President Medvedev has approved experiments with courses about Russia’s “traditional” confessions; Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, as well as “secular ethics” in 18 regions of the Russian Federation.
Effectively, this means that he has started the process of legalization of civil initiatives, which have begun as early as 1999, writes Joera Mulders in Russia: Other Points of View.
The main push for “confessional” courses has come out of the Russian-Orthodox community and has been advocated by the Moscow Patriarchate. It was 2006 before the regional administrations in Tatarstan and Chuvasia ordered the authoring of “their” textbooks about “Muslim culture”.
Seven regions in 2006 actively promoted Russian Orthodoxy. In such cases 50% to 90% of the schools teach such courses. In eight other regions the infrastructure was being created to prepare teachers for give such a course.
Today, three years later, I cannot but conclude that when it comes to the Russian-Orthodox courses the so called experiments are very much the legalization of ongoing practice.
The inability to find a compromise on the federal level between the Russian-Orthodox community, its Patriarchate and several predominantly Russian-Orthodox regions on the one hand, and the supporters of a multi-confessional course and a secular state in the sense of an a-religious state on the other, created a deadlock that lasted for years. In the meantime the experiments gathered pace.
In 2006, it was hard to imagine that a Russian president would take sides. The prevailing trend at the time was one of nationalization, forging one national identity and keeping multinational Russia together.
Not being able to decide what Russia was; a secular state or a predominantly Russian-Orthodox state with Islamic and Buddhist enclaves, the Ministry of Education acted as being paralyzed. Putin kept silent.
Medvedev’s sudden decisiveness is extremely interesting for several reasons:
(1) He has redefined the secular state as a multi-confessional state in which “secular ethics” is also seen as a confession.
(2) He has chosen a policy of free choice. Yes, this free choice will take place at the school or even regional administration level and will have little regard for families who adhere a different faith than one of the “traditional” confessions of the Russian Federation. Nevertheless, he chooses to empower, not to dictate.
(3) This policy of free choice will result in a deepening of cultural fault lines. In some regions the majority of the schools will teach courses in Russian-Orthodox education. In others a similar percentage will teach courses about Islam or Buddhism.
(4) Especially point 3 means that the president must believe that Russia has other unifying conditions to offer to its citizens than common traditions.
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