Educating Orthodoxy

The Russian Orthodox Church has been expanding its educational activities to include not only seminaries but universities offering a wide range of courses. But if you’re a woman, don’t even think about wearing jeans to class.

Muscovite Dmitry Khorov is a graduate of the St Tikhon Orthodox University of the Humanities (PSTGU), founded in 1992 with the official blessing of Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) leader Patriarch Aleksy II as the first university in Russia where lay people could study for a degree in theology. It appeared at a key moment in Russian history, just a year after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but its opening was also a recognition of the fact that people who had grown up in that godless society were once again showing an interest in religion. So it was no coincidence that its first faculty, which is still considered one of the best in Russia, was for training missionaries.

Nine other faculties have been added since then: theology, history, philology, education, religious arts and music, social sciences, IT, applied mathematics and professional development for teachers.

The women have to wear long skirts rather than jeans, and cover their heads with a scarf.

Russian law formally separates religious institutions from the secular authorities, so theological colleges and Orthodox universities fall outside the state system, but since 2008 they have been covered by an accreditation system. Before that they were a bone of contention between the Ministry of Justice, which insisted that accreditation was essential if their degrees were to be generally recognised, and the Ministry of Education, which argued that this would contradict the principle of separation of church and state. In the end the Ministry of Justice won the argument. Religious universities are also open to all, and PSGTU has both male and female students, although, as Dmitry tells me, ‘the women have to wear long skirts rather than jeans and cover their heads with a scarf. Otherwise the only difference between it and other universities is an assumption that everyone is a believer and the short breaks for prayer between lectures.’

An inspiring (and controversial) influence

Dmitry Khorov has been religious since childhood; he was seven in 1991 when his parents, buoyed up on the wave of the official revival of religion in Russia, took him and his brother to Moscow’s Danilov Monastery to be baptised. By the time he was fourteen he had studied dozens of books on religion in his mother’s library, from the Bhagavad-Gita to the teachings of the early 20th century artist and philosopher Nicholas Roerich, but he failed to find anything there to attract him, and nor did he hit on a profession he would like to follow.

His Damascene moment came when a friend brought him some cassette recordings of lectures by Deacon Andrei Kurayev, a theologian and professor at Moscow’s Theological Academy who calls himself a ‘hooligan missionary.’ This colourful figure stands out in the conservative ROC for both his unconventional views and his way of expressing them. At the time of the Pussy Riot furore, Moscow’s liberal chattering classes never tired of quoting the blog he wrote immediately after their scandalous performance. He stated that he didn’t consider their dance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour insulting or deserving of arrest and criminal prosecution, called them typical exhibitionists and declared that if he had been there he would have given them a good spanking and sent them home.

Such non-conformity couldn’t be allowed to last, and this winter Kurayev was thrown out of the Academy, ostensibly for his critical blogs about the ‘gay lobby’ within the Church hierarchy, as well as about the crisis within the Russian educational system as a whole and the work of religious seminaries and Orthodox universities in particular.

Andrei Kuryaev lost his job at Moscow’s Theological Academy for his critical blogs about the ‘gay lobby’ within the Church.

The PSGTU students and teachers I spoke to, however, are inclined to believe Kurayev’s stories about gay scandals. ‘We’ve recently been treated to graphic accounts of stuff going on inside the Catholic Church’, said Dmitry, ‘and it would be naive to imagine that it’s any different here. In fact I’m sure these things also happened in Soviet times, and much earlier as well.’ The Church, he continued, was a closed, hierarchical structure, and would most certainly hide unpalatable facts if it could. ‘An organisation like this, where everything gets hushed up and where if you want to climb the career ladder you have to be a celibate, is an ideal setting for aggressive homosexuals.’ One of the university’s lecturers, who wanted to remain anonymous, was also inclined to believe Kurayev’s claims.

An Orthodox degree…

However, the reverberations around the deacon’s disclosures rather get in the way of an objective picture of religious education in Russia. The typical graduate of an Orthodox university is most probably a young man from a church-going family who has an interest in religious studies (especially given that there are now more than 40 univerisites of the same type as PSGTU offering a degree in the subject). ‘I was already a church-goer’, Khorov told me, ‘and so there were few surprises for me at PSGTU. Everyone was a believer, and if some of the teachers weren’t really, they kept quiet about it. And of course you had to be a member of the Orthodox Church – you’d be expelled if they discovered you belonged to a different denomination.

