MOSCOW — On an ordinary school day in February, Maria Ushankova’s 14-year-old son came home puzzled, saying his class was given a lecture on family values. A woman, who introduced herself as “an Orthodox teacher,”…
MOSCOW — On an ordinary school day in February, Maria Ushankova’s 14-year-old son came home puzzled, saying his class was given a lecture on family values.
A woman, who introduced herself as “an Orthodox teacher,” referring to the Russian Orthodox Church, told teenagers that having relationships outside marriage is a sin, condoms don’t protect people from HIV or getting pregnant because pores in latex are large enough to let sperm and viruses through, and abortion is murder.
She handed out flyers saying that abortion turns a woman into “a sexually and economically exploited killer of her own children” and showed the kids several excerpts of a film that depicts an aborted fetus being mutilated.
“It was very unpleasant to watch and quite hard on my son,” says Ushankova, a professional doula living in Dubna, a small town north of Moscow. “I can easily imagine some teenagers being really traumatized by it. Not to mention that telling teenagers about the ineffectiveness of condoms is, well, weird at the very least.”
Ushankova complained to education officials, who acknowledged the material in question was not suitable for presenting to teenagers in schools. The officials suspended the Orthodox teacher from lecturing in Dubna.
The theme of this year’s World AIDS Day, occurring on Dec. 1, is encouraging people to know their HIV status. But as the annual day of awareness approaches its 30-year anniversary, countries such as Russia represent one of the greatest challenges global public health officials confront in nations where conservative mores and institutions, such as the Orthodox Church, represent growing barriers to educating the public.
Russia, in particular, faces an escalating HIV crisis. According to a recent WHO report, 130,000 new cases of HIV were registered in Eastern Europe. As many as 104,000 of them were registered in Russia. Russia and Ukraine together account for 75 percent of all new infections in Europe and for 92 percent in Eastern Europe.
Russia’s HIV infection rate is currently at 71.1 new infections per 100,000 people. In Ukraine, it’s 37 new infections per 100,000; in Belarus, 26.1 new infections per 100,000 people. Those figures contrast to Western Europe, with 6.4 new infections are found per 100,000 people and in Central European countries, where the rate of new infections is 3.2 per 100,000 people.
What Ushankova’s son experienced, however, is hardly an isolated case. While Russian schools don’t have sex education lessons on their curriculums, reports of Orthodox teachers and priests lecturing teenagers about sex, gender roles, birth control and abortion surface regularly.
The trend itself is hardly surprising. Since Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin as president for the third time in 2012 and, amid Moscow’s relations with the West souring, government authorities has pivoted to social conservatism and “traditional values,” and the Russian Orthodox Church has grown in power and influence.
In addition to successfully lobbying legislation for its benefit, taking over lucrative pieces of real estate, and interfering with the country’s art scene, the Church has also found its way into the school curriculum. It is now controversially trying to fill the niche of sex education, promoting abstinence and condemning contraception as useless or harmful. Meanwhile, roughly 100,000 more people a year have been diagnosed with HIV for the past three years.
Raising Awareness Faces a Conservative Backlash
The idea of talking about sex remains taboo in Russian society. According to a poll released in January 2017 by the independent Levada pollster, 33 percent of Russians don’t talk about sex to their family members, deeming it “inappropriate.”
In two-thirds of families, parents don’t discuss sex with their children, adds Boris Shapiro, professor and head of the psychology department at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences.
And neither do teachers in schools: The few attempts to introduce sex education into the curriculum in Russia over the past four decades failed.
In the mid-1980s, the prominent Soviet psychologist Irina Dubrovina developed a curriculum called “Ethics and Psychology of the Family Life,” and for several years it was taught in Soviet schools, recalls Alexander Adamsky, head of the Moscow-based Eureka Institute for Educational Policy Problems.
“Soon enough it quietly died down, having had barely any impact,” he says. “People teaching it didn’t have any special training, shied away from delicate matters or projected their own prejudices and insecurities on them.”
The idea was revisited in the late 1990s. Supported by the Education Ministry and the U.N., Russian educators and prominent psychologists started working on a sex education program for schools. Shapiro was one of them.
“At some point sociologists working on the project distributed survey forms among teachers, parents and students that featured scary words like ‘masturbation’ and ‘clitoris’,” says Shapiro, who authored several textbooks on the subject in the 1990s. “Conservative forces, together with the Church, were very vocally outraged and even filed a complaint with the federal Prosecutor’s Office. The ministry shut the project down.”
