Welcome or Not, Orthodoxy Is Back in Russias Public Schools
Welcome or Not, Orthodoxy Is Back in Russias Public Schools
By CLIFFORD J. LEVY
Published: September 23, 2007
KOLOMNA, Russia One of the most discordant
debates in Russian society is playing out in
public schools like those in this city not far
from Moscow, where the other day a teacher named
Irina Donshina set aside her textbooks, strode
before her second graders and, as if speaking
from a pulpit, posed a simple question:
Whom should we learn to do good from?
From God! the children said.
Right! Ms. Donshina said. Because people he
created crucified him. But did he accuse them or
curse them or hate them? Of course not! He
continued loving and feeling pity for them,
though he could have eliminated all of us and the
whole world in a fraction of a second.
Nearly two decades after the collapse of the
Soviet Union and the return of religion to public
life, localities in Russia are increasingly
decreeing that to receive a proper public school
education, children should be steeped in the ways
of the Russian Orthodox Church, including its
traditions, liturgy and historic figures.
The lessons are typically introduced at the
urging of church leaders, who say that the
enforced atheism of Communism left Russians out
of touch with a faith that was once at the core of their identity.
The new curriculum reflects the nations
continuing struggle to define what it means to be
Russian in the post-Communist era and what role
religion should play after being brutally
suppressed under Soviet rule. Yet the drive by a
revitalized church to weave its tenets into the
education system has prompted a backlash, and not
only from the remains of the Communist Party.
Opponents assert that the Russian Orthodox
leadership is weakening the constitutional
separation of church and state by proselytizing
in public schools. They say Russia is a
multiethnic, pluralistic nation and risks
alienating its large Muslim minority if Russian
Orthodoxy takes on the trappings of a state religion.
The church calls those accusations unfounded,
maintaining that the courses are cultural, not religious.
In Ms. Donshinas class at least, the children
seem to have their own understanding of a primary
theme of the course. One has to love God, said
Kristina Posobilova. We should believe in God only.
The dispute came to a head recently when 10
prominent Russian scientists, including two Nobel
laureates, sent a letter to President Vladimir V.
Putin, protesting what they termed the growing
clericalization of Russian society. In addition
to criticizing religious teachings in public
schools, the scientists attacked church efforts
to obtain recognition of degrees in theology, and
the presence of Russian Orthodox chaplains in the military.
Local officials carry out education policy under
Moscows oversight, with some latitude. Some
regions require these courses in Russian
Orthodoxy, while others allow parents to remove
their children from them, though they rarely, if
ever, do. Other areas have not adopted them.
Mr. Putin, though usually not reluctant to
overrule local authorities, has skirted the
issue. He said in September that he preferred
that children learn about religion in general,
especially four faiths with longstanding ties to
Russia Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and
Buddhism. But the president, who has been
photographed wearing a cross and sometimes
attends church services and other church events,
did not say current practices should be scaled back.
We have to find a form acceptable for the entire
society, he said. Lets think about it together.
Polls show that roughly half to two-thirds of
Russians consider themselves Russian Orthodox, a
sharp increase since the demise of the Soviet
Union in 1991. Clergy frequently take part in
government events, and people often wear crosses.
But Russia remains deeply secular, and most
Russians say they never attend church.
About 10 to 15 percent of Russians are Muslim,
most of whom live in the south, though Moscow and
other major cities have large Muslim populations.
With emigration and assimilation, the Jewish
population has dwindled to a few hundred thousand
people out of 140 million. Muslim and Jewish
leaders have generally opposed Russian Orthodoxy
courses, though some say schools should be
permitted to offer them as extracurricular activities.
We do not want Muslim children forced to study
other religions, said Marat Khazrat Murtazin,
rector of the Moscow Islamic University. Muslims
should study their own religion.
During imperial Russia, the Russian Orthodox
Church wielded enormous influence as the official
religion, and virtually all children took a
Russian Orthodox course known as the Law of God.
One of the scientists who signed the letter to
Mr. Putin, Zhores I. Alferov, a recipient of the
Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000, said he feared
that the country was returning to those days. He
recalled that his own father had to study the Law
of God under the last czar, Nicholas II.
The church would like to have more believers,
said Mr. Alferov, a member of Parliament in the
Communist bloc. But they can have their
religious schools and their Sunday schools. In
normal government schools, absolutely not.
Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow, leader of the
church, has repeatedly asserted that to
appreciate the arts, literature, heritage and
history of Russia, children need to know about
Russian Orthodoxy. He described the scientists
letter to Mr. Putin as an echo of the atheistic propaganda of the past.
Five years ago, Kolomna, 60 miles south of
Moscow, was one of the first cities to take up
the curriculum. Local church and education
officials noted that before the revolution,
Kolomna was a Russian Orthodox center, site of
many cathedrals and monasteries that were
demolished or used as warehouses and the like
under Communism. Given the areas history, they
asked, is it not fitting that students learn about Russian Orthodoxy?
The goal, I would say, is that all the powers
that be, the church and the government, make sure
that people, children, know their history and
their roots, said Father Vladimir Pakhachev, a
church leader here who helps oversee the curriculum.
For example, Father Pakhachev said, it would be
absurd to study the Russian language without
learning about Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius,
the two ninth-century brothers who are credited
with helping to create Cyrillic, the alphabet
used in Russian. The brothers were monks and
significant religious figures, and that aspect of
their lives cannot be ignored, he said.
At Public School No. 3 here, in the shadow of a
restored cathedral, the courses are voluntary,
but occur one period a week during the school
day, and are taught by regular teachers. No
parents have ever asked that their children be
exempted, said a school official, Anna Kikhtenko.
No rights are being violated, she said.
Children from Muslim families, the parents often
say, We are living among Russian Orthodox
people, we also want our children to understand
what these beliefs are about.
Recently, Oksana Telnova, a sixth-grade teacher,
described to her class how Grand Prince Vladimir
introduced Orthodox Christianity to Russia in 988
after rejecting other religions, an event that
the church calls the Baptism of Russia. Some
children read aloud verses from the Bible.
Sacred orthodoxy transformed and revived the
Slavic soul after becoming its moral and
spiritual foundation, Ms. Telnova said, quoting
Patriarch Alexy II. Through the ages,
Christianity helped to create a great country and a great culture.
Nearby, Ms. Donshina, the second-grade teacher,
led her students in reciting the Ten Commandments
before pointing to a tiny tree at the front of
the room with branches but no leaves.
Faith in God is as important for every human as
the root for a tree, she said. But our tree
unfortunately has died just like a human soul can
die without doing good. This is what happens to
people who do not do good things and do not follow Gods laws.
She asked the children to choose from a group of
flowers, some with Christian virtues written on
them, some with undesirable qualities, and attach
those with the virtues to the tree.
She ended with a discussion of the Russian
saints, saying that they have shown us how one
must live to be close to God. With that, she
dismissed the class, but not before giving a piece of chocolate to each child.