What are They Teaching our Kids?
Svetlana Solodovnik and Nikita Sokolov
Rhetoric classes at Moscow's Peresvet Elementary School are not simply for teaching seven-to ten-year-olds the art of public speaking, but also to lay "the foundations of Christian mentality and behavior." This intent is spelled out in the foreword to the students' textbook, Introduction to the Cathedral of the Word. Its author is Sofia Filipovna Ivanova, one of the school's founders. State-run Perevest is an Orthodox-oriented school, which also has a so-called "ethic and cultural component." It is therefore allowed to openly engage in "forming religious mentality." It functions according to a special ethnic and cultural program, which includes over 40 schools and kindergartens in the capital.
In addition to the Russian "ethnic component," there are also schools that teach Tatar, Jewish, Armenian, Georgian, Lithuanian, and Greek values and cultures. But Peresvet and the 40-odd other schools are more the exception than the rule. Most of Moscow's state-run schools have resisted introduction of religion into the classrooms. That stance has been supported, until recently, by Moscow's Department of Education. But things may be about to change. In the last three years, the debate over religion in Russian schools has heated up to volcanic temperatures.
Careening Towards Orthodoxy
A decade ago, in 1993, the Ministry of Education issued regulations which allowed elective teaching of religious subjects, such as "Foundations of Orthodox Culture" or "History of World Religions." Religious instruction was also allowed, but only at the request of children or their parents, and only outside normal school hours. But even before this legal loophole appeared, missionaries of all imaginable denominations and sects-from Orthodox priests to Moonies-rushed in to fill the demand for meaning in this hitherto forbidden realm. Yet the tide soon subsided. Schools denied Moonies and other questionable sects access, while Orthodox priests, busy with resuscitating their parishes, begged off the additional responsibilities of teaching. The work was unpaid and often unrewarding.
The Search for a Post-Soviet Ideology
The idea of teaching children Orthodox culture was an outgrowth of the collapse of Soviet communist ideology. Society was floundering in an ideological vacuum, so church leaders suggested introducing a system of moral education in schools, to be founded on Russia's traditional cultural and religious values. In some regions, the idea was quickly implemented. For instance, in 1997 in the Kursk Region, where the eparchy was headed by Metropolitan Yuvenaly Tarasov, a fierce advocate of a strong state and Russian Orthodoxy, the course, "Foundations of Orthodox Culture," was introduced in some 300 schools-half of the region's total number. The region's governor at the time was Alexander Rutskoi, one of the convicted leaders in the failed 1993 coup against President Boris Yeltsin. The metropolitan had convinced secular authorities that Orthodoxy was not simply a religion, but an ideology cementing the state and nation together.
Is Instruction Voluntary?
Today, as Russia's leaders search for a new "national idea," minus the Communist husk, the famous formula introduced in 1833 by minister of Education Count Sergey Uvarov, "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality," may once again find its place. Officially, "Foundations of Orthodox Culture" was introduced as an elective, which means students can refuse to attend. But in most of the region's schools, it is taught as part of the regional curriculum during normal school hours and thus is obligatory for all students.
Despite this fact, school authorities say that students do have a choice. Director of School No. 28 in Kursk, Valery Negukov, insisted that all the 13 fifth-graders who attend the class at his school do so of their own free will. The headmaster's words are supported by the fact that the fifth grade numbers twice as many students. Nevertheless, not all school managers are so scrupulous. "What do you mean, 'whether they want to attend or not?'" said the head of studies at a school in Zamostyansk, a small town about 100 kilometers from Kursk. "If the subject is in the curriculum, of course, they must attend. There is no need to ask their opinion."
Resistance From Teachers
Early on, the Foundations course faced fierce resistance from teachers. Aside from philosophical concerns about separation of church and state, there was a practical issue-there were no teachers or textbooks for the class. Orthodox clergy could not help; they could not even get enough teachers for theological schools. This left volunteers, which meant opening the schools to lone enthusiasts or shameless hacks. "Today," said Dr. Vladimir Menshikov, program coordinator for Orthodox Culture Studies in the Kursk Region, "Teachers feel acutely that children should be taught not only math and Russian, but also something 'good and right.'" An alternative to the Orthodox idea of "right" is not available in today's Russia: secular society, which, having lost faith in Communist ideals, has not managed during the post-Soviet years to elaborate a system of morals based on liberal, democratic values.