Since then any mention of sex education in school has faced backlash from conservative lawmakers and parents’ associations that advocate for what they call “traditional family values.”
Last year, activists in one of the parents’ groups — the All-Russia Parents’ Resistance — protested against the only state-backed educational initiative that addresses the issue of safe sex: a countrywide lecture on HIV prevention that took place ahead of last year’s World AIDS Day. During those lectures, children across the country were shown a short film about HIV in their classrooms and were encouraged to have discussions afterward.
Activists insisted information about sexually transmitted diseases and use of condoms is harmful to children, “molests” them and promotes unhealthy interest for sex among teenagers.
“Adults are broadcasting ideas about starting sex life early, about having sex before marriage and same-sex relations being normal as long as ‘sex is physiologically safe,'” says Anna Kulchitskaya, of the All Russia Parents’ Resistance. “And early sex life leads to more teenage pregnancies, teenagers contracting STDs, interest in studying plummeting and other problems.”
This year, lectures on HIV will be incorporated into biology, history, social studies and safety of living courses, according to Elina Zhgutova, a member of the Civic Chamber, a civil society organization that analyzes draft legislation in Russia and monitors activities of the country’s parliament.
The Church Steps In
Conservative institutions didn’t stop with opposing sex education. In October 2017 the Association of Parents’ Committees and Communities — another parents’ association promoting traditional family values and protesting against sex education in schools — proposed that the Education Ministry add a subject called “Morality of Family Life” to school curriculums.
By that time the Orthodox Church had already successfully lobbied for schools to teach a course called “Introduction to Religious Cultures and Secular Ethics,” which included six subjects to choose from: “Introduction to Orthodox Culture”, Introduction to Islamic Culture”, “Introduction to Buddhist Culture”, “Introduction to Jewish Culture”, “Secular Ethics” and a comparative analysis of all four religions.
Since 2012, children in schools across Russia have to study one of those six subjects for a year. “Introduction to Orthodox Culture” remains the most popular subject, according to church officials.
Textbooks and the program for “Morality of Family Life” were written by Nina Krygina, a Russian Orthodox nun, and Dmitry Moiseyev, a Russian Orthodox priest. In 2017 it was already being taught as an experimental, extracurricular subject in selected schools in 60 Russian regions.
The textbook teaches women to obey their husbands, condemns sex before marriage as “skullduggery” and equates abortion to murder. Contraception is mentioned in passing as something that “kills love” and breeds egoism.
In one of the chapters, authors of the textbook refer readers to an article in another book, “The Science of Virginity,” also written by a Russian Orthodox priest. It argues that women’s bodies “remember” genes of their first sex partners and replicate those genes in all future children.
The Education Ministry has not responded to a request for comment on the number of schools in which the morality curriculum is being taught now or whether it will be added to the curriculums in schools all around the country. Neither have spokespeople for the Russian Orthodox Church.
In many Russian regions, this subject — together with extracurricular lectures given by priests — is already widespread, says Anna Ozhiganova, a researcher with the Institute for Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Science who has been studying the church’s influence on education in Russia. “I wouldn’t rule out adding it to the curriculum in the future,” she says.
A recent survey by the state-backed pollster VTsIOM reflects the trend. A decisive majority of Russians — 61 percent — believe the “moral side” of sexual relationships should be the main focus of sex education, while only 30 percent believe that other aspects of sex life should be discussed at school.
As a result, Russian teenagers know little about safe sex, says Daria Rakhmaninova, a biology teacher who is organizing sex education seminars to be available on demand in some progressive Moscow schools.
“They don’t know about birth control, they don’t know about sexually transmitted diseases,” she says. “Some heard about HIV, but that’s about it.”
In the meantime, the HIV epidemic is rampant in Russia. As of May, 968,698 people were living with the diagnosis, according to Vadim Pokrovsky, head of the Moscow-based Federal Center for Fighting AIDS. Together with those who haven’t been diagnosed yet, the number is likely to be much higher — Pokrovsky estimates the figure to be around 1.3 million.
This year, the number of new infections is going to amount to 100,000. Between 53 percent and 54 percent of those new cases come from heterosexual contacts, Pokrovsky says. “In that sense, for us (HIV specialists) there is no doubt: children need to know how to protect themselves before they start having sex.”