Fall 2011

 Vol. 19, No. 4

 Mere Christianity: Teaching Ethics in Ukrainian Public Schools

Mary Raber

The collapse of the Soviet Union tore a hole in public education that has not yet been mended. Today some people may joke about the regimentation and trite rituals of Soviet school life, yet the framework of stability it provided is deeply missed. Some of the more bitter fruits of independence have had particular consequences for the young: family breakdown, drug addiction, alcoholism, HIV-AIDS, and the celebration of violence in mass media. The void left by the discrediting of Communist ideology has sent educators on a continuing search for the best way to teach moral values.

During the religious boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, many people saw a return to Christian values as the obvious solution to post-Soviet social problems, but how those values might be taught was less obvious. Early on, officials turned to the West for help. The most famous example is the case of the CoMission, a consortium of some 80 U.S.-based mission organizations that partnered with the Russian Ministry of Education in 1992 to develop morals and ethics programs and curricula for public schools. That effort foundered, however, in part because the CoMission, insufficiently aware of Orthodox Christianity’s long history in Russia, presented its program with an evangelical slant.1 Serious questions were also raised about whether it was appropriate to use public schools as a forum for any religion-based instruction at all.

In Ukraine, debates have continued for two decades among secular and Christian educators, government officials, and citizens.2 The need for moral education is widely affirmed, but the discussion is intertwined with complex issues of national identity and ambivalence about the place of religion in public life, as well as a deep concern for the well-being of children and youth.

This article will briefly sketch the history and present status of Christian ethics curricula in Ukrainian public schools, drawing primarily upon the experience of several evangelical activists. Two distinct yet interrelated agendas are apparent. The more formal trend interacts with the national government and concentrates on consensus-building among different Christian confessions. The other focuses on life choices education and is energized by both volunteer and professional Christian educators who teach classes on such subjects as drugs and alcohol, sexual morality, friendship, and decision-making. Numerous private agencies, individuals, and churches continue to come together in informal networks to develop and distribute teaching materials, confer with one another, and educate the public as well as schoolchildren.

Christian Ethics in the 1990s

It is well known that by the time Ukrainian independence was declared in 1991, great curiosity had emerged regarding religion in general and Christianity in particular. All at once, it seemed, after decades of repression, Christians were in surprising demand. At first, it was not especially difficult to gain access to public schools, whether to speak to an assembly or even present regular Bible lessons.

During this early period, Christians usually taught in public schools on the basis of a personal connection. Sunday school materials were just beginning to appear, but no resources were available that were appropriate to a public school setting, so everyone improvised. Sometimes the process was successful. For example, in 1992 Tetiana Sannikova, a qualified elementary school teacher and a member of the Central Baptist Church in Odessa, began to teach biblically based ethics to fifth- and sixth-graders at School No. 26. Knowing that the authorities could withdraw their approval at any time, she prepared each lesson thinking it might be her last. Eventually, however, her teaching of ethics lasted more than 12 years, and in 2004 she published a collection of her lessons.3 However, various problems surfaced. Few trained pedagogues were well-versed in Scripture, and volunteer lessons could be haphazard and uneven in quality. One well-meaning Baptist woman is said to have visited every elementary school in her city with a somber message to pupils about the End Times!4 In addition, tensions developed among members of different confessions—for example, Baptists and Pentecostals— visiting the same school. In some places Orthodoxy reasserted its claims to cultural dominance, and pressure was put on school administrators to block non-Orthodox access to children. Occasionally parents objected to having someone from a different religious group teach their children. Some school directors decided that Christian-oriented lessons were either inappropriate in state-supported schools and/or too much trouble, and dropped them completely.

A more organized approach was taken by educators in the western provinces of L’viv, Ternopil’, and Ivano-Frankivsk. Beginning in 1992 they launched experimental elective public school courses in Christian morality that emphasized the place of Christianity in Ukrainian history and culture. Much of the energy for this early work was generated in the Greek (Eastern-Rite) Catholic community and reflected its confessional origins. At about the same time schools in Rivne began to offer courses in general religious studies and the Bible.

