‘Population Prescriptions:’ Pronatalism and the Fear of Underpopulation in Post-Soviet Russia

This article is part of the following series:

“Russian Cross” – The Problem of Underpopulation

In May 2006, in his annual address to the Federal Assembly, then (and most likely soon to be again) President Vladimir Putin made a passionate statement about the dire demographic situation in Russia. He identified Russia’s decreasing population as a possible national security threat and as the most acute issue facing the country. With total fertility rates estimated to be approximately 1.3-1.4 and a rapidly growing aging population, Russia’s demographic trends resemble those of other European countries. Unlike other European countries, however, Russia is also known for its high mortality rates, with life expectancy at birth for men estimated to be 61.8 years and for women 74.2 in 2008 (Rosstat 2010). One implication of such high male mortality rates is that about 45% of men who reached their 15th birthday in 2009 will not survive to celebrate their 60th birthday. The immediate outcome of these troubling trends has been a population decline: by 2008 Russia’s population had dropped to 142 million, down from 148.6 million in 1993 – a loss of 6.6 million people.

Birth and Mortality Rates 1975–2005. Source: Rosstat.

In Russia, multiple both lay and expert explanations of the nation’s drastic population decline are in circulation. Many attribute the decline to the devastating socio-economic conditions of the transition from socialism to a market economy (Kashepov 2004). A different and significantly more popular explanation attributes low fertility rates to the legacy of the Soviet policies that altered people’s “normative need for children” (potrebnost’ v detyakh). The main proponent of this view, a conservative sociologist from Moscow State University, Anatolii Antonov, links current population decline with antinatalist values and norms formed in the Soviet period. Focusing on the moral obligations of the members of the Russian society rather then on their economic hardships, this interpretation supports state policies that aim to strengthen “family values” so as to increase fertility rates (Antonov et al 2002). Reintroducing “the normative need for children” into women’s reproductive strategies and rewarding women for fulfilling their moral and social duties, Antonov claims, would strengthen the importance of family as a valuable social institution and would change population dynamics regardless of people’s material conditions (for more on this see Rivkin-Fish 2003).

Another, less popular, school of thought asserts that current fertility patterns in Russia reflect the global context of declining fertility rates and are thus not amenable to government attempts to intervene in demographic processes (Vishnevsky 2007). This perspective asserts that Russia, similarly to other European countries, is undergoing the second demographic transition, which manifests itself in new attitudes toward family and childbearing (Zakharov 2008). New policy proposals and government attempts to alter current population dynamics, the proponents of this argument argue, significantly underestimate fundamental changes in fertility and marriage patterns taking place in contemporary Russian society. Finally, the even weaker voice of Russian feminist activists emphasizes gender inequalities that drive population decline. Skeptical of current government attempts to address the demographic situation, these activists stress the importance of policies that promote more equal parenting roles and the improvement of the childcare system (Rotkirch et al 2007).

Interestingly, the debate has also created unlikely alliances, especially around the absence of a role for men in the state’s efforts to improve the demographic situation.  High mortality rates among men of working age were hardly mentioned in political statements issued by the government, which focused almost exclusively on the importance of fertility rates and their significance to the growth of Russia’s population. Thus, men were absent from Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly that preceded the announcement of the new demographic policy. In this instance, motivated by very different concerns, Russian feminists and the populist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky formed an otherwise unlikely (and publicly unacknowledged) coalition in critiquing the government for leaving men out of the picture (see Rotkirch et al 2007; Kozlov 2011).

One of the more popular and the most exaggerated representations of the population debate and its manifestation in Russia’s political life that made its way to the English speaking media was the example of the governor of Ulyanovsk region (the birthplace of Vladimir Lenin) who declared September 12 “A Family Contact Day” (den’ semeinogo obschenia (also known as Day of Conception” den’ zachatia). On this day, couples might take a day off work to procreate. The governor framed his initiative as encouraging women to give birth to new patriots of Russia. Couples whose children (new patriots) are born exactly nine months after this day, receive prizes such as cars, TV or DVD sets. (See here and here for examples of English-language coverage). Recently, the governor also declared this holiday an alcohol free event, urging women to give birth not simply to patriots but to healthy patriots.

Aside from this exaggerated version of regulated pronatalism, the demographic “problem” has grown to be a staple of nearly every conversation concerning the future of the Russian nation. In the public debate about the demographic future of the nation, Russia’s population trends are often dramatically referred to as “The Russian Cross” (Russkii Krest), often followed by the question: “What should we do in order to prevent the death of the nation?” The symbolic power of this metaphor is such that while it denotes the tragic trends leading to the disappearance of the nation, it also indexes the endurance of the Russian nation that is destined to carry this cross or rather what it entails.