‘You also had to be on your best behaviour: the tutor of my group, a priest, told us on our first day that if anyone was caught drunk anywhere near the place, they’d be out on their ear. And though some of us sometimes had a drink or two, it was ok, nobody told on us – but maybe I was just lucky with my year group.’

The Orthodox university had one big advantage over other, secular establishments: there was no bribery of any kind.

At the same time Dmitry was surprised at some of the university’s arcane rules: his girlfriend, for example, was once seen by a lecturer sitting on a young man’s knee in a park, and had to write a statement expressing remorse for her indecent behaviour.

On the other hand, for Dmitry, PSGTU had one big advantage over other, secular establishments. ‘There was no bribery of any kind. When I heard students of other universities talking about how they had to bribe people all the time, or the things they had to do to avoid it, I realised how lucky I was.’ He also avoided the compulsory military training students at secular universities have to go through, but PSGTU had its own equivalent. ‘To show the donors, who provide the bulk of its funding, that it was doing its job, missionary faculty students would be sent several times a year into the sticks, to places where there was a potential congregation but no church. The students were very cynical about it: they would baptise the villagers and then they would leave, and the locals’ lives would go on as before.’

…and then what?

The problem is that neither theologians nor religious scholars are of any use to anyone. The only recognised career path for a graduate of an Orthodox university is to enter the priesthood. If you can’t see yourself fitting into the ROC hierarchy, you could of course teach in a similar university, but there are too few posts to go around. So people with a high quality education behind them – in the history of philosophy and religion, as well as a sound knowledge of Latin and Greek – find themselves without a job. Admittedly now that the state school curriculum includes an ‘Outline of Orthodox Culture’, graduates of religious universities have more chance of finding work: parents have to choose from six modules covering all the main religions and also secular ethics, and since it’s obligatory for their child to take one of them, they tend to choose Orthodoxy.

The only graduates of Orthodox universities who are more or less guaranteed a job afterwards are icon painters. The students joke that more people want to buy icons than read the bible, and a member of the art faculty agrees. Like many other graduates of Orthodox universities, he grew up in a religious household; his parents were baptised in the early 1990s. ‘I always wanted to be an icon painter’, he told me. ‘As a child I loved drawing icons and making models of churches complete with miniature decoration. And now I’ve also done research into religious art, which I haven’t found easy, but I’m glad I’ve done it.’

The only graduates of Orthodox universities who are more or less guaranteed a job afterwards are icon painters.

Another criticism levelled by students at PSGTU and other Orthodox universities is the extent to which they share the general conservatism of the ROC. Many of the lecturers are themselves clergy, interested more in their charges’ spiritual than their intellectual development, their adherence to the dress code than their grades. Anything reeking of ‘non-conformity’ is suppressed, which can’t fail to have an effect on the quality of their teaching.

The priesthood – or management?

The lay students I spoke to feel that things are even worse in theological seminaries, which exist exclusively to train clergy. Part of the problem is that they are closed institutions, separated from the outside world, and this affects their educational standards. Their students are all destined for the priesthood, whereas graduates of semi-secular universities get a proper degree and theoretically have a choice of profession.

The sons of prominent and influential churchmen are more likely to get a seminary place than more ordinary mortals.

But if you think of a career in the ROC as equivalent to work in a ministry or private company, then the situation with seminaries is no different from that in any Russian university. Sources familiar with them tell me that the sons of prominent and influential churchmen are more likely to get a place than more ordinary mortals.

Meanwhile the Orthodox approach to education is spreading beyond such narrow confines as theology and icon painting. The Russian Orthodox University, set up in 2011, offers courses in such subjects as psychology, economics and law and aims to create a new breed of Orthodox bureaucrat or manager with his or her feet firmly planted in the real world but with an ‘advanced spiritual, secular and business ethics, and culture.’ The first graduates may well be snapped up by the ROC itself – it could do with lawyers to deal with the angry Muscovites fighting the appearance of ever more churches in their parks, not to mention people with managerial skills who can bring some order into its own organisation.

This article is written by Grigory Tumanov. It originally appeared in openDemocracy.


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