Three years after first exchanging e-mails with Anna on an online dating site, the Web designer from Englands south coast made the 2,200-mile trek to Ivanovo , Russias ``City of Brides. He and Anna are now expecting their first child.
The Ivanovo region has the highest ratio of women to men in Russia, a legacy of the Soviet textile mills that imported female workers from across the country. The city, which once helped marriage bureaus recruit young women for foreign spouses, is now enticing residents to stay and raise families. Thats fuelling a baby boom as Russia struggles to stem a population decline .
``When I get in the lift of our building, Im surrounded by so many kids it makes me think of rabbits, Wilsdon, 32, says at the 12th floor apartment he shares with Anna, 29, in Ivanovo.
Since the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Russias population has dwindled 4.1 percent to 142.2 million. Unless fertility rates improve, the population may plunge to 128 million by 2025, the Washington-based World Bank said in November.
By contrast, births in the Ivanovo region jumped 7.8 percent last year, four times the pace of 2006, according to national statistics. The number of second children in families rose by a record 24 percent, more than double the Russian average.
With the death rate declining and the outflow of people reversed, city officials expect the population will stop shrinking this year for the first time since the Soviet era.
Ivanovo achieved the turnaround by making the most of its biggest asset: women. According to Russian government statistics , 56 percent of the citys 432,000 people are women.
To encourage them to stay and raise children, the city has doubled the number of subsidized home loans for families, added 1,000 kindergarten spaces in two years, and built a new maternity hospital, says Deputy Mayor Igor Svetushkov.
``Were not calling ourselves the `City of Women, Svetushkov says. A bride is a ``partner for life, a symbol of the family. Wed like to tell people to come here to find their happiness. Other Russian regions have had less success in boosting their birth rates.
In Ulyanovsk, south of Moscow, the local government gave mothers and fathers special holidays to spend with their families and perhaps expand them. Couples that have children on July 12, Russia Day, can win cars and appliances in a prize drawing.
The local benefits are in addition to a payment the federal government introduced about a year ago to cover education and housing costs for women who have a second child. The award is currently about 280,000 rubles ($11,900).
Even so, the number of births in the Ulyanovsk region in 2006 is only 0.3 percent higher than in 2000. In the Ivanovo region, births are up 14 percent in the same period, according to the latest data available at the Federal Statistics Service.
``Its important that the federal government takes a raft of measures to stimulate population growth, but it takes time for them to come into effect, says Tatiana Gurko, an expert in families at the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. ``You cant expect results immediately.
At Ivanovos registry office, which sits on a narrow street in the old town center, the violinist barely has time to add resin to his bow before each couple and their guests enter to the sound of Mendelssohns march.
During the summer, when the office squeezes in as many as 50 weddings a day, each couple get no more than 15 minutes for the ceremony, says Yelena Rebenkova, the registrys spokeswoman.
Yury Krutikov, 27, a Ukrainian national, says he met his Ivanovo bride two years ago after she divorced her previous husband, who was from the city. He and his wife Olga, 41, plan to set up a club for families.