Russian Cross: Factors, Mechanisms and Ways of Overcoming the Demographic Crisis in Russia by D.A, Khalturina and A.V, Korotaev

To situate Russia’s population trends within cultural and political contexts, my dissertation project explores the ongoing debates invoking these and competing arguments, their manifestation in policies and programs, and the materialization of these ideas in Russians’ everyday lives. To pursue this goal, I focus on the interaction between “expert” knowledge and state institutions in the formulation of a demographic problem and its solution.  What I am after here is the production of dominant cultural narratives and new social meanings in this science-state interface. Tracing these narratives and pronatalist discourses into the most intimate domains of social life, my work also shows how ordinary Russian citizens respond to the state’s interventions in ways that simultaneously adopt, appropriate, reconfigure and resist official expectations, reflecting changes in society not captured in state discourses and programs. Ultimately, my dissertation creates a social map of a perceived demographic crisis and demonstrates how the “problem” of population is related to larger social, cultural, and political transformations taking place in contemporary Russia.

Anthropologists studying postsocialism, have identified pronatalism as a powerful ideology influencing individuals’ discursive constructions of citizenship and selfhood both during the socialist and postsocialist periods (Nakachi 2006; Rivkin-Fish 2003, 2010; Gal & Kligman 2000). For instance, Gal and Kligman (2000) have described how the anxiety around the “death of the nation,” justified by falling fertility rates, has become a constant theme of nationalist governments in Eastern Europe. Anthropologists of postsocialism have also been attuned to the manifestations of pronatalist ideologies in people’s life trajectories (Rivkin-Fish 2005, 2010; Mazzarino 2010; Haney 2002). In this literature, pronatalism is seen as an ideology through which a new postsocialist state realizes and executes its power.

Rather than assuming the primacy of the state, my work is driven by a question that turns the state and its ideological power on its head. My work builds upon anthropological scholarship that follows Foucault’s call to cut off the king’s head (Foucault 1980:121) and asks how certain forms of expert knowledge and its production make state policies possible and allow the state to appear as an autonomous entity, separate and distinct from society (Greenhalgh 2003, 2008; Jasanoff 1990; Hansen & Stepputat 2001; Sharma & Gupta 2006; Ssorin-Chaikov 2003). In other words, aside from asking how state ideologies affect people’s lives, I ask how pronatalist discourses became possible and who are the social actors responsible for the production and circulation of cultural meanings and values of pronatalism.

The current prominence of the “demographic problem” as a policy priority poses a question that my study aims to address: How did Post-Soviet Russia’s low fertility rates come to be conceived of as a dramatic national problem requiring government intervention. To tackle this question, I spent over 16 months in Yekaterinburg, studying how the policy-relevant knowledge and narratives about “the demographic problem” are produced and advanced by two of the most visible groups of experts: a local network of social scientists involved in the production and circulation of demographic knowledge related to the problem of underpopulation and a group of obstetricians/public health professionals concerned with population health and growth.

Throughout my research I observed how these different social actors appropriated the perceived crisis of underpopulation and policies designed to solve it as an opportunity to negotiate their institutional identities, to affirm their social dispositions, and to re-shape existing social hierarchies. Conducting in-depth ethnographic fieldwork among social scientists, medical professionals, policymakers, and local families in a large provincial city with a declining population, I explored diagnoses and prescriptions for treatment that are seen authoritative and asked how the everyday practices of policy experts and their interactions with the state institutions create possibilities for political arrangements and new power mechanisms. I have published portions of the research in an article in The Anthropology of East Europe Review (2011). There I examine how “culture” became embedded in, and in turn shaped, the concept of population as it emerged in the biomedical debates about the nation’s demographic future.

“Maternal Capital” – A New Raison D’être

I first began my research in 2007 when, following Putin’s address to the nation, the Russian government launched a new, high-priority national demographic policy built around incentives for women to have multiple children. The policy was set to pay a monetary incentive for women to have a second child. Unlike previous pronatalist policies of the Soviet Union that strived to establish a wide range of welfare measures to help women balance work and family (e.g., childcare facilities, extensive maternity leave, etc), this policy was almost exclusively built around a one-time monetary measure – “maternal capital,” a sum of 365,000 RUB [~$13,000] (with yearly inflation adjustment) paid to a woman who gave birth to her second child after December 31, 2006. Several restrictions are applied to Maternal Capital: it cannot be cashed; it can be claimed only when a child turns three (although following the 2008 financial crisis a quicker way to claim it was introduced for a limited period of time) and it could be used only towards three pre-set purposes: a child’s education, mortgage payments, or a woman’s retirement fund. Fathers are absent not only from the terms of the policy, but also from its public face – as is visible in this advertisement:

The Retirements Fund is in charge of the allocations of the Maternal Capital certificates. The advertising banner reads: Maternal Capital is for children’s education, improvement of living conditions and mortgage payments, and for mother’s retirement plan. When your child turns three it is time to turn in a request! Photo by author.


