What My Pregnancy in Moscow Taught Me of Putin’s Russia

My experience as a mother-to-be showed me how, for many Russians, motherhood and motherland are inextricably entwined

What My Pregnancy in Moscow Taught Me of Putin’s Russia
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

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When I was six weeks pregnant and living in Moscow, my husband and I went to our local clinic for a checkup. This was a big one, when the viability of the pregnancy is determined, and we walked hand in hand, full of bubbly apprehension. After years of trying and three rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF), I was pregnant at last. This appointment would tell us if the critter had survived life’s first hurdle. The hot July air surged through our nostrils, infused with hope. We swung open the clinic’s heavy doors, wrapped our sandal-clad feet in the plastic covers ubiquitous in Russian hospitals, and made for the glass elevator that transported us up to our doctor’s floor.

But once inside her room, our shared joy came to an abrupt halt. My OB-GYN — for the sake of anonymity, let’s call her Dr. Ivanova — instructed me to undress, before throwing her untrusting eyes in the direction of my husband, Joël. “This part is not for you,” she said sternly, pointing a gloved finger toward the door. Ivanova squeezed some lube onto a wandlike instrument and readied the stirrups of the chair. Joël scuttled away. With the ultrasound probe inside me and him relegated to the corridor, I then heard the gorgeous, defiant boom of our baby’s heartbeat for the first time. The future ricocheted off the gray linoleum walls, all love, speed and promise. Ivanova reassuringly patted my hand; the nurse shot me a toothy smile. But the father of my child had missed it all.

In Russia, I would learn, pregnancy is no one’s business but women’s. Apart from their initial obvious function, men are absent, intentionally so. This would explain why Ivanova, a Muscovite in her early 50s with close-cropped hair and a penchant for shimmering coral lipstick, was initially disturbed by Joël’s presence. But it was not long before this turned to amusement. For reasons I will never fully understand, I was told to see her every three weeks (pregnancy in Russia is overly medicalized, which could easily form the subject of an entirely different essay). By the third or fourth check-up, Ivanova greeted us with a beatific smile.

“Here they are!” she would say, clapping her hands in delight. “My foreigners!”

As she told us many times, we were her only non-Russian patients, and Ivanova saw this as an opportunity to educate us about the superiority of the Russian state. She was the kind of patriot who largely believed the pro-Kremlin line: that Russians are mistreated by the many Russophobes who populate the West and are unfair victims in a world of competing imperialist interests. She was one of the many Russians who went to occupied Crimea for her summer vacation. “Credit cards don’t work, but the airport has a whole green wall made of self-watering plants. Real plants!” she informed us.

During one of my early weigh-ins, Ivanova was not pleased about my 2-pound gain.

“Amie,” she said, eyeing the digital monitor. “This is a lot!”

“I was on vacation,” I ventured, sheepishly. “Anywhere nice?” “America.” “America,” she repeated, fire in her voice, her heavily made-up eyes suddenly wide and animated. “We should be the ones sanctioning them. They willingly choose to destroy women’s health. They are poisoners of pregnant women! And they call themselves the greatest nation on earth!” Her usually silent nurse erupted into a cackle. “Sanctions!” she cried, smashing her fist on the table. “Sanction America!” There was no mistaking that I now belonged to a deeply muliebral world, which was about more than just keeping men out of prenatal classes and the delivery room. It was the sacrosanct Russian cult of motherhood; this was a purely female endeavor where pregnant women’s bodies should not be seen by men and where a woman’s responsibility to the survival of the motherland, her patriotic duty to reproduce, was paramount.

Just like any other cult, there were codes to live by and rules of behavior by which I would be judged. The rounder my belly became, the more I was fussed over. It was as if my womb were a glass vessel carrying a bauble spun of spider silk. This was a strange reality after spending years in Russia, a culture notorious for being cold, unsmiling and impolite to strangers.

Long lines for the restroom soon became a thing of the past; women whom I did not know would usher me to the front, their voices soft and urgent. During one frosty November evening at the Bolshoi Theatre, a woman even led me by my hand during the intermission of an opera performance. “You and the little one in there, come with me,” she whispered.

