Most of us are aware that population growth is a problem, and we are familiar with population control techniques employed by governments and suggested by economists and doctors to limit the dangers of overpopulation. Case in point: China employs an infamous one child policy that limits urban couples to having one child. This is part of the reality of the world we live in today – population is growing at an astronomical rate, and this growth has caused grave concern the world over about the Earth’s ability to support the continued addition of humans across the globe. Alas, that is a topic for a different post on a different day.
The point is, overpopulation is a very recent concern and development. Not so long ago, the bigger someone’s family was, the better. When society was mostly rural and agrarian, more children meant more bodies to help around the house, raise crops, go hunting, etc. As we moved from the country to the city thanks to the Industrial Revolution, large families became less important as an economic tool and transitioned to be more of an economic burden. However, it appears this memo was never received in good old post-World War II Soviet Russia.
Although Soviet Russia at this point was still fairly agrarian, it was also extremely industrialized for its time. So why would they want to reward mothers for pumping out a huge litter of children? I’ll tell you: World War II. The Soviets bore the brunt of the casualties in the war – an estimated one-third of all 60 million casualties of WWII belonged to to the U.S.S.R., almost 15% of its population at the time. In order to establish and maintain itself as the world power it showed itself to be in WWII, and to launch itself headlong into the Cold War, Stalin knew that the population needed to be replenished, and fast. What better way to accomplish this goal than to incentivize parents, especially mothers, to have large families? Thus, U.S.S.R. established two post-WWII honorary orders for mothers who bore large families: The Order of the Mother Heroine, and the Order of Maternal Glory.
The first award was called the “Mother Heroine” and was presented to mothers who had raised ten (yes, 10) or more children. The medal was awarded upon the first birthday of the last child, provided that nine other children (natural or adopted) remained alive. Children who had perished under heroic, military or other respectful circumstances were still counted for the purposes of this medal. Approximately 430,000 mothers were awarded this medal from its inception in 1944 to the fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. Accompanying the prestige and honor of one of these medals was financial assistance for the family, which included a retirement pension, subsidization of public utilities, and assistance with the supply of food and other goods.
The second of these orders was the Order of Maternal Glory. Like the Mother Heroine award, it was proceeded by financial assistance and other benefits, and was measured in the same way. This Order was broken up into classes though. An award of the Order of Maternal Glory in the First Class was for mothers raising nine children. This Class had 753,000 recipients in its 47 year lifetime. An award of the Order of Maternal Glory in the Second Class was for mothers raising eight children. This Class had 1,508,000 recipients in its 47 year lifetime. And finally, an award of the Order of Maternal Glory in the Third Class was for mothers raising seven children. This Class had 2,786,000 recipients in its 47 year lifetime.
All in all, the 5,477,000 mothers belonging to these orders reared at least 42,643,000 children over 47 years. That is beyond astounding. Surprisingly though, the birth rate in Russia declined markedly despite this great incentive provided by Mother Russia. Prior to the War, even when the average population of Russia was around 94 million, there were around 4 million new births every year up until 1940. At the end of the War, although the population was up at 98 million and climbed every year, the new birth rate went above 3 million only once, averaging more around 2 million, give or take. It appears as though the incentives did not have quite the intended effect on population growth as the Comrades would have hoped.
It is interesting to note, though, that the Russian population has been in decline ever since the end of the Cold War in 1991 – starting in 1991, the 2:1 birth to death ratio that had held steady for most of the century in Russia reversed to a 1:2 birth to death ratio. Coincidentally, 1991 is also the year that these orders were done away with. The idea was reinstated as the Order of Paternal Glory in 2006, and is given to those families raising at least seven children. Since the reintroduction of this idea, Russian population decline has gradually subsided to the point where Russia has started to grow once again. New births have gone from a steady low 1-1.4 million per year since the fall of the U.S.S.R. to nearly 2 million new births per year last year, with a continued rise forecast for this year. Maybe there is something to this crazy scheme after all…