However alarming, Russia’s population decline is hardly new or exceptional. It has followed a series of dramatic demographic fluctuations which took place over the past century. In fact, one could describe the history of the Soviet Union and Russia in the 20th century as a series of demographic crises caused by wars, famine, political instabilities, and policy interventions. Political leaders have voiced concerns over underpopulation both during the Soviet period and in the years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. These fears are manifested most clearly in the nation’s pronatalist laws, which, scholars have argued, have been and continue to be one of the defining features of both political regimes. The Soviet state introduced quite a few policy measures with the goal of fostering population growth or rather maintaining it (Feshbach 1986; Nakachi 2006; Rivkin-Fish 2003, 2010; Zakharov 2008). Taking a cue from its Soviet predecessor, in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian government authorized several proposals that outlined policies and programs aimed at intervening in population trends and especially at increasing Russia’s birthrate.

Yet Putin’s initiative of 2006 and a new pronatalist policy implemented in 2007 represent an important change occurred the Russian state’s approach to social problems. Thus, a 1996 attempt to update an older version of the state family policy, signed by former President Yeltsin and entitled: “Principle Directions for State Family Policies” (osnovnie napravleniya gosudarstvennoi semeinoi politiki), was still formulated in the language of child allowances, maternity leaves and other welfare measures (Elizarov 2001). Following Vladimir Putin’s ascent to power in 2000, the scope of the population problem and means of overcoming it have been reconsidered to meet the requirements of current political and economic concerns. Specifically, in both the 2001 report, “The Conception of Demographic Development for the Russian Federation through 2015” and the renowned, “The Conception of Demographic Policy for the Russian Federation through 2025” issued by policymakers in 2007, underpopulation has been framed as a discrete problem that requires a departure from the legacy of the welfare state. Although the pronatalist policy launched in 2007 includes various forms of benefits, its central measure is a one-time monetary payment to women who have a second child. While the majority of Soviet efforts to improve country’s demographic trends were embedded in a wide range of welfare policies, in the 2007 policy this raison d’être changed. This monetary-oriented policy diverges from the solutions advanced by Yeltsin and his Soviet predecessors, who used population concerns to justify the expansion of state-sponsored welfare programs. (For a detailed analysis of post-WW II Soviet family policies and their effects on the Soviet politics of reproduction see Nakachi (2008)).

The departure from the Soviet legacy of family and welfare policies did not take place in a social vacuum. It coincided with a liberal shift in other social policies. This shift in the nature of social policies in the former Soviet Union has become one of the major objects of study for social scientists in general, and anthropologists in particular. Anthropologists of postsocialism have demonstrated how the new regime of the “monetization” of the wide net of welfare benefits coincides with “the overall trend of the personalization of social problems” in which long-term investments in social infrastructure (e.g., child-care system) are substituted with temporary and individual payouts (e.g., maternal capital) (Philips 2008:16; Zhurzhenko 2004). This trend reveals a newly formed disruption between two realms of social activity, which, in socialist societies, were experienced as interconnected and mutually constitutive: a monetary domain and a domain of moral and social values (Oushakine 2009: 22-27; Haney 2002). This disruption, in turn, marginalized familiar social contexts, in which monetary exchanges were always visible and yet intertwined with moral and social values (Pine 2002; Humphrey 2002: 83; Lemon 1998; Verdery 1996: 168-203; Dunn 2004). The new demographic policy is only one example of the overarching changes in the state’s approaches toward social policies and the monetization of the social sphere. Nevertheless, this new policy and various debates surrounding it have become an arena in which social ideas about money and morality emerge and debated.

The Banner reads: A Third Child means wealth will be tripled in the third millennium. Photo by author.


The Production and Circulation of Policy-Relevant Knowledge

When introduced by the government, Maternal Capital further incited multiple debates about the proposed policy and the roots, consequences, and dangers of the demographic situation more generally. “Demography has never been more politicized,” a demographer from the Higher School of Economics in Moscow told me. Victor Elizarov, a demographer from the Moscow State University expressed it this way: “Any serious political party that orients itself to win a considerable number of seats in the parliament introduces demographic policy as one of its major political acts. Political parties borrow ideas about demography from each other and try to privatize these ideas and the experts who have produced these ideas” (Elizarov 2011).

As the state was making an effort to revise and implement its new policy measures, different groups of experts took part in the debate about the demographic future of the nation. These debates also gave rise to the production and circulation of different cultural narratives about population decline in Russia and the role of the state in influencing and altering demographic trends. In what follows I will discuss how a local network of social scientists involved in the production and circulation of demographic research related to the crisis of underpopulation strive to establish and maintain their authority as population policy experts by engaging in a particular form of boundary-work. Based on the year-long fieldwork in the social science research institute in a large provincial city in the Ural region, my work shows that these scholars employ a set of practices and rhetorical styles that simultaneously blur and stress boundaries between applied and pure aspects of their scientific work.

