MOSCOW — "Russia needs babies" may as well be the unofficial slogan of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia Party. The country is in a demographic crisis, shedding 2.2 million people (or 1.6 percent of the population) since 2002, and the government is trying to encourage more women to bring Russian citizens into the world. This year, when I unexpectedly got pregnant soon after receiving my visa to work in Moscow, I became a test case.
Photos from a truly broken health-care system
Since the Soviet days, having a baby in Russia has been commonly understood as a nightmare of understaffed state hospitals and forbidding bureaucratic mazes. Feminist author Maria Arbatova's My Name Is Woman, an alternatively harrowing and hilarious account of childbirth in the 1970s, was the grim reality for many. Arbatova described being left completely unattended during the final stages of labor, which nearly resulted in her death and the death of her twin sons.
The fall of the Soviet Union did not improve matters. A 1996 Los Angeles Times article, titled appropriately "Childbirth in Russia Is Miserable," attested to Russia's "scruffy, ill equipped, and harried" maternity wards. The article described a health system caught in a straitjacket of leftover communist-era regulations, which even dictated the posture mothers must lie in to nurse their newborns.
These days, thankfully, maternal mortality is decreasing in Russia, according to the World Health Organization, but this doesn't mean that most women have renewed faith in the medical establishment -- horror stories still pop up in the press and the blogosphere.
It's only natural for the truly scary cases to make their way into the press, while the stories of regular birthing experiences remain generally untold. However, there are enough Russian bloggers out there recounting tales of being bullied and mistreated by medical staff to give a pregnant woman cause for concern.
Shortly before I gave birth, I was struck by a blog post by a recent mother, detailing a personal experience at a Moscow hospital not far from where I live -- yelling midwives, a doctor who was mostly busy somewhere else, and, for dessert, getting stitched up with no anesthetic by a staff member who threatened to walk away should she continue to squirm. According to the midwives, "it was my fault that I overshot my due date and was now screaming (and here I thought I was only moaning softly)," the author wrote.
That's not exactly good press if you're trying to get more women to give birth. This is why Putin is seen on the television news these days touring newfangled perinatal centers and holding high-profile meetings on maternal care -- to assure the childbearing public that the government is now watching out for them. The prime minister has also pledged to spend 1.5 trillion rubles (about $54 billion) over the next four years on demographics-related projects such as raising life expectancy and increasing the birth rate by 30 percent.
I hadn't planned on serving as a canary for Russia's new advances in state maternal care, but after my husband and I ran out of money, throwing ourselves on the mercy of free health care was our only choice. Last November, when I made my first appointment with an OB/GYN at the Norovkov Clinic, a private establishment in Moscow that came highly recommended by friends, my new doctor, Natalia Bovina, explained my options to me.
"You can pay for a special 'birthing contract' at a hospital that provides commercial services -- or you can call an ambulance once labor kicks in, but then it will all depend on luck," Bovina said. "Unless a nearby hospital is full, they won't legally be able to refuse to admit a woman in labor, but who knows what kind of doctors you will end up with?"