I hope our society can take a hint from the Russians and avoid tiptoeing so close to the edge of extinction.

A Russian province is readying for "Family Contact" day -- unofficially being called "Conception Day" -- in an effort to boost flagging birth rates, officials said on Monday.

The special day for encouraging procreation was dreamt up by the governor of Ulyanovsk province, Sergei Morozov, who this year awarded prizes ranging from a television to a Russian-made all-terrain vehicle for giving birth on Russia's Constitution Day on June 12.

President Vladimir Putin has made fixing Russia's ongoing population slump a national priority.

This Wednesday's event is timed precisely nine months ahead of next year's Constitution Day so that mothers "ideally should give birth on June 12," said a spokeswoman for the administration, speaking by telephone to AFP.

A series of concerts and exhibitions are being organised to promote family values and employers are being encouraged to grant a discretionary day off, said the spokeswoman.

"The purpose is to improve the demographic situation and support family values," she said, adding that a four-year programme of building and improving kindergartens was under way to support families.

Russia's birthrate isn't just below replacement levels, it's barely half that.

President Vladimir Putin last week defined the crisis as Russia's most acute problem, and promised to spend some of the country's oil profits on efforts to relieve it. He ordered parliament to more than double monthly child support payments to 1,500 rubles (about $55) and added that women who choose to have a second baby will receive 250,000 rubles ($9,200), a staggering sum in a country where average monthly incomes hover close to $330.

On Monday, young women at the Family Planning Youth Center, a nongovernmental clinic for northwest Moscow, said they liked the sound of more money, but suggested that Mr. Putin has no concept of their lives. "A child is not an easy project, and in this world a woman is expected to get an education, find a job, and make a career," says Svetlana Romanicheva, a student who says she won't consider babies for at least five years. She hopes to have one child, but says a second would depend on her life "working out very well." As for Putin's offer, she says "it won't change anything."

Russia's birthrate, falling for decades, has plunged in post-Soviet times, to just 1.17 in 2004 from 2.08 babies per woman in 1990 - far below the 2.4 children required to maintain the population - according to the Federal State Statistics Service. The average rate from 2000-05 in the US, by contrast, was 2.0, according to UN figures, while Mexico, for example, weighed in at 2.4 and Italy at 1.3.

Take note America!

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