Then, in 1998, National University “Ostroh Academy,” an institution of higher education rooted in the tradition of Christian humanism,5 began offering preparatory courses for teachers of Christian ethics. In the academic year 1999-2000 Christian ethics was introduced as an elective subject in 24 schools in Rivne city and province, and was rated highly by pupils, teachers, and parents.6 The teacher-training program at Ostroh owes much to the vision of Vasyl’ Zhukovskyy, now Dean of Humanities at the same institution and an Orthodox Christian (Kyiv Patriarchate). Future teachers from Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches, and from no church at all, are instructed in a program that minimizes differences among the confessions. The emphasis, rather, is upon the development of skilled practitioners capable of delivering a comprehensive program of moral education based on common Christian values.

Ukraine’s Complexity

Teaching ethics is a challenging assignment because of the complexity of the Ukrainian religious scene. Christianity is understood to be an important part of Ukrainian identity—but which Christianity? The Religious Information Service of Ukraine identifies seven different Orthodox churches and dozens of Protestant groups.7 Deep historical and theological grievances divide some of them. Christians are separated geographically as well. Roughly speaking, west of the Dnieper River people are more likely to be Greek Catholic or Roman Catholic, or part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate. East of the Dnieper adherence to the Moscow Patriarchate predominates. Different kinds of Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Charismatics, and other Protestants are scattered throughout the country. To further complicate matters, certain confessions are associated with certain nationalities, i.e. Ukrainians are Orthodox or Greek Catholic, Poles are Roman Catholic, and Germans are Lutheran or Mennonite. Indeed, during the 1990s, religious revival for some of these groups was closely associated with the recovery of a national language and even permission to emigrate, not to mention the presence of other faiths, such as Muslims in Crimea, or the Jewish community. In other words, Ukraine is a mosaic of religions and Christian confessions, with as much potential for division as unity. Especially the rival claims of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate contain the seeds of far-reaching political consequences. Therefore, besides offering a moral framework to youth, it is significant that Christian ethics as envisioned by Zhukovskyy and others also has the potential to bring together representatives of different churches in a common enterprise.

Developing Curricula

At first, lesson material was seriously lacking. Few Soviet-trained pedagogues had the necessary background to prepare credible lessons in Christian ethics. Accordingly, a collection of Ostroh student practice lessons aimed at different age groups was published in 2004. Students from different churches contributed material, and although it was impossible to remove all confessional overtones, it helped nevertheless point the way for other resources that have been developed since.8

Oleksandr and Valentina Bondarchuk, distinguished and well-connected educators who joined the Baptists during the 1990s, directed work in the area of Christian ethics sponsored by the evangelical mission Nadiia liudiam [Hope to People] in Rivne. Mission workers studied at Ostroh, taught at public and private day schools and boarding schools for orphans and children with disabilities (internats), and wrote and published Christian ethics curricula. Recognizing the spiritual as well as the professional needs of teachers and parents, the Bondarchuks also promote the organization of discussion groups and seminars for adults. Their work has developed into a multi-faceted ministry to teachers, school librarians, pupils, and their families. Nowadays Nadiia liudiam sponsors an annual summer camp in the Carpathians for Christian ethics teachers, both to inspire and support current instructors and recruit new ones. Ninety percent of participants in the camps identify themselves as Orthodox. Since 2007 the mission has published the quarterly journal, Slovo vchiteliu [Word to the Teacher], dedicated to the promotion of education and culture based on Christian values.9

In 2005 in the wake of the Orange Revolution, representatives of a number of Christian confessions presented to government authorities their vision for the implementation of a national Christian ethics curriculum. That summer, small groups of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant pedagogues worked almost around the clock at several different centers assembling teachers’ and pupils’ textbooks on Christian ethics for all grades. The curriculum was eventually approved by the Ministry of Education and published in 2007. The Ministry’s highest rating—“recommended”—was granted in July 2010.

Also since the mid-2000s a Citizens’ Council [Hromadska rada], composed of representatives of the country’s main religions, including Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism, has worked with the Ukrainian Minister of Education on religious issues as they relate to schools. An inter-confessional Christian “creative group” headed by Vasyl’ Zhukovskyy refines proposed curricular materials in monthly on-line conferences. All lesson materials must be acceptable to each member of the group, each of whom contributes ideas and watches for unacceptable language and biases. Thus, a reference to the Mother of God is flagged by a Baptist, while a Greek Catholic vetoes a reference to “a personal relationship with Jesus.” Sannikova, a member of the group, notes, “We want to keep our unity, so we’re very tactful with one another.”