Like some other metro systems around the world, the ticket office gave me a badge denoting my pregnancy, so passengers would give me a seat. On the London Underground, this says “Baby on Board.” In Milan, it’s “Can I Sit?” Pregnant riders in Tokyo have a heartshaped keychain dangling off their handbags, while women in Seoul have bright pink seats reserved in each cabin (the United States is conspicuously absent from such schemes). On the crowded Moscow Metro, my red-and-white badge calls me a “Future Mama,” and I get warm with pride when I pin it to my coat. Passengers would divide before me, as if I were Moses holding his staff over the Red Sea. At my favorite Georgian restaurant, where we would eat rolled eggplant stuffed with walnuts and khachapuri, a devilishly calorific baked cheese bread, the waiter left us feeling perplexed when he, clearly seeing my bump, refused to give me ice in my sparkling water lest it “freeze the small organism” inside me.

My husband and I were working in Russia as foreign correspondents (I was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post; he is a Dutch photojournalist) when we decided to try for a baby. But conceiving proved difficult and, over several years, we experienced deep disappointment and torment. We became used to the constant gnawing at our lives by this amorphous creature called hope. We resorted to fertility treatment in 2018. In Russian, IVF is also called by a three-letter acronym, EKO, and its reverberating sound felt more inviting than its English equivalent. Emanating out of Russian IVF appeared to be a concerted effort to impregnate as many infertility-stricken women as possible. My clinic’s mostly female band of administrators, nurses and doctors took a hands-on approach that came close to coddling, down to insisting they inject the follicle-stimulating hormones into patients’ stomachs each morning, instead of the more traditional route of sending you home with a bag full of drugs and an ice pack so you can administer it yourself. The egg retrieval took place on the top floor of the clinic. I thrice underwent the procedure; when I woke up, a nurse handed me a steaming cup of black tea served with a lump of sugar and a thin slice of lemon shaped like a half-moon. Egg then met sperm, and away they went on their clinical romance, clouds of cryogenic ice swirling around them. Once I had created a viable blastocyst, the clinic staff referred to the frozen tiny ball of cells as an “embrionchik” (“little embryo”), using a Russian diminutive that showed affection. I became inordinately fond of them all, especially Ivanova.

At first, this atmosphere felt liberating, even empowering. The hormones may have exhausted me, painfully swelled my ovaries and scrambled my memory, but these women and I were in this together. I felt I belonged to a new sisterhood. But it didn’t take long before realizing that my good fortune was inextricably linked to the nationalist politics of Russia and the macho populist patriotism that dominated the country’s television screens.

Russia has no qualms about revealing the gender of fetuses, or in this case, my embrionchik, the size of a grain of sand. Without asking, we were told before implantation that we had created a boy. This practice is banned in many countries where IVF is possible, including the United Kingdom, Canada and India. But in Russia this was necessary as we “needed to mentally prepare,” as my favorite clinic receptionist — let’s call her Sveta — told me. The clinic staff could not be more delighted that we had conceived a boy. During check-ups, Ivanova intoned the Russian phrase that he would be “beautiful like Mama, and smart like Papa.” One afternoon, Sveta was gingerly stroking my growing bump in the main lobby when she said, “He’s going to be strong.” My face must have said, “How can you be so sure?” because she gestured a flexed bicep. “He was made in Russia,” she said matter-of-factly.

Even though I am not Russian, women told me more than once that I was carrying a “bogatyr,” a heroic warrior-knight who defended ancient Russia and a word used today to mean a strong or courageous man. It made me think of the famous 19th-century painting by Viktor Vasnetsov, showing three of Russia’s most famous bogatyri (the -i ending makes it plural), clad in armor atop their horses on the steppe, poised to protect the Russian land from invaders. Imagining my little son as one of them made me shrink in horror.

