Russia's population increased last year to 142 million - its first growth in a decade and a half. But according to a recent UN report, it could shrink by 20% before 2050.
Irina Afansieva is a mother of six – the oldest is 16, the youngest 18 months. The whole family, including grandfather, lives in a tiny 1-room apartment outside Moscow.
“My husband and one of my sons sleep on the floor. Sure, it's difficult to live here, but the authorities just don’t seem to get it. We’ve been on the waiting list for a new apartment for 11 years, and still we wait. Families with many children used to be eligible for state benefits, but the State Duma cancelled that. Looks like Russia doesn’t need children at all,” Afansieva says.
But in fact it does, desperately. The population may have just grown for the first time in 15 years to 142 million, but a recent UN report says it will shrink by nearly 20% before 2050 if nothing's done.
Healthcare has improved greatly so that prematurely-born babies weighing as little as 500 grams have a good chance of survival.
“Every, every life is very important. Not only for the family, not only for the parents, but for our country, we need each human life,” Elena Baibarina from the Scientific Centre of Obstetrics and Gynecology declares.
Although births increased by 2.8% last year, it's still not enough.
There were 1.76 million births in Russia last year, a figure boosted by neo-natal surgery centres like this one. But even so, the number of death last year in Russia was still more than the number of births. So if it's not babies who are boosting the population, what is it?
The answer – immigration: Russia is home to 12 million immigrants, making it the 2nd largest migrant destination in the world after America.
But the Government says the current rate is too high and plans to lower it. Experts warn it's a fine balance.
“Russia needs migration but public opinion here is generally quite negative toward migrants as they tend to fill the lower layers of the social strata. There's the risk of socially disadvantaged migrant communities evolving and growing strong, which could lead to significant social tension and conflicts,” notes demographer Anatoly Vishnevsky.
There's another problem, though. The share of women in their 20s – prime childbearing age – is declining rapidly. The Government expects it could be halved to just 4.8% by 2020.
What's more, abortion rates are sky-high. For every 100 births in 2008, there were 72 abortions.
“We've employed psychological consultants at prenatal clinics to persuade women to carry their babies. A woman should realize from the very beginning that maternity is wonderful. And modern methods of contraception should be used, which could be an alternative to abortion,” says Valentina Shirokova from the Ministry of Public Health and Social Development.
To help tackle the problem in 2006, then-President Putin introduced financial incentives of over $10,000 for women who mother more than one child.
But Irina Afansieva thinks it's not incentive enough for most young women to swap careers for kids.
“Today's fashion is to live life to the fullest, and kids are an obstacle to that. I can understand young mothers who prefer going to work every day rather than staying with a child. It takes lots of effort, time and nerve; it's exhausting,” she says.
Despite this, Irina says she’ll welcome her 7th child, as she's still waiting for a girl.