Ivanovo Becoming A City of Mothers

BloombergNadezhda Teteyeva, left, and Svetlana Koltuntseva trying on wedding dresses in a bridal shop in Ivanovo, which is starting to experience population growth.
IVANOVO -- When Nick Wilsdon met his Russian wife, Anna, on the Internet, friends teased him about his mail-order bride. Turns out, he was a mail-order husband.

Three years after first exchanging e-mails with Anna on an online dating site, the web designer from England's south coast moved to Ivanovo, Russia's "City of Brides." He and Anna are now expecting their first child.

The Ivanovo region has the highest ratio of women to men in the country, a legacy of the Soviet textile mills that imported female workers from across the country. The city, which once helped marriage bureaus recruit young women for foreign spouses, is now enticing residents to stay and to raise families.

That's fuelling a baby boom as Russia struggles to stem a population decline.

"When I get in the lift of our building, I'm surrounded by so many kids it makes me think of rabbits," Wilsdon, 32, said in the 12th-floor apartment he shares with Anna, 29, in Ivanovo.

Since the Soviet breakup in 1991, Russia's population has dwindled 4.1 percent to 142.2 million. Unless fertility rates improve, the population may plunge to 128 million by 2025, the Washington-based World Bank said in November.

By contrast, births in the Ivanovo region jumped 7.8 percent last year, four times the pace of 2006, according to national statistics.

The number of second children in families rose by a record 24 percent, a figure more than double the Russian average.

With the death rate declining and the outflow of people reversed, city officials expect that the population will stop shrinking this year for the first time since the Soviet era.

Ivanovo managed to achieve the demographic turnaround by making the most of its biggest asset: women. According to government statistics, 56 percent of the city's 432,000 people are women.

To encourage them to stay and raise children, the city has doubled the number of subsidized home loans for families, added 1,000 kindergarten spaces in two years, and built a new maternity hospital, Deputy Mayor Igor Svetushkov said.

"We're not calling ourselves the 'City of Women,'" Svetushkov said.

She said a bride is a "partner for life, a symbol of the family. We'd like to tell people to come here to find their happiness.''

Other regions have had less success in boosting their birth rates.

In Ulyanovsk, to the south of Moscow, the local government gave mothers and fathers special vacations to spend with their families -- and perhaps even expand them. Couples that have children on June 12, Russia Day, qualify to win cars and appliances in a prize drawing.


Dmitry Beliakov / Bloomberg
Nick and Anna Wilsdon, who met via the Internet, are expecting their first child, something very common in Ivanovo.
The local benefits are in addition to a payment the federal government introduced about a year ago to cover education and housing costs for women who have a second child. The award is currently about 280,000 rubles ($11,900).

Even so, the number of births in the Ulyanovsk region in 2006 is only 0.3 percent higher than in 2000. In the Ivanovo region, births are up 14 percent in the same period, according to the latest data available at the State Statistics Service.

"It's important that the federal government takes a raft of measures to stimulate population growth, but it takes time for them to come into effect,'' said Tatyana Gurko, an expert in families at the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. "You can't expect results immediately."

At Ivanovo's registry office, which is located on a narrow street in the old town center, the violinist barely has time to add resin to his bow from the last performance before each couple and their guests enter to the sound of Mendelssohn's ubiquitous wedding march.

During the summer, when the office squeezes in as many as 50 weddings a day, each couple get no more than 15 minutes for the ceremony, said Yelena Rebenkova, the registry's spokeswoman.

Yury Krutikov, 27, a Ukrainian national, said he met his Ivanovo bride two years ago after she had divorced her previous husband, who was also from the city. He and his wife, Olga, 41, are planning to set up a club for families.

"Her voice hypnotized me, it was like a voice from another life," Krutikov said, adding that the couple now plan to have three children. "I really want to have two girls, so that Olga can pass on all that she knows and feels to them."

Olga Nikiforova, a 22-year-old marketing graduate and Ivanovo native, said newcomers are welcome.

She spent several years traveling to nightclubs in other cities and dating foreign men before marrying Nikolai, a 30-year-old designer from Kostroma. She is now pregnant with her first child.

"Because there are more women than men, Ivanovo men are used to female attention and make no effort," Nikiforova said, patting her swollen belly. "My friend Sveta, she runs after her man like a lap dog."

Ivanovo's women are also staying home because Russia's economic boom has made the city a better place to live over the past nine years.

Six auto dealers, including Toyota Motors, opened outlets in Ivanovo during the past 12 months. Retailers including IKEA and McDonald's have inquired about leasing space, according to the municipal government.

"Russia's not a poor country anymore," Wilsdon said. "People that come out thinking that they'll just get a girl here who is going to be indebted to them because they pay for their plane ride to England are going to have a bit of a shock."