Russia’s cult of motherhood has deep roots. Among the pre-Orthodox, pagan cultures of ancient Russia, the Mokosh deity was widely worshipped. When Vladimir the Great erected statues of the major Slavic gods in his sanctuary at the end of the 10th century, right before Russia adopted Christianity, Mokosh was the only one who was female. She was the mother of the harvest and goddess of fertility, often portrayed as a weaver, or traditional spinner of fabric. Mokosh was the moist Earth who married Perun, the god of the dry sky, thunder and war. Childbearing was seen as the earthly extension of the goddess’s powers to create new life through agriculture. Some Slavic cultures saw rain as Mokosh’s milk. There is evidence of Russian peasants revering the goddess until as late as the 16th century, with women appealing to her for help with childbirth and fertility.

Mokosh was largely replaced by Mary, and pregnancy’s hallowed nature continued in biblical form. Whereas the Western Christian tradition emphasizes Mary’s virginity, the Orthodox liturgy admires her fertility and maternity. Above all, she is the Mother of God, or Bogoroditsa in Russian (Theotokos in Greek). Orthodox medieval icons and religious texts always portray Mary as related to being a mother, stressing the compassion and sacrifice of her maternal sentiment.

Imperialist Russia was late to industrialize — serfdom was not abolished until 1861 — so the country’s population did not shrink in the 19th century as it did in Western Europe, where there were improvements in education and more job opportunities for women, which meant they had fewer babies. At the time World War I began in 1914, the fertility rate in Russia remained high. But the wars, including the civil conflict that raged across Russia for five years after the Bolsheviks swept to power in 1917, as well as the ensuing famine, wiped out millions.

The first Soviets espoused a Marxist ideology that said men and women were equal and viewed family and marriage as bourgeois institutions. In 1920, the Russian government became the first in the world to legalize abortion. In the words of the leading Bolshevik feminist and Soviet diplomat Alexandra Kollontai, in 1923, the socialist utopia being created in the Soviet Union would “lift the burdens of motherhood from women’s shoulders and transfer them to the state.” Yet, despite its commitment to the emancipation of women, the new country also needed to replenish a decimated population. With more women encouraged — or, in the majority of cases, forced — to work because of the Soviet labor shortage and the communist belief in productivity, a slew of measures was introduced that was decades ahead of similar progress for women in the West. The government opened free childcare centers, laundries, maternity hospitals and orphanages to allow women into employment.

By the 1930s, however, official Soviet culture had reverted and motherhood was glorified again. Pronatalism, policies aimed at convincing women to have children, took center stage. Beginning with Josef Stalin, reproduction started to be seen as a matter “of great social significance,” as the dictator called it. He introduced his version of the cult of motherhood with anti-abortion legislation and stipends for mothers, even if they were unmarried. Despite Soviet women playing a major role on the frontlines of World War II, where they fought alongside men in battle and formed almost half of all field surgeons, in the postwar period they were instead praised for bearing and rearing the country’s soldiers.

Throughout the rest of the Soviet era, through to the early 1990s, a series of family laws were introduced aiming to both promote motherhood and financially support women who had children. But such alleged emancipation came with strings attached. Soviet women often found that, while they gained access to the man’s domain of financial reward, they were expected to simultaneously be housewives, which gave rise to the notorious phenomenon of the Soviet “double burden” or “double shift” that Russian women still suffer from today. The gendered division meant women had to do all the childrearing and navigate the often-arduous task of obtaining enough food for their families, waiting in long lines for scarce supplies, while men were relatively free to pursue their own activities. The injustice was famously depicted in art like Natalya Baranskaya’s 1969 novella “A Week Like Any Other,” where the young protagonist, a research scientist and mother, is constantly rushed off her feet. In the Oscar-winning film “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears,” released 11 years later, its high-flying women find they can’t have it all — much like women in the more openly feminist West are still discovering today.

War, more famine, the purges under Stalin, gulag labor camps and rampant alcoholism took their toll on the Russian population in the 20th century. A culture of widespread abortion — it became the most common form of birth control for Soviet women practically from the time of its adoption — and a haphazard national health care system continued the trend into the 21st century. By Russia’s own admission, the world’s biggest country by landmass was at risk of shedding 12 million people by 2035, a staggering population decline of 8% compared with today. Large swaths of Russia have always sat empty, but now this swampland and steppe are synonymous with decline. By 2100, Russia’s population of 145 million is expected to have halved, according to the United Nations. The demographic crisis became an albatross that, by the time of my first posting to Russia in 2007, had most of the Russian government in a constant state of paranoia about its survival.