I see the practices I observed in the institute as a prime example of how knowledge can travel across different institutional and political contexts. It is also a superb example of how one becomes an expert (Carr 2010). To understand this insistence on maintaining the distinction between different styles of knowledge in the context of shifting political conditions, I use the concept of “boundary-work” coined by Thomas F. Gieryn (1983). Boundary-work refers to various representational practices used by scientists to promote their professional goals and interests. The concept often focuses on the processes through which scientists distinguish their scientific work and its products from other intellectual activities, most often between science and religion. It powerfully demonstrates how by demarcating science from non-science scientists themselves fortify their cultural authority (Gieryn 1999).

In the case of Russian social scientists involved in demographic research one can see a very particular kind of boundary-work in which scientists are concerned with drawing lines and boundaries within their own scientific field, i.e., within the field of social scientific research. In an era of broader educational reforms, permanent restructuring of the scientific sphere and the uncertainty of state support to scientific institutes, this reshaping of boundaries between two aspects of the same intellectual activity serves the social goal of regaining control over professional authority and justifying claims for state and public support.

What I saw during my fieldwork is that a lot of work and social energy is invested in boundary-work, and that under different circumstances and depending on different social contexts and goals, the scholars I worked with emphasize or hold back one or another aspect of their work in order to keep these boundaries flexible. Depending on a particular goal they are pursuing inside and outside of their research institute, their scientific work gets “purified” or “impurifed” (Gieryn 1999; Latour 1987:145-176). Thus, when speaking about their cultural authority as scholars and scientists, they tend to emphasize the distinction between the purity of their scientific work (uchenie) and the impurity of the consuming side of the academic community, namely, university teachers (prepadovateli). By doing so, they establish clear-cut boundaries between what is pure and what is applied and highlight their unique contribution to the scientific development of the country. On the other hand, when encountering new political conditions, which requires finding new ways of securing funding for research (see Ninetto 2005), they purposefully blur the boundaries between the pure and applied aspects of their research, focusing more on “the practical benefits of pure science.” (Gieryn 1983: 791).

I suggest that these different instances in which scientists themselves interpret their intellectual activities in different and often contradictory terms aim to justify scientists’ claims to authority, autonomy, support of the state, or resources. The research teammates I worked with pursue both objectives. On the one hand, they strive to remain autonomous in order to preserve their cultural authority as a social vanguard in the social representation of the country’s demographic reality. On the other hand, to secure the support of the state they highlight other possible applications of their research. The result is that boundaries between these two aspects of their work remain flexible and purposefully vague.

The boundary-work engaged in by the scholars I worked with puts them in a structural position of “scientific brokers” of a sort, which could also be described as what Bourdieu calls “a new kind of cultural producer, whose presence in the academic field […] constitutes a decisive break with the fundamental principles of academic autonomy, and with the values of disinterestedness, magnanimity and indifference to the sanctions and demands of practice” (Bourdieu 1988: 124). The growing importance of applied aspects of social scientific research that funding agencies are interested in and the prominence of the perceived crisis of underpopulation in the state’s agenda further blur the boundaries between pure and applied scientific knowledge and often produce research that resembles expert reports supported by the authority of science (ibid). The focus on the production of scientific knowledge closely related to the problem of underpopulation, flexible boundaries between applied and scientific knowledge, and scholars’ intimate knowledge of not only of how demographic research is done, but also of its power and its importance in the process of governing is what constitutes their authoritative status as experts in the possession of valuable knowledge.

To conclude, my work suggests that the relationship between the science of population and the postsocialist state unfolds as a dynamic and multi-layered dialogue. Studying the ways in which distinct forms of knowledge take on particular local meanings and are appropriated for (and against) political purposes offers a new vantage point from which scholars interested in postsocialist economic and political order can explore the emergence of novel relations of power. For instance, the increasing privatization of research – bringing it more in line with market driven priorities and practices of the postsocialist state – would suggest that the Russian state is becoming less important to research trajectories.  Yet, as becomes clear from my research, government-dictated priorities (such as population control) are in fact ascending in significance – making ‘the state’ even more powerful through the construction of ideological discourses and institutional practices that constitute the new postsocialist state.


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Inna Leykin is currently completing her PhD in the Department of Anthropology at Brown University.  Her dissertation, entitled “‘Population Prescriptions: Russia’s Crisis of Underpopulation and the Cultural Construction of the Postsocialist State,” demonstrates how Post-Soviet Russia’s low fertility rates came to be conceived of as a dramatic national problem requiring government intervention. It examines population and public health policy programs in Post-Soviet Russia, tracing a perceived crisis of underpopulation as it affects science, policymaking, and the everyday lives of ordinary citizens.

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