SEVERODVINSK, Russia -- Natalia Golubtsova and her husband, Sergei Kirillov, are raising their six children in a cramped, two-room apartment in a Brezhnev-era building in this city in Russia’s Far North.
When their third child was born, Golubtsova filed an application for the plot of land that the Russian government has promised to every family of that size. That child now is halfway through his first year in school and the family doesn't feel any closer than ever to moving into the home they have always dreamt of.
"We have been waiting more than seven years," Golubtsova told RFE/RL, noting that her family is currently No. 50 on the local administration's list of those waiting for land allocations. "When we decided to have our son, the law on land plots was already in effect and it was one of the reasons we proceeded -- we'll have a third child, get a plot of land, and build a house, we thought. Everyone who had children back in 2012 was thinking about this consideration."
Marina Zelentsova, mother of three girls, is in the same boat. On a waiting list for a plot of land, her number is 666.
"We love Severodvinsk and don't want to move away," Zelentsova said of the naval-shipyard city of some 190,000 on the White Sea.
"According to the law, we should get a plot of land, but in reality, they aren't being given out,” she said. “We didn't have kids thanks to any help but in spite of difficult circumstances. And when we try to demand our rights, we are told: 'No one asked you to have so many children.'"
In fact, however, faced with a daunting demographic situation following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic "shock-therapy" years in the 1990s, President Vladimir Putin has made support for families a policy priority throughout the last two decades.
"We are alarmed by the negative demographic forecasts," Putin said during his state-of-the-nation address on January 15, returning to an issue he has addressed repeatedly. "It is our historic duty to respond to this challenge."
"As we build a long-term policy to support families, it must be based on specific life situations," he added before laying out several proposals aimed at improving housing, day care, and education for Russian families. "We need to look closely at difficulties faced by new families, families with many children and single-parent families."
Asking Putin For Help
Activists with the grassroots organization Land For The Large Families Of Severodvinsk are urging Putin and other officials to "look closely" at their experience.
In December 2019, the group organized a demonstration in the center of the city calling on the authorities to fulfill their support obligations. Organizers told RFE/RL that the mere fact that people with three or more children came out into the harsh winter of the Far North to demonstrate shows the level of their frustration.
"Four years ago, the governor [of Arkhangelsk Oblast] came to talk with us," said activist and protest organizer Vladimir Abramovsky, who has three daughters. "We talked, he wrote down all the problems, but nothing happened. They created a working group with the city administration, but they have never convened. So now we have come to this."
Municipal authorities told RFE/RL that more than 1,300 qualified families with at least three children are currently on the waiting list to get land parcels.
"In order to satisfy them all, we'd have to find not less than 130 hectares of land within the city limits," the administration's written statement said.
According to the Land For The Large Families Of Severodvinsk group, the city has only distributed 11 land plots since the fall of 2018 and only 225 since the law came into effect in 2011.
In addition, according to the law, the plots must be provided with connections to the electricity grid and the sewage and water systems -- costs the city administration says it cannot afford.
Some families have jumped the line by agreeing to accept swampy plots without infrastructure improvements. However, activists say, this often proves to be a mistake.
"People are given plots with shared ownership -- that is, each member of the family must pay taxes on it," Golubtsova explained. "The assessed value of a plot in Severodvinsk, even a swampy one, is about 2.5 million rubles ($39,000)…. We have families that have owned a plot for five years, have paid taxes all that time, and who still can't build anything because there are no roads, no electricity, etc. There aren't even any plans for when such improvements might appear."
Large families also have the option of renouncing their right to receive a plot of land in exchange for a one-time cash payment. In Severodvinsk, that payment stands at 210,000 rubles ($3,300), while in Murmansk and Vologda -- two other northern cities -- the government offers 340,000 rubles ($5,300) and 225,000 rubles ($3,500), respectively.
"No matter what aspect of assistance you look at, our situation is always worse than those in other regions," Golubtsova said.
The Severodvinsk activists are also not satisfied by the so-called maternal capital program, under which families with two or more children are given a state mortgage subsidy. In his state-of-the-nation address, Putin announced that the amount of the subsidy had been increased to 466,617 rubles ($7,350) as of January 1.
But, under the law, ownership of the housing is shared equally by all members of the family. Children, however, do not qualify for the tax breaks given to the parents of large families. So if the housing is sold for some reason, the family often ends up paying taxes approaching or even exceeding the state's maternity-capital benefit. In fact, the more children a family has, the more tax it pays.
Golubtsova also explained why the regional subsidy to purchase a car is also flawed in its implementation.
Most cars aren't big enough to fit three children’s car seats in the rear. However, families only qualify for the 1 million ruble ($15,600) subsidy after the birth of their sixth child -- and all the children must be minors.
"Logically, they should give the subsidy when the fourth child is born," Golubtsova contends.
Putin’s expression of concern in his state-of-the-nation speech came amid expectations that statistics will show that Russia’s population declined by 300,000 in 2019, shrinking for the third straight year and by three times as much as in 2018.
According to the state statistics agency, Russia's population as of January 1, 2019, was 146,780,700.
In late December, the agency issued three possible prognoses for the period to 2036. According to the optimistic prediction, which foresees successes improving birth rates and life expectancy as well as increasing migration, has the population rising above 150 million people by 2036. The conservative estimate puts the population at 143 million by 2036.
The pessimistic version, which projects continued declining natural population declines and a failure of the migration policy, puts the population at 134.28 million by 2036.
United Nations forecasts for Russia are direr. The "optimistic" variant puts Russia's population at 147.3 million in 2050. The conservative estimate is 135.8 million, while the pessimistic prediction foresees a population of 124.6 million by the middle of this century. The UN projected that pessimistic prediction even further, saying it is possible Russia's population could be just 83.7 million by 2100.
In his address, Putin said that the implementation of the programs he was proposing "will require a new quality of state governance and work on the part of the government and state bodies at all levels, as well as direct dialogue with citizens."