According to her Constitution, Russia is a secular state. According to the 1992 law on education, state education is secular in nature. On 22 October 2002, however, Education Minister Vladimir Filippov sent to Russian regional education departments a 30-page prototype of a new curriculum subject – “The Foundations of Orthodox Culture“.
Keston News Service – 4 December 2002 – Advocates of the subject argue that it does not threaten the secularity of state education, since it is “culturological“: pupils are taught about Orthodoxy rather than the Orthodox faith itself. A 4 June 1999 Education Ministry directive clarifies “secular” as “non-ecclesiastical, civil” rather than “atheist or anti-religious,” Kseniya Chernega, a lawyer attached to the Co-ordinational Committee for Co-operation Between the Education Ministry and the Russian Orthodox Church, pointed out on the 1 December edition of the staunchly patriotic television programme Russky Dom (Russian House).
Interviewed by national daily Kommersant (“Business Man“) on 22 November, Minister Filippov additionally insisted that the introduction of “The Foundations of Orthodox Culture” was lawful since it was only being recommended to regional educational authorities, and that it would be an optional subject. Deacon Andrei Kurayev and cinema director Nikita Mikhalkov similarly stressed the optional nature of the new subject during an edition devoted to the issue of NTV’s prime-time live audience debate programme “Svoboda Slova” (Freedom of Speech) on 22 November.
In the programme’s report from Noginsk (a town 50 kilometres or 30 miles north-east of Moscow), where the subject has already been taught for four years, a reporter asked about alternative options for children from the city’s Tatar, Azeri and Vietnamese communities. While some adherents of other confessions chose to attend the lessons in Orthodox culture, replied school inspector Natalya Lisitsin, others sat supervised in a different classroom or the school library,. A secondary-school pupil also insisted that there was no compulsion to study the subject.
Without specifying the optional nature of “The Foundations of Orthodox Culture,” however, the 30- page Education Ministry document states that it is to be included in the general education curriculum at all levels for between one and two hours per week. At primary school level, it continues, the course may be integrated into core subjects, such as History or Reading, while at higher levels it may take the form of separate courses, such as Church Music or Orthodox Ethics. These may replace subjects such as Societal Knowledge, Philology or Art, it says.
The purely culturological nature of the subject as proposed by the Education Ministry document is also not explicit. In addition to Orthodox church history, art and key beliefs, the course familiarises pupils with concepts such as heresy, schism, proselytism and “destructive sects and cults“. It requires them to compare Orthodox Christian culture with the culture of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism or Islam, explain the purpose of fasting and why baptism is “conditional for a spiritual life of grace“. Pupils may also be asked to prove that traditional religions have characteristics which distinguish them from non-traditional ones, or recount the New Testament parable of the Prodigal Son “giving an Orthodox moral evaluation of the behaviour of the main characters“.
It is this allegedly culturological, rather than optional, nature of the subject which allows it to be taught within the state curriculum. Speaking to Keston News Service on 27 November, lawyer Anatoli Pchelintsev of the Moscow-based Institute of Religion and Law pointed out that, according to Article 5 of the 1997 law on religion, religious instruction may be conducted within state schools at the request of pupils’ parents or guardians and with the children’s agreement. However, the law also stipulates that such tuition must be outside the state curriculum, and by religious organisations themselves (rather than state-employed teachers). If Orthodox instruction were offered in this manner, however, it would have to be financed by the Moscow Patriarchate rather than the Russian state.
In Noginsk, “The Foundations of Orthodox Culture” is taught by state-employed teachers, who, according to Lisitsin, are admitted to classes only after they have studied for four years at the city’s Epiphany Cathedral and passed a “serious talk” with the local Orthodox dean. In a letter to Education Minister Filippov dated 21 January 1999, Patriarch Aleksi II argues for the incorporation of “religion-oriented disciplines” among compulsory state-school subjects (with an alternative provided to “parents wishing to raise their children as atheists“) since it was “in practice unrealisable” to offer them as options during time when pupils are not obliged to attend school, as the 1997 religion law prescribes.
