KOSTROMA The Alexeyev home resounds with the babble of young voices but that's only to be expected in a family of 16 children.
Sitting in their four-room flat in an apartment block on the outskirts of Kostroma, a city 300 km northeast of Moscow, Nina Alexeyeva, in her 40s, rocks her baby son Ioann to sleep. At just over one month old, Ioann is the youngest of the 16 Alexeyev children.
The family's story is unique in a country racked by poverty, where the demographic situation is ranked as "catastrophic." Indeed, it is so extraordinary it inspired Russian film director Nikita Mikhailkov to shoot a documentary film on them.
But Nina and husband Vladimir take it all in their stride preferring to see themselves as a happy, almost ideal, family, rather than some sort of rare phenomenon.
"When we met, I thought to myself how reliable and serious he seemed," Nina said of her husband. "I realized at that very moment that he would make a loving husband and a caring father. And so it turned out. Now look, we have 16 wonderful kids."
Vladimir and Nina met at a Crimean resort almost 25 years ago. She was a nurse, vacationing at the Black Sea, while he was counting down the last days of his military service.
Vladimir, who hails from the Far Eastern city of Ulan-Ude, spirited his young wife back to his hometown. But soon they returned to European Russia and Kostroma, to care for Nina's sick parents. It was in Kostroma, a year later, that the couple had their first child, Igor, now 22.
Within five years of marriage, the couple had produced four children, all sons. To their families, this was nothing extraordinary Nina and Vladimir themselves came from families of nine and five children, respectively. But by the time the couple had 10 children, alarm bells were ringing among their relatives.
"Why multiply the number of beggars?" Vladimir recalled their families telling them. "But we decided to devote our life to our children, whatever number God chose to bless us with."
In Russia today, it is rare for even a well-to-do family to have more than three children. According to official statistics, every new child born in Russia makes its family 30 percent worse-off financially.
The Alexeyev's monthly budget rarely exceeds 2,000 rubles ($70), but the children bear none of the marks of an impoverished family they are well-dressed and look healthy. Indeed, 4-year-old Larissa was parading her newly acquired white silky dress.
While Nina stays at home to look after the children, Vladimir earns money with occasional odd-jobs, including working as a mover with his second son, Nikolai. But the father sees his first priority and full-time occupation as helping his wife with the children. Indeed, part of the family routine is that every morning Vladimir rises at 5 o'clock to cook breakfast for his wife and children.
The family also grows vegetables at a dacha plot just outside Kostroma and picks mushrooms and berries in the summer to put additional food on the table.
But for the Alexeyevs, another important source for supplementing their income stems from their readiness to ask for help when it's needed, Vladimir said.
Yulia, an official with the Kostroma City Administration's social assistance department, said Vladimir often visits enterprises in the city with a photograph of his huge family. She said that, upon seeing the size of the family, many people respond with assistance where they can.
"Some help with food, some with money, some with washing powder people are very understanding," she said.
The couple's flat and furnishings were procured in part from what they have earned themselves and in part from donations by sponsors the latter including Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who gave 50,000 rubles ($175) and clothes for the family. Help is also coming from people in the United States and England who heard about them.
The city administration too has played its part in supporting the Alexeyevs, relieving them from payments for communal services and, at the behest of the mayor, arranging for the couple to have a three-room flat next to the one they currently occupy.
The couple is looking forward to expanding into the other flat. Currently, four people sleep in each room.
But some residents in Kostroma frown at the mention of the Alexeyev name, complaining they receive benefits from the authorities that no other families with children are entitled to. But Nina and Vladimir believe the attention their family receives is every bit deserved.
In contrast, Vladimir pointed to their neighbor. He said she is a woman with a drinking problem, who has nine children and lives off the benefits provided for them while having placed them in an orphanage. Vladimir also said that, in an orphanage, the state also has to spend a lot of money to raise a child. "If a family is eager to raise a lot of children in the security of the family home, then the state should support this," he said.
"At one point, when we first turned to them for help, the authorities suggested we also give our children away," Vladimir said. "But we flat-out refused."
With so many children in the Alexeyev family and the tradition of rivalry among siblings, one would expect a lot of fighting but the children say they have never raised a hand to one another and that there is no jealousy.
"We are a friendly family where the elder children look after the younger ones," said the oldest child, Igor. "At first, it was myself, Nikolai and Roman [who took this responsibility], but now it's the girls, Ira, Vlada and Viktoria."
Inspired by their parents who, the children say, have never quarreled in their 25 years of living together and have never punished them, the siblings say they want a similar relationship in their own families. Asked about how many children they would like to have, both the girls and the boys say they want no more than average.
"I don't think I will have more than three," said Viktoria, 15, reflecting the consensus among the Alexeyev children. "It's difficult when life is so expensive. Our parents are real heroes."
The feeling is reciprocated by the parents, who say they have no regrets. "When we married, we didn't think we would have so many children. But now we can't imagine our life without them," the mother said, while the father eagerly agreed.