Today, much as almost a century ago, bearing children is deemed crucial to the survival of the Russian state. President Vladimir Putin has revived the motherhood cult; in his annual address on International Women’s Day in 2019, he described raising children as a “reaffirmation of the traditional values that have always been Russia’s strength.” His government has introduced financial incentives for women to have more than two children. “Where would Russia be without its third children?” asked then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at the time. “We wouldn’t have Chekhov, we wouldn’t have Gagarin. And then we wouldn’t be Russia.” Unpleased with the results, a year later Putin extended benefits to the parents of first children, saying Russians had a “historic duty” to increase the population. He even boasted of Russian women’s extraordinary ability to have babies as late as 55. State-run newspapers were filled with ­miracle stories of Russian women in their 60s giving birth. The Soviet, and later ­Russian, queen of pop, Alla Pugacheva, had twins with her much younger husband at the ripe age of 60 — and was feted as a hero (the couple have since fled to Israel in opposition to the war in Ukraine). True enough, at my IVF clinic I met Russian women in their 40s, and even a c­ouple in their 50s, undergoing treatment in which the woman received donor eggs. In Russian clinics, unlike other countries, there is no cutoff age for women seeking fertility treatment. (Most American and British doctors will not assist women over the age of 45 because success rates are so low.)

Now, with the war in Ukraine, the Russian motherhood cult has taken a macabre turn. About 200,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or seriously injured in Ukraine since its full-scale invasion of the country in February 2022, and nearly a million more Russians are estimated to have fled. Combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s population decline is at a record high. In August 2022, Putin reinstated the Soviet-era “Mother Heroine” honorary title, which entitles women to a lump sum of $17,000 after the birth of their 10th child.

The medical team at my clinic was no less enthusiastic than the pious. After the transfer of the embrionchik (another major life event that Joël was discouraged from participating in, unlike IVF clinics in the U.S. and elsewhere, where the partner is usually an eager witness and excited hand-holder), I was ordered home on bed rest for 72 hours. I lay supine on the couch, drinking, as the doctors advised, copious amounts of astringent Armenian pomegranate juice, which is meant to help with blood flow to the uterus. It needed to be at room temperature, so Joël lined up cups of the blood-red liquid on our tiny kitchen counter. I dutifully obeyed, alternating between visits to the bathroom and binging on Netflix while the inside of my mouth turned to a fleshy pulp.

Like its weather, geography and politics, pregnancy in Russia is also, it would seem, extreme. As my pregnancy progressed, my belly was measured every three weeks with a metal rod resembling a tool of torture. My blood and urine were taken then, too, and sent off for analysis. At least once a month I had a sonogram. Each t­rimester meant another pap smear. There was also a stream of ECG exams, nutritionist appointments, eye tests and repeated teeth polishing by a dental hygienist. By the end of my pregnancy I was given a clean bill of health many times over. (On the free, state-provided health service, Russian women get at least five scans during pregnancy, compared with the four women get in the U.S., and the two they receive in the U.K.)

Not much made sense to my Western mind. On the banned list: Tylenol, flying on a plane, pickles and eating yogurt from a plastic container (high doses of the BPA chemical have been linked to birth defects, though few in the U.S. or Europe pay this much attention). Absolutely encouraged: a daily walk in the fresh air to calm the lining of the womb, meals of chicken liver pate, cucumbers with salt and investing in a yogurt-making machine. Superstitions abounded, as they do throughout most aspects of life in Russia: Strangers would tell me not to attend funerals or witness death in any form (Russians believe this can harm the placenta) and to never hold a kitten in my arms under any circumstances. “The cat will bring enemies to you and your baby,” an older woman warned me as I left the metro one morning when she saw me crouching down to pet a stray.

For Russian women, this phenomenal, if not excessive, care continues after giving birth, too. Maternity leave provides half a year of full pay and a three-year grace period to do whatever the mother wishes before returning to the same job, one of the Soviet-era policies designed to bring women into the workforce.

