Cradle of Hope

The Russian population is dying out, demographers have been warning for years. And this week, on the occasion of the International Day for the Protection of Children, they issued another alarming statement: the current birthrate is two times less than it needs to be in order to keep the population steady. But while the majority of all Russian families have only one child, one couple in Kostroma, Vladimir and Nina Alexeyev, have broken the record. Tanya Mosolova went to Kostroma to visit them and their 16 children. Photos by Vladimir Filonov.


It is story time at the Alexeyevs, and the household, in spite of its size, is remarkably quiet. Two young boys, Yaroslav and Alexei, sit on the carpet watching an electric train set go round and round, while their three younger brothers, Serafim, Georgy and Danil, look on from the nearby sofa. Larisa, their 5-year-old sister, is dressed like a little princess as she bounces playfully around a chair. In the next room Denis and Kolya wait for their older brothers, Igor and Roman, while sisters Ira, Vlada, Nastya and Vika are doing their best to entertain Tikhon, their 20-month old brother, and keep him from running into the next room where their mother is breastfeeding the youngest, Ioann.

Born last January, Ioann is the 16th child of Nina and Vladimir Alexeyev. Their oldest son is 22 and all the other children have a one or two-year difference in age. Two of their sons, Georgy and Danil, have the same birthday - May 12. One was born in 1993 and the other a year later.

Squeezed into their standard four-room flat, the children all quietly carry on with their games as they listen to their father tell his tale. The story today is about a sailor and a nurse who met at the Black Sea and fell in love. In short, the story is about Vladimir and Nina.

Flipping through the family photo archives, Vladimir, 47, recalls the day back in 1975 when he, having just been decommissioned from the navy, met Nina, who had gone on vacation with a girlfriend to the Crimea.

Theirs was a whirlwind romance. By the time Nina's vacation was over, the two went together to Vladimir's native Ulan-Ude and got married.

"We always thought that one child is too little for a family. But of course we didn't think then that we would have so many children," said Vladimir, who was one of five children. Nina's family was even bigger. Her parents had nine children.

But together they went on to beat their parents' combined records. In fact, according to Vladimir the Alexeyevs are the second-largest family in all of Russia, a fact that could not be confirmed by any record-keeping agency.

Whether or not their status as one of Russia's largest families is official, the Alexeyevs have become celebrities in their hometown of Kostroma. After their 16th child was born, the mayor himself registered the baby's birth at a local concert hall and announced that, in addition to the four-room flat they have occupied since 1985, the family would receive another three-room flat as well. In addition to this and the donations of local sponsors, the city excused the family from paying for gas and electricity until 2003.

While Ioann's birth was cause for celebration in Kostroma, the Alexeyev's hometown was not always so supportive of the growing family. Back in the lean years of the early 1990s, Vladimir recalls, local authorities were not nearly as helpful when he appealed to them for help raising his family. One bureaucrat suggested he give up his children to an orphanage.

The suggestion came as a shock to Vladimir. "We don't even give our children to kindergartens," says Vladimir, who hopes to acquire the status of childcare worker for himself and his wife so that they can collect teachers' salaries. "Our work [at home] is the same work [as the day-care worker], but it isn't recognized by the state."

Large families do receive some state support. The Alexeyevs, for example, get 1,100 rubles ($36) per month. But donations made by private sponsors are a much more significant source of their income.

"Last winter, they [local businessmen] gave us 1.5 tons of potatoes," says Vladimir. "It might have been enough to get us through the winter, but unfortunately, we don't have the place to store it, so we had to sell them."

While much of their support has come from local businesses, the Alexeyevs receive more and more support from outside Kostroma as word of their unique family spreads. When renowned filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov came to Kostroma on business last year he paid a visit to the family and decided to feature them in a documentary film. As he was leaving he gave them some money to buy furniture, and a month later a camera crew arrived to start filming.

And last October, during the parliamentary election campaign, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov invited the Alexeyevs to the capital to present them all with warm leather jackets.

However, since these private donations are sporadic, the Alexeyevs are often struggling to make ends meet. They do have a 1,500-square meter garden plot where they grow some of their own food. They have also started to build a small house on the lot for the family to live in, but they do not have the funds to complete it. Vladimir has appealed all the way up to President Vladimir Putin to help him, asking for 4.5 million rubles to finish the dacha and to build another cottage for the family.

Apparently, his pleas were heard in Moscow. Last month Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov allocated 2 million rubles ($66,700) for the Alexeyevs to build the cottages. Their city apartments will be taken in exchange.

"It's fantastic, we can't believe it," said Vladimir. "If we could also have some land, at least half a hectare, and a tractor, we could all work and stop depending on other people."

The fact that Vladimir's wishes have, at least in part, been heard and answered in Moscow is thanks largely to his tireless efforts to promote his family's cause. Indeed, aside from his dutiescaring for the children - his workday starts at 5 a.m. when he rises to cook the family meal - his main task is to appeal to private and government sources in search of financial support.

An auto mechanic by profession, Vladimir is no longer permanently employed. "I couldn't find anything that paid more than 1,000 rubles per month. But we need 300 to 400 rubles a day, and that is only for the most basic necessities," he says. Vladimir does take odd jobs now and then to make some quick cash. He is registered at the local labor exchange where he can pick up temporary work unloading trucks or helping out with agricultural projects.

Vladimir says he can't afford a permanent job because he has to help his wife. "It would be too hard for her to take care of all of them. She is either pregnant or breastfeeding all the time," says Vladimir. In addition to his kitchen duties, Vladimir also washes by hand all of the laundry. "Even if we did have a washing machine, we wouldn't have the place to put it," he says.

