Whatever it was, the women's stories seemed to be corroborated by the facts. Official statistics gathered for just one of the city's neighborhoods showed that the June 12 spike was fed by births from adjacent days: There were two births on June 11, 18 births on June 12, zero on June 13, and two on June 14. The normal rate would have been around four births per day.
Ludmilla Vanina, the head doctor of the neighborhood's maternity ward, was annoyed at my suggestion and denied that doctors would induce labor just to boost statistics. But after 10 minutes of playing defense on the phone, she slipped up.
"Women want to give birth in June, so they give birth on that day," she said. "Why? I don't know. Maybe because they get gifts."
"You mean to say they gave birth on that day because they got gifts?" I asked.
"We just help women," she said after a long, uncomfortable pause. "I'm not authorized to discuss this. Plus, I have my own personal opinion of the press," she said before slamming down the receiver.
"The doctors had nothing to do with it," said Galya Kaimova, a young mother in her early 20s who works as a police officer. She gave birth on June 14 but was admitted to the hospital two days earlier and had a ringside seat to the chaos of June 12. According to her, many of the mothers who were due around that time induced labor in order to take part in Give Birth to a Patriot.
"Women were asking, practically begging, their doctors to do it," she said. "They had their babies that day because of the presents; they put their health at risk. It was sick."
Sick, but understandable. And in retrospect, even predictable.
Ulyanovsk is part of Russia's Red Belt, a zone of impoverished farming communities and stagnant Soviet factories that stretches west of the Volga River. It has seen little benefit from Russia's market reforms. Even now, few people can afford the steep prices of the restaurants and the shopping mall that have opened up in recent years. They prefer to spend their free days hanging out on park benches or clustered around their beat-up Soviet-era cars.
Inside the Lenin Memorial on the day of the award ceremony, babushkas raced back and forth setting the tables with wine, blini with caviar, pirogi, bottled water, and juice for the kids. A band performed Russian hits, and women in extravagant ball gowns took to the stage to recite cheesy poetry extolling the virtues of children and family. All the while, beautiful young models in white bridal dresses flanked the perimeter of the hall to lend beauty to the simple provincial faces. By Ulyanovsk standards, it was a swank affair.
The governor arrived and mechanically ticked off his administration's successes—improved welfare packages for needy families with children, new kindergartens and schools were on the way, and so was a new maternity hospital. Finally, he announced the results of the competition. The car keys would go to the only participating family that had given birth to a fourth child; the rest would receive cash prizes of $300—a good month's wages—that could be spent anywhere.
For many of the mothers, the prize was a godsend, but one they achieved at considerable risk to themselves and their children. Sergei Morozov emerged as the event's only true winner. He apparently found a solution to what Vladimir Putin calls Russia's most acute problem. And he did it in a way that avoids the laborious work of tackling the crisis at its root: fixing basic infrastructure, creating jobs, and improving the quality of life.