One of my more bizarre encounters took place at the Russian Foreign Ministry, a towering, gothic building at the heart of Kremlin diplomacy. Just the slight mention of the place instills fear deep into the heart of any foreign reporter in Moscow. When I was about four months pregnant, I was summoned there to justify two of my recent stories on sexual harassment within government. But shortly after I arrived — so nervous I could feel my heart pulsating in my throat — something curious happened. My new handler, a woman who had just returned from her own maternity leave, told me about a trip the ministry was planning for foreign journalists, to a forbidden zone in the north and the site of a nuclear explosion a few months prior. Foreign reporters had been trying to enter the zone for weeks but were denied access by the authorities. She began rattling off a clearly rehearsed spiel: “This will prove, without a doubt, to all of you, how safe the area is and how this so-called explosion did not actually take place.”

Now with a bump that could be mistaken for indulgent eating by unfamiliar eyes, I began rubbing my tummy, unaware that I was doing so. My handler caught me, and an almost manic smile spread across her face.

“You’re pregnant?” I adjusted myself in the chair and nodded. “Well, you can’t go on this trip then!” I was confused. “What do you mean?” “Think about the safety of your baby! There’s so much radiation up there.” Just like that, Russia’s Foreign Ministry had given away one of its cover-ups. The sacrosanct nature of pregnancy in Russia prevailed over its own propaganda. While I adored being pregnant in Russia, where I basked in the warmth of female solidarity, it became difficult to appreciate in an environment where women’s rights were being governed, and even curtailed, by the state. Women are not faring well under modern Russia’s embrace of traditionalism, and a tug of war between the country’s feminists and the powerful Orthodox Church simmers beneath Kremlin politics. One of the biggest stories I covered was the 2017 decriminalization of some forms of domestic violence. Parliamentarians behind the law said they had voted in order to keep families together, to strengthen “Mother Russia.” When I became pregnant, this sounded eerily familiar, and I found it increasingly hard to reconcile my treatment, by both my wonderful Russian doctors, and indeed the state, with the way women were legally allowed to have their hair pulled out and bodies bruised eggplant purple by their partners. As my bump became larger and more noticeable, I attended protests against the decriminalization in Moscow, where I interviewed fiery young women hoping to challenge the patriarchy. I traversed the country, visiting shelters full of women who had run away from their husbands and boyfriends, often with small children in tow. They lived together in spartan apartments in run-down areas of towns, hidden away behind muddy lanes. Most of them had lost contact with their families, who often blamed them for getting abused in the first place. An old Russian phrase, “to hit means to love,” was evoked by everyone involved in the subject of domestic violence, from the government to lawyers to the abusers themselves. The scale of the abuse has epic proportions: Thousands of Russian women are killed each year by their partners, or an average of one every 40 minutes.

Art shows and fringe theaters in Moscow and St. Petersburg filled with creative attempts to capture what decriminalizing domestic violence was doing to the country’s women. An unlikely poster girl against domestic violence, a woman named Margarita Gracheva, emerged. Her husband, a trained psychologist, became convinced she was cheating on him, so he led her to a forest where he promptly chopped off both of her hands with an axe. The husband was sent to jail and doctors were able to reattach one of the hands; the other was replaced with a prosthetic one that looks robotic. Gracheva became an avid Instagram user, employing the hashtag “Transformer Mom.” I met her when she was promoting the release of her state-backed book, “Happy Without Hands.” Paradoxically — and this speaks very much to Russian ideals of femininity — she regularly featured in photo shoots for Kremlin-backed television, dressed sexily and posing with kitten ears. When we sat down for our interview, the first thing she told me was, “Your photographer wouldn’t let me smile for our portrait. It really pissed me off. I don’t look good when I don’t smile.”

