Teaching orthodoxy in Russian schools

Orthodox ideology is being rushed into the Russian school curriculum – in the interests of nationalism.

It all happened very fast. In the middle of 2009 Dmitry Medvedev, the then president of Russia, said ‘Let it be’ and by September 2010 the Ministry of Education responded, ‘Thy will be done,’ and set up a pilot project to introduce religious and ethical studies in 19 Russian regions. The Ministry stressed that it was schoolchildren and their parents who would choose which of six modules they would study in their fourth year of school (10-11 year olds) – Fundamentals of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Orthodox Christianity, World Religious Cultures or Secular Ethics.

Officials all over Russia explained that the new subject would help children develop their ethnic identity, moral sense and tolerance. Sceptics of course were not slow to point out that the choice of subjects was incompatible with tolerance from the start, including as it did three major world religions, but as regards the fourth, Christianity, it offered not a general overview but the study of only one branch. And this despite the fact that a survey by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre showed that Catholics and Protestants, who are also Christians, make up about 1% of the Russian population, a similar figure to Jews and Buddhists.

The pilot scheme was introduced in a great hurry, the syllabus just thrown together.

The pilot scheme

More than 60% of parents opted for the Secular Ethics module, without really knowing what was meant by it – not surprising, given that no such thing exists: ethics is a branch of philosophy, and so cannot be either sacred or secular. This choice was dictated mainly by a wish to avoid the even more obscure concept of ‘religious culture.’ Teachers attempted to throw light on the issue, although they themselves weren’t clear about what they were supposed to teach – they had only taken short introductory courses on the four religions, run by local ‘specialists’ who themselves had had only 72 hours of training (although that was in Moscow). As Novosibirsk teacher Natalya Yeltsova recalled, ‘The pilot scheme was introduced in a great hurry. The syllabus was just thrown together, and the rookie tutors were pretty useless. We wanted to learn, but our Moscow-trained ‘specialist,’ whose day job was running the school’s natural history club, was so scared herself that we didn’t dare ask any questions.’

A week before the regional pilot started, there were still no textbooks. The Talmud texts produced for the Jewish module by religious scholars were rejected by the Russian Academy of Sciences on the grounds that the course was designed as an introduction to a religious culture, not a grounding in dogma. But evidently this didn’t matter too much, and only a few changes were needed before they were given to the pupils.

Strangely enough, even those teachers who had already introduced Religious Education as an optional subject at their schools were opposed to its entering the general curriculum. Vladimir Chirikov, the principal of one of the first schools not only in Omsk but in the whole of Russia to include an optional course on Orthodox Christian Culture in its curriculum as early as 1991, had this to say: ‘Our teachers all studied the subject for a number of years and we also spent eighteen months preparing parents at meetings and special workshops before introducing their children to the subject. But now with this regional pilot scheme, parents have very little idea of what’s going on. There has been no attempt to explain the scheme, just officials giving their personal opinions.’

Nevertheless, after two years the pilot was officially pronounced a success (though in rather abstract terms). Yelena Nizienko, head of the Education Department of the Ministry for Education and Science announced that: ‘The new subject is a useful one – more than 60% of adults believe it has brought them closer to their children.’ After that there was no stopping it – no one asked the parents any more. And billions of roubles had already been spent on it, after all. So in 2012, ‘Fundamentals of Religious Cultures and Secular Ethics’ became part of the curriculum for 10-11 year olds.

‘Fundamentals of Religious Cultures and Secular Ethics’

Nothing terrible has happened in Russian schools since this subject has been introduced. The children, of course, haven’t had any choice, but then no one expected that they would: you can’t split a class into six groups just for one lesson. The consensus in the Novosibirsk Region was that a group should consist of at least 12 pupils, although given the general enthusiasm for optimisation of resources, no schools either here or in our neighbouring Siberian regions have managed to offer even two options; teachers and schools management staff help parents make their ‘choice.’ Schools with pupils from a range of ethnic backgrounds have opted for the secular module, and there have been no reports of the inter-confessional conflict many people feared. ‘The dangerous thing is that the course has a clear denominational character, whatever they say about its secular basis,’ says Aleksandr Saibedinov, the principal of Tomsk’s Svetlensky Lyceum. ‘Here in Russia, membership of a given church or faith is too closely linked to ethnicity as it is. Imagine what would happen if pupils from different modules started comparing notes about their lessons and discovered they were being taught different things. Rashid is from one faith, Ivan from another. So either the faith is wrong, or the teacher. But children are used to believing what teachers tell them.’

‘The course has a clear denominational bias, whatever they say about its secular basis’.

You won’t, of course, find ‘Rashid’s faith’ being taught anywhere: modules on Islam and Judaism are only on the curriculum in specialised ethnic minority schools, of which there are less than a dozen in the whole of the Omsk, Novosibirsk and Tomsk regions. There are no takers for Buddhism, and apparently not that many for Orthodoxy either. Natalya Maksimova, deputy head of the only school in Novosibirsk’s Sovietsky District to teach that module, explains their approach: ‘It wasn’t everyone’s choice, but those who didn’t vote for it were happy to follow the majority. But we try to stress universal human values, not religion. The teachers talk about moral standards that are common to all ethical systems.’

Not many teachers even try to explain the concept of ‘God.’ Even the textbook recommended by the Ministry and edited by a professor at Moscow’s Theological Academy, states: ‘The word ‘God’ is used to designate a being for which there is no reason. God created everything; no one created Him. God created both the world and Time, so Time did not exist before the creation of our Universe. God himself is outside our world, and outside Time. That which is outside Time is called Eternity… God is free. He created nature and its laws. So nature’s laws have no power over him. He is able to do anything, including being more than just God.’

