Faced with a worrisome decline in Russia’s population, President Vladimir Putin this week revived a Soviet-era award launched in 1944, to encourage Russians to supersize their families.
The honorary medal was first established by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union and given to about 400,000 citizens, according to Russian media. The revived award will offer Russian citizens a one-time payment of 1 million rubles ($16,500) after their 10th child turns 1 year old — and only if the other nine children have all survived.
No mention of the war in Ukraine was linked to the medal.
However, the Stalin-era accolade was originally launched as part of a wider social package of “pronatalist” measures taken toward the end of World War II, Kristin Roth-Ey, an associate professor at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, told The Washington Post on Wednesday.
“It was about service to the motherland,” she said. Its revival is “obviously a conscious echo of the Stalinist past.”
Roth-Ey said the award was created when the Soviet Union was trying to “plan for postwar reconstruction” and support families as “the core institution of Soviet society.” Other measures included better health care for women, financial aid and making it harder for married couples to get divorced, she added.
“The war led to high anxiety about population loss. … It has resonances obviously with what is going on right now,” she added, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which the Kremlin terms a special military operation.
Last month, CIA Director William J. Burns estimated that about 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the Ukraine war and as many as 45,000 more wounded. He cited the latest U.S. intelligence on Russian losses.
Nearly eight decades after Stalin’s decree, having many children is still viewed as “part of being a good Russian citizen,” said Roth-Ey, and it is common in other “authoritarian … nationalist movements that we see in places like Hungary and other parts of Central and Eastern Europe.”
In Russia, as elsewhere in Europe, World War II remains a large part of the national psyche. The defeat of Nazi Germany is celebrated each year on May 9, Victory Day, a Russian holiday of national remembrance marked by pomp and patriotic fervor.
The revival of the motherhood medal is part of a “patriotic campaign” that has been ramped up in Russia since it annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, Roth-Ey added.
The original Soviet medal was a gold star superimposed on a silver pentagon and decorated in red enamel reading “Мать-героиня” (Mother Heroine).
Putin, 69, is one of three children, but both of his brothers died in infancy before he was born. He first lent his support to reviving the award on June 1, Children’s Day. “As a rule, you can really rely on those who were brought up in a large family,” he said in a speech marking the occasion. “They will not let down a friend or colleagues, or their motherland.”
Since 2008, the Kremlin has also awarded the “Order of Parental Glory” to parents who have more than seven children. They receive 50,000 rubles ($825 today) and a certificate when their seventh child reaches 3 years old.
Dina Fainberg, the author of “Cold War Correspondents” and an associate professor of modern history, agrees that the revival of the Mother Heroine award is part of similar postwar “drive toward state-led patriotism” by Putin.
But she said the reasoning is not necessarily the conflict in Ukraine.
“Ukraine is still not called a war,” she told The Post of the nearly six-month-old invasion. “Putin and his team took great care not to depict it as a war. If you start calling it a war, you undermine stability and make people panic.”
More than just “nostalgia” for the old Soviet empire, a bigger issue in Putin’s mind may be demographic decline, she said.
The Russians “have an issue with population decline, obviously, and a demographic crisis,” Fainberg said. But there is a “growing return of the patriarchal state,” she added, with Putin viewing himself as the symbolic male head of the Russian family around which everyone can rally, and the ultimate “protector of the elderly, women and children” from Russia’s enemies.
Russia’s population, now estimated at less than 145 million, is in decline because of low birthrates and an aging populace — issues not unique to Russia but afflicting a number of developed countries.
As such, Putin has long sought to boost Russian birthrates.
In June, he called Russia’s demographic situation “extremely difficult” and called for “drastic” measures in response. Last year, he lamented that “there are not enough working hands” in the country with the world’s biggest landmass.
In the first six months of 2022, 6.3 percent fewer children were born in Russia than in the same period a year earlier, Russia’s RBC outlet reported, citing data from Rosstat, a government statistics agency.
But demographic expert Sarah Harper, director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, told The Post that state policies to boost population are rarely successful.
“Demographically, such policies simply don’t work,” she said. “The problem is you have a baby now, and it’s 20 years before that baby is productive.”
Such population policies can be more common in dictatorships or authoritarian regimes where “there is long-term strategic planning,” as opposed to liberal democracies, Harper said. In any case, she said, in the 21st century, “the quality” of a country’s people is more crucial to a country’s success than the quantity.
“Boosting population is very, very difficult,” she added. Immigration remains a key factor, but it comes with its own political “tensions,” making it a less popular remedy in Russia and elsewhere.
For Roth-Ey, whether modern Russian women will take up the incentive of the motherhood award remains to be seen.
“I don’t see contemporary young Russian women really responding to the call,” she said. “They have other things on their mind.”
Mary Ilyushina contributed to this report.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.
The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.
In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.
The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.