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19 September 2018

  The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.

Birthing Pains

Author: Anna Mazanik
Translation: Paul E. Richardson

Jan/Feb 2015
Page 38   ( 8 pages)

Summary: Birth was no easy thing in rural Russia in the nineteenth century, not for mother or child. All manner of bizarre and unsafe practices reigned, from being “corrected,” to getting popped in the oven, to being left alone all day while mom worked in the fields.


Anyone who has spent time around Russians knows they tend to look to their elders for wisdom and guidance. So it is that on most any Russian internet forum for women, participants actively share and accept the experience and advice of one another’s babushkas. We are not just talking about questions like how to cook real borshch or syrniki, but also how to treat any common ailment, or how to deal with a crying baby.

In fact, when it comes to questions of health in Russia, the conventional wisdom passed down by our ancestors is often assigned as much weight as the opinions of doctors. Since our babushkas managed just fine before doctors came along, their knowledge of health and childrearing is assumed to be exceptionally wise.

In fact, they didn’t do fine at all.

In matters of reproductive health and neonatal care, our babushkas had a rough time of it.

Today, at least in the developed world, the death of a child is a rare occurrence and a tragedy. But just two generations ago, things were very different.

Among my four grandparents, born in the 1930s in Soviet Russia or Belarus, three had a sibling that died in early childhood. One generation earlier, in the 1900s, my great grandmother had eight children, but only four survived through infancy. And this was close to the statistical average for this era. In Moscow Province at the turn of the twentieth century, 516 out of every 1000 children died before the age of five. That’s right, a mortality rate of 51.6 percent.

Needless to say, the last century has seen dramatic changes in Russian maternal and infant care. But how did things look before these changes, in the Russia of a century, or a century and a half ago?

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