On May 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised his audience during his annual address to the Federal Assembly. Most of his hour-long speech had gone as expected: He spoke on economics, technological innovation, and the need to rebuild the country’s infrastructure. Then the former KGB officer shifted tack: “And now for the most important thing.” After pausing, he asked the audience, “What is the most important thing?”
“Love!” shouted Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov, in an apparently staged exchange.
“I want to talk about love, women, children,” Putin agreed. “I want to talk about the family and about Russia’s most acute problem today—the demographic problem.”
The Russian president went on to outline a three-part program designed to lower mortality rates, attract suitable immigrants from the former Soviet states, and raise birthrates. He described the Soviet-style birthrate program in some detail, offering state subsidies for prenatal care, cash for mothers, and more state subsidies for childcare in state-run kindergartens. Women giving birth to a second child would receive a one-time cash bonus of 250,000 rubles—a substantial amount in a country with an average monthly income of less than 10,000 rubles. Women out of the work force while caring for a newborn (up to 18 months) would...