That is why the Alexeyevs rely so much on private support. But do the local businesses resent his continuous appeals for help?

"I think somebody should help them. Ideally, the state should do it, but if our state can't or doesn't want to help such families, then we [businessmen] have to," says Yevgeny Ivayev, deputy director of Fest, a local pharmaceutical company. "They are performing a good service [by raising so many children]. They are not drunks and they take good care of their children."

Fest supported the Alexeyevs for about a year, paying them 1,000 rubles per month. But after the company ran into its own financial difficulties it stopped supporting them last year.

"Besides, we learned about another large family living in Kostroma who are even worse off. Now we try to help them," says Ivayev.

Another one-time contributor to the Alexeyev cause was Mukomol, a grain-processing plant in Kostroma. But the board of directors has since decided to redirect its charitable activities to support a local orphanage.

Indeed, some demographers believe that large families such as the Alexeyevs are less entitled to state help than other needier groups.

"We have a lot of families with disabled children, some of whom were disabled by some mistake made by doctors. There are those parents who have become disabled and cannot take care of their children. These groups are really in need of help. It was not their choice to live this way," says Sergei Zakharov, a demographer at the Center of Demography and Human Ecology.

Many disabled people are not able to find sponsors even though they need support no less than those who spend their time searching for contributions, says Zakharov. "It's socially abnormal [for a healthy person] to go to the authorities to ask for money instead of working. It's the same as begging, although [in this case] the beggar is not standing at the church doors, but government offices."

Furthermore, the state's policy of encouraging a higher birth rate by rewarding large families with apartments is wrong, he says. "It redistributes money away from normal, working families to those families who are living off their children," says Zakharov, adding that his center believes the state should reform the welfare system so as to grant support to large families on a case-by-case basis. "However, a family with 16 children is an exceptional case; it would get [support] anyway."

But just as Zakharov believes that large families do not automatically deserve state support, there are other specialists who feel just as strongly that they do.

"To say that it is the family's fault that they have so many children is just like saying that it is a single mother's fault that she is single. But the state supports single mothers," says Alexander Sinelnikov, a Moscow sociologist. But Sinelnikov believes that large families need support more than single mothers do. According to government statistics, 27 percent of all the children born in 1998 were born to single mothers.

"But few scientists believe there are really so many children without fathers. Some parents just don't want to make their relationships legal," says Sinelnikov. "One reason for this is that mothers want to have the privileges of a single mother, and the state supports these women at the expense of other people who are more honest and don't resort to such tricks." Large families, on the contrary, cannot be so easily simulated, he says.

And given the nation's demographic crisis, there is even more reason to support large families, says Sinelnikov. "The birthrate is very low and the population is dying out. Only big families can save the country. We cannot neglect them."

According to research conducted by Vladimir Borisov, a sociologist at Moscow Pedagogical University, in order to prevent the continuous decline in the population, 10 percent of all Russian families should have one child, 35 percent should have two children; 35 percent should have three children; 14 percent should have four children, and 2 percent should have five or more. This means that over 50 percent of all Russian families should have three children or more, while, in fact, the majority of Russian couples have only one child.

Having lived together for almost 25 years, Vladimir and Nina decided to have a church wedding last winter after their 16th child was born. Indeed, the Alexeyevs came to the Russian Orthodox Church later in life. It wasn't until after their ninth child was born that they met a priest, Father Vyacheslav Shaposhnikov, who directed them toward their newfound religious beliefs. At that time they christened all of their children, and those who were born after they found their faith were named after saints, such as Tikhon or Serafim or Ioann.

If it was not for religious reasons, then why were the Alexeyevs so eager to have so many children?

"Everybody has their own meaning of life. For some people it's their careers. Even drunks see it in wine - to survive they need to escape reality. We live for our children. We don't just give them life and raise them - they give our lives meaning," says Vladimir, looking over to Nina, who remains silent. Indeed, ever since an incorrect dose of medication left Nina partially deaf Vladimir has taken on the role of family spokesman. Silent and benevolent, Nina appears serene and content as she cradles her youngest son.

They try to raise their children in faith. "But we don't force them to go to church, just as we don't make them go to school or help us around the house. We'd like them to understand what they are doing it for," says Vladimir. The fact that the children are all good students and well-behaved in school is a point of particular pride for their father.

At home, their behavior is no less exemplary, he says. The older children help out with household chores when they have finished their homework, which they do in shifts around two little square tables. Even eating is done in shifts. The wooden bench in the kitchen can only seat five at a time, so the youngest eat first. And when it is bedtime at the Alexeyev household, not all of them get their own bed.

But the children do not appear to let these difficulties bother them. The smaller ones say it is fun to have so many brothers and sisters to play with. The older ones see certain advantages in being a member of a large family.

"It's difficult in our unstable world to find people who understand you and who you can always trust," says Nikolai, the Alexeyevs' second oldest son. "Besides, children from a large family cannot become aggressive. It would be too hard for an aggressive person to live in such close contact with so many people."

However, when asked how many children they would like to have in their own future families, the older children reply without hesitation - one or two.

"I don't, of course, condemn my parents. They do their utmost for us. I just don't feel able to give my future children all of my time and energy. I'd like to have an interesting job and friends as well. My parents haven't visited their friends for years," says Nikolai.

"Of course, it is difficult [to maintain such a family], but Nina and I have gotten used to it," says Vladimir.

But what about future Alexeyevs? Will they have a 17th child?

"Probably not," says Nina, breaking her silence.

"Probably not," echoes Vladimir. "But who knows?"