GROWING PAINS: In Russia, Babies Can Be Better Than a Bribe

Having children in Russia has its uses. Take this morning, when I was driving them off to school and was stopped for some petty offense by a stout, red-faced officer from the State Road Inspectorate who came storming up to me like I'd just run over his mother.

He stuck his head angrily through the window while I fumbled for the documents, and then he caught sight of my three children gazing doe-eyed at him from the back - they're well trained. A miraculous change immediately took place. The clouds parted, the sun came out and he beamed benevolently at them. "Well, well! What a car-full of beauties!" he exclaimed. "Mustn't be late for school, must we," he said, and waved us happily on.

As a general rule, I always find it advisable when venturing out into the dog-eat-dog world of Moscow's public transport and services to have at least one child in tow - a baby is ideal, but anything of preschool age is acceptable. The little darlings work wonders on virtually all sections of the populace. Stone-faced shop keepers melt into gooey puddles, sullen queues brighten and part like the Red Sea and gum-chewing teenagers leap up to offer you their seat. In a word - I have Child Power.

I mistakenly tried the same tactic in England when standing in a ridiculously long line for juice on a hot day in Kew Gardens. I strode confidently to the front of the queue with my babes in arms and was astonished to find myself virtually hung, drawn and quartered for my insolence by hoards of unrelenting countrymen.

But in Russia, small children are definitely the goods.

My mother-in-law always squeezed every last drop of serviceability out of her grandchildren while they were in the baby stage by frequently plucking them out of their cots and racing off to jump queues and placate officials with the screaming bundle. And why not indeed?

Last week, I found I was late applying for my new visa, and the Foreign Ministry told me I would meet with "big trouble and a big fine" at OVIR. My husband realized that some masculine charm would be required and agreed to go himself - with our little son Bobby.

"Be very nice to the aunties there," I primed him as I brushed his hair. "Not again!" he said, rolling his eyes.

But as soon as Nikolai released him on the steely-eyed policewomen, they were uniformly reduced to a quivering mass of maternal instincts and let us off with a nominal fine of 35 rubles.

In England, children are perceived as a necessary evil, and mothers who have burdened themselves with three or more are treated with overall resentment by the public. But here, I am a "hero mother," as the old Soviet designation goes. And I love it.