East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 10, No. 4, Fall 2002, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Religion in Public Schools: First Protestant, Now Orthodox

Irina Bill

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and especially after passage of the 1990 law on freedom of conscience, people showed increased interest in religion, moral values, and national cultural traditions. Such a phenomenon is quite understandable because the ideology of socialism had failed.

In the early 1990s, with Marxism out of favor, the Russian Ministry of Education made the decision to introduce religious studies in Russian schools by means of curricula stressing Christian ethics and morality. With the help of American sponsors and Dr. Alexander Abramov, a Moscow publisher, secondary schools were supplied with the Gospel of Mark, the Book of Proverbs, and Alexander Men's History of Religion in several metropolitan areas. But small cities and rural areas were left without help due to fiscal constraints.1

High officials from the Russian Ministry of Education also approached Western Christian educators for help. The response was a collaborative effort of 85 Western mission groups called the CoMission, which instructed Russian public school educators in the teaching of Christian ethics and morality.2  The Protocol of Intention signed by the Russian Ministry of Education and the CoMission provided for a five-year partnership to develop ethics and morals curricula for Russian public schools. The CoMission was to teach those Christian beliefs that were common to all Christian denominations, but its curriculum represented a distinctly Protestant approach to Christian ethics and Scripture. This fact led a discontented Russian Orthodox Church to assert that the state should prohibit Western missionary activity in Russia as a means of helping it reestablish its privileged place in Russian society.

It is an interesting fact that Russians identify themselves as Orthodox adherents without necessarily being believers. In fact, many nonbelievers, who regard the Orthodox Church as a symbol of Russian culture and national pride, claim they are Orthodox.3 Today many Russians consider themselves believers, yet only two to three percent regularly go to church.4  This fact should be reflected in a new program of religious studies.

In 1997, under the influence of the Orthodox Church, President Boris Yeltsin signed a new law restricting non-Orthodox religions and foreign missionary activity in Russia. The West, especially the U.S., regarded this act as a direct violation of democratic and religious freedoms. It should be taken into account that the Orthodox Church has always had a special place in Russian history.

From the early 1990s on, we have observed the decentralization of the system of education. School curricula are being revised, new electives and local initiatives in education are being encouraged, and private schools are appearing. Thus the system of education has become more flexible and there is a favorable situation to introduce religious education as an elective.

The success of an educational program focused on the spiritual and moral upbringing of Russian youth will depend on implementation. If educators choose the path of indoctrination, the teaching of religion and ethics will lead only to a loss of democratic principles and freedoms, as mentioned by Fedor Kozyrev. Furthermore, we can expect resistance to religious education from both parents and children. Above all, it is most important that the classes be voluntary.

Irina Bill, who now lives in New Hampshire, is a former instructor of English at Zaporozhye State University, Zaporozhye, Ukraine.

1. Dick Scheuerman, "Christian Classics for Russian Schools," East-West Church & Ministry Report 4 (Winter 1996), 12.
2. East-West Church & Ministry Report 8 (Summer 2000), 1-6.
3. East-West Church & Ministry Report 10 (Winter 2002), 13.
4. Yale Richmond. From Nyet to Da: Understanding the Russians, (Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1996), 29.

Irina Bill, "Religion in Public Schools: First Protestant, Now Orthodox," East-West Church & Ministry Report 10 (Fall 2002), 4.

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© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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