Demographic challenge

Family Contact Day began with parties in nursery schools, the first stage of a programme promoting love, family and babies.

A competition has been held for the best young family, schools have held classes on "the family and sex", and libraries have been displaying reading material for future parents.

A post office held a "best love letter" competition in which people could post their messages free of charge to any place in Russia, and employers were encouraged to grant a day off to their workers.

"The purpose is to improve the demographic situation and support family values," a spokeswoman for the administration said.

Interference?

However, some residents said the provincial authorities were interfering in people's personal affairs.

Nadezhda Teryokhina, a 19-year-old student, said that "the governor can't push us to make love when he wants. It's up to free people to choose".

Boosting the population has grown more urgent as Russia's population has dropped to 142 million, compared to 149 million in 1992.

Vladimir Putin, the president, recently signed a law that grants mothers 250,000 roubles ($9,555) for having a second child.

While officials have said more people were born this year, demographers have criticised the emphasis on birth statistics, saying the main problem is Russia's poor life expectancy.

Men die on average at the age of 58, 16 years earlier than in western Europe.