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7 Apr, 2009 04:57

Meet ‘Russia's hope and strength’

The economic turmoil has hit Russia hard, and cost thousands of jobs. But there are families who, against the odds, are refusing to give in despite insufficient state support.

Unemployment at a four-year high, record suicide rates, a reported surge in abortions – the global economic crisis is being felt all across Russia, affecting families and lives in different ways.

But there are still places where resilience seems to endure. Meet the Goryunovs. Father, mother, and their four children live in this sleepy village in the centre of Russia, sharing a tiny country house which they heat with an old coal stove.

Before the crisis, Sergey had a construction business, but now he says he’s like a shoemaker whose wife and son go barefoot. His business has been hard-hit in the downturn – along with the family’s dream of a new home.

“We bought this house specifically to tear it down and build a large, three-story cottage on the site. We already had it designed, and everything was ready.But now we had to put it off. We’ll have to live with this stove for a while,” Sergey Goryunov said.

The Goryunovs’ family name means “grieving” in Russian, but despite the crisis, the family is far from grief. While many are desperate to cling to their jobs, mother Olga, who wanted to spend more time with her children, has done something which might seem strange in these times: she’s left her job at the factory.

“I hate coming home at 7 pm, and cooking supper with one hand while checking my children’s homework with the other. Now I have plenty of time to take good care of them,” Olga Goryunova said.

Officials call families like this one “Russia’s hope and stronghold”.

The country’s population has dropped to 142 million people – a drop of around six million from the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 – and is declining by around 350 thousand every year. And the prospects are gloomy – it could drop by HALF within the next 70 years.

“Analysts are unanimous in claiming capital investment in large families provides the most effective solution to halt the demographic decline in Russia. What does a large family need? A place to live, a health-improvement vacation, and education for children. Can the state provide all that? Surely. And nothing will hamper us, even the crisis,” said Elena Mizulina from the Family, Children, and Women Committee.

The Goryunovs are far from starving to death. But they’ve seen little of the state’s money.

“We're supposed to have free public transport, but there's none in our district. Our children are entitled to free meals at school, but the local authority has no money for it. We get a 30% discount on our utilities, but we are forced to burn coal to heat the house, and to bring water from a well. Basically, we have to rely on ourselves,” Olga Goryunova said.

There are one and a half million families with three or more children in Russia, and the majority need far more than the minimum wage – estimated at $130 a month – for survival.

The Goryunovs are one such family. But the parents of four don’t complain, apart from one regret – that doctors have forbidden them to have a fifth child.