There is some indication that “The Foundations of Orthodox Culture” enjoys broad support. While 65 per cent of the “Svoboda Slova” studio audience were opposed to the compulsory introduction of the subject in a poll taken at the beginning of the programme, the statement which drew their strongest approval (which is monitored on-screen) was when Nikita Mikhalkov described “The Foundations of Orthodox Culture” as “voluntary immunity from baseness“. With an understanding of Orthodox culture, he argued, it was possible to overcome negative information received from outside Russian national and religious culture.
Despite their applause for Mikhalkov, however, a little over half the studio audience proved in favour of the introduction into state schools of “The Foundations of Orthodox Culture” if it were at the tax payer’s expense, even if as an optional subject. The strong disapproval of those opposed to the subject – of whom many are employed in the by now traditionally secular educational sphere – suggests that it could provoke a violent backlash if widely introduced.
Government spokesman Aleksei Volin – who earlier reportedly described the 30-page Education Ministry document as “smacking of the Middle Ages and obscurantism,” insisted that religious instruction must take place outside school hours. Political scientist Vladimir Ilyushchenko maintained that “this change in the secular character of the state is fraught with Orthodoxy becoming a state religion, with discrimination against other confessions and with the increase of instability in society, of which we have quite enough already.” Rector of the Russian State Humanitarian University Yuri Afanasyev claimed that the introduction of the subject was in direct contradiction to Russia’s constitutional guarantees of freedom of the person and religious freedom.
A legal challenge to the course has already been attempted. On 18 June the “For Human Rights” movement filed suit against the “illegal and anti-constitutional” introduction into state schools of a textbook for the new subject by Alla Borodina, which has been approved by the Co-ordinational Committee for Co-operation Between the Education Ministry and the Russian Orthodox Church. According to the movement’s director, Lev Ponomarev, the book incites “national and religious hatred,” by, for example, asking pupils the following: “Why did the Jews crucify Christ? What prevented them from understanding the spiritual meaning of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven?”
According to Ponomarev, a hearing of the case at Moscow’s Ostankino District Court on 15 November was disrupted when Judge Vadim Matveyev unlawfully tried to remove one of the plaintiff’s representatives for using a dictaphone, and it is not clear when it will be resumed. Contacted by Keston on the same day, a court representative refused to confirm even whether the hearing had or had not taken place.
On the “Svoboda Slova” programme, both Aleksei Volin and Vera Aleksandrova of Moscow Municipal University suggested the introduction of a course in the history of world religions instead of “The Foundations of Orthodox Culture“. However, there is also strong disagreement on how state pupils might be taught about confessions other than Orthodoxy. On 14 November, Interfax news agency reported leading Russian Muslim Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin as saying that it was important that children be given a basic knowledge of all of Russia’s principal religions on a compulsory basis, and that Tatarstan’s experience of teaching the basics of Islam might be incorporated into similar courses throughout Russia.
In a September interview shown on “Russky Dom” on 1 December, however, Patriarch Aleksi II commented that he had repeatedly stated that “traditional religions” could offer courses similar to “The Foundations of Orthodox Culture” only in “areas of compact nhabitation of their followers“. On the same programme, Fr Maksim Kozlov of Moscow State University’s Orthodox Church of St Tatyana also commented that “other traditional religions” could introduce their own courses, “if the Jews were able to come up with a programme which did not include the concept of national exclusivity, and Muslims an Islamic history which condemned religious violence.”
On 27 November the official dealing with religious affairs in Volgograd region, Yuri Sadchenkov, maintained to Keston in Moscow that the introduction of “The Foundations of Orthodox Culture” was merely at the discussion stage, and that nothing would yet happen regarding its introduction. However, there appears to be wide discrepancy on this point in practice. While it may not currently be offered in Volgograd, the patriarch’s 1999 letter to Minister Filippov points out that the subject is already taught in schools in Kursk and Nizhny Novgorod regions.
And while the issue still remains to be resolved at federal level, at least one region appears to be going further than offering a purely culturological subject. A “Co-operation Agreement” between Krasnodar Krai’s education department and the region’s local Orthodox diocese published by Orthodox Voice of Kuban newpaper in October affirms that both signatories are to offer various forms of support to Krasnodar Krai’s state educational institutions “so that the right of each person to religious (Orthodox) education might be realised“.
Source: Keston Institute <http://www.keston.org>