In addition to memorizing world capitals and important dates in history, some policymakers in Russia want students to be able identify different kinds of church bells and navigate the Russian Orthodox calendar. On November 29, the newspaper Kommersant reported that it had received plans for a course being reviewed by the Ministry of Education that would significantly increase the amount of class time devoted to the study of Russian Orthodoxy for students from kindergarten to eleventh grade. Members of ministry, Kommersant wrote, were prepared to vote on the measure without formal discussion or deliberation.
Though education policymakers have since confirmed that the course will not be compulsory at the state level, the prospect elicited a variety of interesting responses from educators and raised questions about the cozy relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the government. The proposed course was designed to replace the existing religion curriculum entirely, leaving parents without control over their children’s religious education. The study of religion in Russia’s public schools is currently part of the “Foundations of Religious Culture and Secular Ethics” (ORKSE) curriculum, which is taught to students in their fourth year of primary school. Parents are given a choice between one of many modules to fulfill the 34-hour elective program, including secular ethics, world religious culture, Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.
The proposed plan called for a dramatic increase in the number of hours spent on religious material—it suggested that 350 hours a year, or up to two lessons per week would be “optimal” for grade levels 5-9. Proposed topics included “Orthodox Christian Understanding of the Meaning of Human Life” and “Distorted Interpretations of Biblical Texts in the Literature of Destructive Sects.”
In the 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has struggled to strike a balance between healthily redeveloping religious culture—a major facet of life in Imperial Russia before religion was banned in the USSR—and maintaining a separation of church and state. In 2007, ten prominent scientists sent a letter to President Vladimir Putin decrying increasing religiosity in Russian schools. The current controversy is an extension of this debate over the place of religion in public education and is not the first time this year such plans have been submitted to the ministry. In June, the head of the Russian Academy of Education, Lyudmila Verbitskaya, who once suggested that students study Russian Orthodoxy instead of the novels of Leo Tolstoy or Feodor Dostoyevsky, demanded the review of another Russian Orthodoxy course, though it was later shelved.
Teachers and educators weren’t exactly thrilled with the most recent proposal. Olga Sapukhina, a math and programming teacher in Moscow, wrote on her Facebook page: “What is this about? Is this even ethical? There isn’t enough time for science, discussion continues on the role of topics like astronomy and technical drawing that have been driven out of the curriculum, and we’re going to introduce Russian Orthodoxy? Is there nothing else to teach in school? Do students know everything else perfectly?”
Meanwhile, the European Gymnasium in Moscow supported the opinion of its director, Irina Bogantseva, who also spoke out against the plans in comments given to the public discussion forum “The Question.”
Bogantseva and Sapukhina are certainly not alone: a change.org petition that surfaced after news of the course plan broke now has over 100,000 signatures. The petition, entitled “Ban the teaching of ‘Foundations of Russian Orthodox Culture’ and any other subject imposing religious viewpoints on children in Russian Schools” calls on President Vladimir Putin to address the issue directly.
Education policymakers, indeed, are hesitant about religious education being mandated from above. Commenting on the prospect of compulsory religious education being extended beyond the scope of ORKSE, Vyacheslav Nikonov, the head of the State Duma’s Education Committee, underscored that decisions about deepening religious education should not be made at the federal level: “I think that, in any case, the choice to study or not study the culture of Russian Orthodoxy should lie with parents and pupils.”
After the plans were leaked, Russian Minister of Education Olga Vasilieva released a statement affirming that the course would not be mandatory after all. “In order for this option to be considered further or promoted, I stress that experts should have gotten together to discuss, that is, absentee voting on the issue is inappropriate here” she said, referring to the proposed vote on the plan that never occurred.
Inasmuch as Vasiliyeva seemed to discredit the review process for the course plan, the content of the plans themselves seemed to escape her criticism. Given her background, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Vasiliyeva's appointment to the Education Ministry raised eyebrows earlier this year when it was revealed that she has close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church (and holds controversial opinions about the legacy of Joseph Stalin). In August, the Russian Orthodox Church released a statement on its website regarding Vasiliyeva's appointment, declaring “The Lord has generously endowed you with talent, which you have successfully made use of in the many stages of your service.”
Still, the proposed course was popular with some social media users, who argued that teaching Russian Orthodoxy is important for the preservation of Russian culture.
— Сергей Баранов (@JDmOkuiUluRaA9Z) December 10, 2016
We are losing our national identity haven't you noticed? They haven't! Introducing foundations of Russian Orthodoxy in schools may be the last chance.
Freedom of religion is protected under Article 14 of the Russian constitution. While a 2008 Pew Research Center survey found that 72 percent of Russian citizens identify as Russian Orthodox, Russia is home to a significant Muslim minority—14 million people, or 10 percent of the population identifies as Muslim.
In Russia's Tatarstan Region, over 50 percent of the population is Muslim, potentially posing issues for the implementation of a mandatory course that endorses Russian Orthodoxy as a foundational part of Russian national identity. Ahmed Makhmetov, who works for the Islamic Clerical Administration in Saratov Oblast in southwestern Russia, was baffled by the news. “A schoolgirl is forbidden from wearing a headscarf because we have education of the secular type, but studying Russian Orthodoxy more deeply is normal?” he wrote on his Facebook page.