itself,” he told The Sunday Telegraph.
Mr Levyokin said his children were at first sad to learn that the prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who left the presidency in May, would not be the one presenting the award. “Then they saw Medvedev’s smiling face and realised he’s a good president too,” he said.
Mr Medvedev said the state’s campaign–which included naming 2007 “The Year of the Child” and 2008 “The Year of the Family”–was yielding results. Birth rates grew by over 8 per cent in 2007 and 6 per cent last year, he said, though most analysts in Russia attribute this to the country’s improved economic situation.
They also warn that birthrates can be expected to dip as the country enters its worst economic crisis in a decade.
Boosting birthrates is Mr Medvedev’s pet cause and has prompted scorn from some quarters. A radical art group called Voina took the president to task last year, staging a mock orgy in the room holding stuffed bears at Moscow’s Natural History Museum–a play on the president’s surname, which derives from the Russian word for “bear”.
Participants in the Kremlin ceremony, due to be a yearly event, took it rather more seriously. “We are contributing to the growth of a great Russia,” Mr Levyokin said.