Foundations and other religion courses are presently taught in some 30 Russian regions. Small towns and villages are more likely venues, relying on support of local authorities that is harder to come by in big cities. In Russia's two capitals, religion is still not welcomed in most schools. Thus, out of St. Petersburg's 703 schools, only 10 percent teach religion courses; in Moscow the number is even lower. This phenomenon is partly due to the stance of the local education authorities, who have repeatedly said they will not let religion into schools. One contributing factor is certainly that big cities have much greater ethnic diversity. "All Moscow schools are multiethnic," said award-winning Moscow teacher Yelena Lubcheva. "In one class, there are children of ethnic Ukrainians, Armenians, Azeris, Tatars, Georgians, Jews, and a dozen other nationalities. It is not a given that they will want to study Orthodox Culture. And there is the second question: Who is going to teach it? If it is to be secular teachers, where do we find them?
Divided Public Opinion
Meanwhile, Russian society as a whole is split on the issue of teaching religion in schools. In a multi-year sociological survey, undertaken between 1991 and 1999 as part of the international project, "Religion and Values After the Fall of Communism," headed by Finnish researcher Kimmo Kaariainen, some 42 percent of those surveyed supported teaching religious studies, while 13 percent favored teaching Orthodoxy, 10 percent said schoolchildren should be taught the religion chosen by their parents, and 15 percent opposed teaching any religion in schools.
Perhaps in response to this uncertainty in society, advocates of religion classes have founded a movement, which gathers annually for "International Christmas Educational Readings," organized by the Moscow Patriarchy, the Inter-Religious Council of Russia, and the Ministry of Education. "Traditional values and ideas of Orthodoxy are an indispensable condition for society's well-being," said Zinaida Vedyakova, a teacher from Lipetsk in a speech at last year's event. "When children become familiar with the Foundations of Orthodox Culture, the psychological microclimate in the classroom changes for the better; children become more thoughtful about their actions."
Opponents, meanwhile, fear that, under the guise of "foundations" and "culture," children will be brainwashed with sermons, schools will be clericalized, and the courses will foster religious conflict. "I am an atheist, and in my family no one was ever religious," said Pyotor Bizyukov, from Kemerovo. "I don't consider the Orthodox Church the foundation of Russian culture. Just remember how the Church persecuted Lev Tolstoy. I don't want my children to be indoctrinated with anything at school. And I have no doubt this will be the case when I hear bureaucrats and representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church talk."
The debate has at times become so heated it has led to rallies, public protests, and even lawsuits. In 2002, human rights activists Lev Ponomaryov and Yevgeny Ikhlov filed a suit against the publisher of Alla Borodina's textbook, Foundations of Orthodox Culture. The case is still pending. The plaintiffs argue that the textbook's politically incorrect retelling of the Crucifixion encourages anti-Semitism. "Children perceive a textbook to be the ultimate truth," said Ponomaryov, "and in this case the author is too ardent and biased, advocating the views of the Orthodox Church." "In the absence of clear-cut methodology and approved textbooks, and given the very inconsistent position of the Education Ministry, which, it seems, just cannot decide for itself what the course should consist of, teaching the Foundations of Orthodoxy remains an unintelligible, amateur initiative," said Nikolai Mitrokhin, Director of the Institute for Religious Studies in the CIS and Baltic States.
Putin: Adding to the Confusion
As if all this were not enough, President Vladimir Putin has joined in the debate, although his stance is about as clear as the Education Ministry. "We have a Constitution and Russian laws, according to which the church is separated from the state, and, likewise, the state is from the church," Putin said in February. "And it is not planned to change anything in this respect." The final decision whether to teach religion in schools, Putin continued, could be made only after a broad public discussion. But a month prior to this, on Christmas Eve, during a visit to a monastery, Putin said: "Orthodoxy is part of our culture. So it would not be right to draw a definite separating line between this culture and the church. In our country by law the church is, of course, separated from the state, but in the souls and the history of our people they were always together and will stay that way."
Russia's "powers that be" wish to remake Russian schools into places of indoctrination, rather than enlightened, democratic education. A guarantee of freedom in education must instead be grounded in citizens themselves and in a desire to make schools serve the interests of society and its individuals, rather than the state.
Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Russian Life (May/June 2004): 32-41.
Svetlana Solodovnik is an editor for Ezhenedelny zhurnal, Moscow, with responsibility for political and religious issues. Nikita Sokolov is editor of Otechestvennye zapiski, Moscow.
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