It is no doubt difficult to offer a better explanation, but it is equally difficult to understand this one. As Aleksandr Saibedinov says: ‘It’s difficult enough for a theologian, let alone a school teacher. The best we can hope for is that people will lose interest in the subject. The ‘Fundamentals of Religious Cultures and Secular Ethics’ course just doesn’t fit into the educational aims of our school. We try to instil a love of knowledge in a child, an ability to think independently. And here we have a teacher telling them, “There is a God” – without any explanation.’

The decline of learning

And where does Orthodox Culture end and fundamentalism begin? Vladimir Krupko, astronomer and teacher, and Director of the Omsk Planetarium at the city’s Palace of Children’s Creativity, tells me that recently mothers have been bringing their children along for ‘re-education’: ‘Parents are worried about their children’s lack of interest in learning. Things can get really heated at home: “The teacher said God created the world; why do you lie to me?” The mothers bring them to look through our telescope. On the one hand, religion is of course a good thing: you believe that God exists, so he exists and life becomes easier. On the other hand – if God created the world, you don’t need to discover how it works: why bother, if you know it all already? How can the immensity of space above us not be interesting? What’s left – kitchen-school-toilet? Children need to have a choice. But are they getting one?’

2009, the year before the start of the pilot scheme, was the International Year of Astronomy. It was also the year when Astronomy was dropped from the Russian school curriculum, and the standard textbook used to teach it for twenty years lost its official certification. By the next year, everyone had forgotten about astronomy and was arguing about religion. Perhaps that’s why there was a rush to introduce it as a school subject? Galina Sarenko, head of the Geography department at Omsk Institute of Education’s tells me that the number of geography lessons in the school week is at its lowest for a century. Physics, Chemistry and Literature have also been cut to the bone, and Drawing has disappeared completely. At the same time the amount of information around is constantly expanding and becoming more chaotic, as textbook publishing has become a very profitable business.

The main subjects taught in schools now are Personal Health and Wellness, Physical Education and Russian History.

‘If you believe the polls, 35% of Russians think the Sun orbits the Earth’, sighs Vladimir Krupko. ‘2300 years ago Aristotle sat on a hill with his students and as the sun set he told them that all these white points hanging above our heads are distant suns orbited by planets like our earth. Now, thousands of years later, children don’t know the difference between planets and stars… The beauty of the earth also passes them by. They don’t realise that given sufficient energy, you can create your own universe. The main subjects taught in schools now are Personal Health and Wellness, Physical Education and Russian History, none of which have any connection with understanding our world.’

Church building before everything

Parents’ persistent insistence on choosing the Secular Ethics over the Orthodox Culture module are a constant worry for the Church, which regularly complains about the pressure on families from schools. So the head of the Synodal Department for Religious Education and Instruction, Metropolitan Merkury has proposed not only lengthening the existing module, but including the Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture in Years 2-10 of the National Curriculum; and the Ministry for Education and Science has taken up his proposal, although it is not publicising this development. And for some reason, representatives of other faiths and denominations do not seem concerned.

The media have been pushing the message that Russia can only be saved by a combination of piety and patriotism.

But even before the Ministry took this decision, Merkury’s dream was already being put into practice in Crimea, where teachers are being trained to deliver the new syllabus, and textbooks have been hurriedly produced. The aim is evidently to ingratiate church leaders even further with the Kremlin by catching the mood of the moment. The introduction of Orthodox teaching into schools under the guise of ‘religious culture’ is not the first step in the recognition of the Church’s importance for Russia, but it is the most significant. The press and especially television has been pushing the message for some time now that Russia can only be saved by a combination of piety and patriotism, both of which are inextricably and exclusively linked to the Orthodox Church.

In the regions church buildings are going up at an alarming rate – Leonid Polezhayev, Omsk’s regional governor for the last twenty years, has been building ten new churches a year even as the area’s industry and agriculture has totally collapsed. The Novosibirsk Region is lagging behind in this respect, having only managed 100 new places of worship in that time, but last year its then acting governor Vasily Yurchenko signed an agreement with Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, to build another 100. At the same time, the government insists that this building spree is being entirely funded by donations from parishioners, and not out of hard-pressed regional budgets. This is hardly likely: the average monthly income of urban Siberians is a mere 26,000 roubles (£350), and for people in rural areas it’s only half as much.

There is also a fast growing movement of Orthodox activists that started after Pussy Riot’s ‘blasphemous’ Punk Prayer in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Activists in Novosibirsk have managed to have bans imposed on three gigs by ‘sacrilegious ’ artists – the Polish heavy metal band Behemoth, the American singer Marilyn Manson and the British rock group Cradle of Filth. And members of various ‘organisations’ noted for their leather jackets, short haircuts and a propensity for provocative behaviour and fighting have also suddenly started to support the Church… Patriarch Kirill, when asked at a recent Orthodox Youth conference about the activities of the Novosibirsk activists, spoke approvingly of the fact that ‘more and more young people are coming to the realisation that we need to fight for our faith and our values.’

Political specialist Ivan Kardash has another perspective on the subject: ‘The ultra right has realised that ‘nationalism’ is a dirty word. At a time when the Kremlin is trying to revive the old Tsarist slogan, “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality” as its new state ideology, it is much more effective to promote it under the banner of the Church.’

The Putin government is evidently intent on abolishing evolution in one country. Who needs people who can create their own worlds? We have our own Universe – Russia, a country where the Almighty above is in the service of the Almighty beneath.

This article was originally written by Natalya Yakovleva and appeared on openDemocracy. It has been published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence. Home page photo by Victor Vizu/Wikimedia Commons. 


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