The Russian preoccupation with femininity extends beyond the images seen in the public sphere. Indeed, when I asked pregnant Russian women if their partners would be present at the births of their children, there came a resounding, if not mildly horrified, no. This made me something of a rare specimen in my prenatal class, where six women and zero men rolled on colorful birthing balls in a tucked-away building in central Moscow. Our instructor could hardly wait before telling them how my husband would join me in the delivery room; when she did, there was a collective gasp. One woman, a sprightly office manager in her late 30s, said her husband didn’t know she dyed her hair. “He’s never even seen me without makeup. How would I let him see that?” she flailed her arms over the lower half of her body, screwing up her face into a knot. “The light in hospitals is unforgiving.” For her own birth, her mother did what was expected of all Soviet women: She held the baby aloft from the hospital balcony, shaking her freshly swaddled daughter for her husband, who stood seven floors below, smoking and squinting in the snow. By law, he wouldn’t be able to touch the baby for three more days.

Things are slowly changing. Since the Russian government made it legal in 2011 for fathers to attend the births of their children in free, state-run hospitals, more men now show up in labor wards. (In the U.S., fathers were allowed in the delivery room by the 1960s; by the ’70s and ’80s they could attend the actual birth.) According to roddoma.ru, a comprehensive resource for Russian pregnant women, men were present for 1 in 10 births nationwide in 2018 and 2019.

Shortly before I left Moscow for my native London, at 32 weeks pregnant, I attended a festival for expectant mothers. Women and their bumps crowded into a suburban shopping mall, where they received freebies of homemade oatmeal cookies and nipple cream while a chorus of women in red aprons sang American jazz tunes and Soviet pop hits from the 1980s — a combination that, it turns out, is extremely disorienting. The highlight was the crowning of a queen, or “tsarina”. About eight pregnant contenders lined up on stage to deliver rousing speeches, mostly in verse. The first appealed to Putin, “our dear president,” for more time off for pregnant women, especially in the lead-up to the New Year’s holiday, earning her rapturous applause from the audience. The second woman, in the final days of pregnancy, waddled on stage in a floor-length, skintight dress. On her head, she wore a cardboard crown from Burger King. “Soon I’ll give birth to a bogatyr!” she exclaimed, earning even more cheers. One woman gravely read a poem about her husband, a “jerk who comes home drunk in the early hours of the morning,” causing the presenter, bedecked in white satin and with majestically painted eyes, to grimace and shoo her off stage. A doe-eyed woman named Natalya won the competition after reading a rhyming composition about her wedding, the anniversary of which was that day. Her face was wet from tears, and I wondered how she would make it through to the end. “Emotion is her usual state,” her husband told me, eyeing the curve of her bump under a crushed red velvet dress. In his arms, he held an oversized bouquet of red roses. Natalya accepted her tiara and the prize of a stroller from a woman the organizer called “a mother with a capital M”; she had birthed nine children, and the latest accompanied her, a peachy sliver of a thing, suckling her breast. Now tsarina, Natalya then dedicated her award to her husband and to all men married to pregnant women. “They are the superheroes!” she gushed between sobs. As everyone left the stage, the song “It’s Raining Men” by the Weather Girls played, inexplicably.

In my final days in Moscow, in December, I procured my “spravki,” the medical documents proving I was fit to fly. Russians love paperwork — the more, the better — and I spent several days trudging through snow visiting different doctors’ offices to obtain the various red stamps I was told I needed. Ivanova kept a running tally in a spreadsheet on her computer. When we arrived at the airport, I removed the spravki from my plastic folder and proudly spread them across the check-in desk. But this only made the British Airways agent cock his head to one side in confusion. “What are those for?” he asked, almost irritated. I did not bother to elaborate, and the two and a half of us boarded our flight home.

In the first week of February 2020, our son, Froy, was born in London at St. Mary’s Hospital, where my sister and I had arrived decades before him. Besotted and full of marvel, I emailed the medical team in Moscow with the news, along with a photo. The next morning, Ivanova replied, with a letter for Froy; it still makes me tear up today every time I read it. “You may have been born in London, but you will always carry a tiny piece of Russia inside you, because so many Russian doctors tried their hardest to make you.”

And it was in the quiet after a family dinner, realizing how, yet again, Froy devoured all the beetroot, and during London’s first autumnal chill, watching him ingest the cold air with an almost-familiarity, when I wondered: Does he, could he, remember?

This article was published in the Winter 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition.

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