Mere Christianity

Its practitioners point out that Christian ethics instruction is not Sunday school. Proselytizing is not allowed: "We can give people the keys to their salvation, but we cannot force the lock,” Zhukovskyy observes. Instruction excludes doctrine, prayer, and visits to churches for the purpose of worship. In other words, the vision of the curriculum is to present “mere Christianity” for the formation of morals with no single confession dominating. “Its value is that children get acquainted with the absolute, unchanging ethical teaching of Scripture,” states Sannikova. “Whether they accept it or not is their choice; acquaintance with it is the main thing.”

The program is also geared to promoting respect for the religion and worldview of others, a valuable outcome in a multi-cultural and multi-confessional society. Sannikova also works at overcoming sterotypes with her students at the Odessa Institute for Post-Graduate Pedagogical Education where she teaches Christian ethics methods. For example, she discourages the use of the word “sectarian” and insists that all confessions be discussed with respect. “We’re pedagogues,” she says, “We need to encourage dialogue. If we teachers will learn to do this, the children will follow.”

Furthermore, Christian ethics is not a required subject, but an approved elective, offered in all Ukrainian public schools at the request of parents. Four interested families in a village and eight in a city are sufficient to give the subject space in the schedule. Any child may attend with parents’ written permission.

Its elective status is prized. “As soon as you make Christian ethics a requirement it loses its appeal,” Sannikova claims. (Alternative courses are philosophical ethics, which takes a secular approach, and religious ethics, which explores the moral values of other religions besides Christianity.)

Thus, the mechanism for the systematic teaching of Christian ethics in Ukrainian public schools is presently in place. The courses are popular and appreciated. Anecdotal evidence indicates the children’s behavior and relationships have improved where the classes have been implemented, besides providing a rare forum for educators and others to overcome religious barriers. Students who choose the elective participate in a national Bible knowledge “Olympiad” held annually, and recognition is given for the best Christian ethics teacher. ◆


1. For analysis of CoMission see Perry Glanzer, “A Troubled Troika: The CoMission, the Russian Ministry of Education, and the Russian Orthodox Church,” East-West Church & Ministry Report 8 (Summer 2000), 1-3; Perry Glanzer, The Quest for Russia’s Soul: Evangelicals and Moral Education in Post-Communist Russia. (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2002); and Walter Sawatsky, “Return of Mission and Evangelization in the CIS (1980s-Present): An Assessment,” in Walter W. Sawatsky and Peter F. Penner, eds., Mission in the Former Soviet Union (Schwarzenfeld, Germany: Neufeld Verlag, 2005), 94-118.

2. A detailed discussion is presented by Andriy Bychenko and Mykhailo Mischenko, “What Ukrainians Think about Religious Education,” National Security & Defense No. 8 (68), 2005, http://razumkov.org.ua/eng/files/category_journal/NSD68-eng.pdf, accessed 11 September 2010.

3. Personal examples and quotes in this article are from notes taken during conversations with Tetiana Sannikova (31 May 2010, 16 March 2011, and 30 March 2011); Vasyl’ Zhukovskyy (26 February 2002); Oleksandr Bondarchuk (26-27 February 2002 and 13 September 2010); and Olena Prokhorenko (10 September 2010 and 30 March 2011).

4. Related by A. V. Solomina at a conference on spiritual-moral education held in Odessa, 17-18 March 2011.

5. Ostroh Academy was founded in 1576 by Prince Kostiantyn-Vasyl’ Ostroz’kyy as an institution of Orthodox higher learning. In 1581 the famous Old Church Slavonic Ostroh Bible was printed there.

6. For a more detailed description of this early stage, see Vasyl’ Zhukovskyy, “Vykladannia predmetu ‘Khrystyians’ka etika’ u zagal’noosvitnikh shkolakh Rivnenshchyny” in V. I. Makliuchenko et al., eds., Khrystyians’ka etika i pedagogika: Statti ta uroky (Ostroh, 2000), 8-14.

7. http://rus.org.ua/en/index/resources/statistics/ukr2010, accessed 14 September 2010.

8. See endnote 6 for bibliographic information.

9. Available at www.slovochitelyu.org.

Editor’s note: The concluding portion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 20 (Winter 2012).

Mary Raber, from St. Louis, Missouri, has spent 16 years in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Presently she is a service worker with Mennonite Mission Network based in Odessa, Ukraine, teaching church history and other subjects at Odessa Seminary, Donetsk Christian University, and other theological schools in Ukraine, Russia, and Armenia