The news that Vladimir Putin's government in Russia is offering 250,000 rubles — the equivalent of more than two years' income for the average Russian worker — to mothers who agree to have second children reminded me of one of the first news stories I ever wrote, for an undergraduate journalism class at Berkeley in 1976.
That was during the time of the refuseniks — dissident Russian scientists, engineers, writers and academics, most of them Jews, who were trying to emigrate but were denied permission by the Communist government. I was assigned (or I assigned myself) to cover an event featuring Professor Gail Lapidus and a scientist who, after waiting almost a decade, finally had gotten out. I recall his first name was Martin, but I would butcher his last name if I tried it now.
At the time, Lapidus' research was focused on the role of women in Soviet society. Then, as now, the Russian population was aging and its economy stagnating, in part because its women were declining to have children. Here is what a Russian woman of today told Fred Weir of the Christian Science Monitor:
"A child is not an easy project, and in this world a woman is expected to get an education, find a job, and make a career," says Svetlana Romanicheva, a student who says she won't consider babies for at least five years. She hopes to have one child, but says a second would depend on her life "working out very well." As for Putin's offer, she says "it won't change anything."
Back in 1976, the notion of economic incentives was heresy. So, as I recall Professor Lapidus explaining, the Soviet government tried to trick women into having kids by getting them drunk.
Hearing this as a college student who spent at least a few hours each month at parties comprised of cheap beer and wine and dozens of single men and women at their reproductive peak, it seemed quite funny that the Soviets would use the same tools, but call it social engineering for the good of the People.
On long train trips, Lapidus said, at a certain point in the evening, the fellows behind the bar — acting on official instructions — would just start pouring drinks for passengers, in hopes that romance, and pregnancy, would ensue. Lapidus was very serious about this, but I'll never forget the sneaky little smile on "Martin's" face as she told the story. I guessed (but of course didn't write) that Martin had been a passenger on the Soviet Love Train a time or two.