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Teaching Christian ethics in Russian public schools: the testing of Russia's church-state boundaries.

On 5 November 1992, before a crowd of over 8,000 Christian teachers in Anaheim, California, three officials from the Russian Ministry of Education extended an unusual invitation. Speaking on behalf of the Ministry of Education, they asked these educators to join The CoMission--a group of sixty(1) evangelical Christian organizations formed to instruct Russian public school teachers how to teach Christian ethics. At a press conference afterwards, Dr. Alexander Asmolov, a deputy vice-minister in the Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation, presented the rationale behind the invitation:

While discussing the possible contacts between Russia and the United States, we usually mention the economic crisis, but this is only part of the problem. The spiritual crisis is more important. It took 40 years to take the people of Judea from the desert. For 75 years we were in the desert of communism.... This philosophy resulted in tragic things for the souls of people. Today we are discussing the new ways to the souls of people.... I want to emphasize today that Russian education is open for Christian values.(2)

When asked why a group of evangelical Protestant parachurch agencies, denominations, and colleges were chosen by the Ministry of Education to help Russia out of the communist desert, Asmolov answered, "When a person is in a waterfall and he wants to save his life, and he sees a hand extended to him for help, can he think whose hand is that? He will accept the hand which is first. The first hand was of The CoMission."(3) Not surprisingly, the willingness of the Russian Ministry of Education to accept The CoMission's helping hand made headlines around the United States.(4) It was a historical moment. A government that had persecuted Christians for over seventy years was now inviting them to train its teachers in moral education.

The event also signaled a remarkable development with regard to Russian church-state boundaries in public education. This essay explores how this unique partnership between Western Christians and Russian educators proved to be a test for Russia's attempts to find noncommunist foundations for moral education, efforts to embrace church-state separation, and willingness to accept religious and ideological pluralism. Ultimately, the partnership subverted the application of Russia's 1990 church-state law in its public schools and supported the Orthodox Church's suspicions that Russia's new religious freedom worked to the unfair advantage of Western missionaries. The Orthodox church eventually used this evidence to not only end the CoMission's partnership with the Russian Ministry of Education, but also to reestablish its own privileged place in Russian society.


Moral education had always been a vital part of education under communism. Some would argue that it received more attention in the former Soviet Union than in America. For example, in a 1970s study comparing the American and Soviet educational systems, Urie Bronfenbrenner concluded:

Probably the most important difference between Soviet and American schools is the emphasis placed in the former not only on subject matter, but equally on vospitanie, a term for which there is no exact equivalent in English; it might best be translated as "upbringing" or "character education." Vospitanie has as its stated aim the development of"Communist morality."(5)

Up until the mid-1980s, communist vospitanie, as well as an accompanying hostility to competing moral outlooks, continued to receive strong official support. For example, the new Program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union approved by the Twenty-Seventh Congress on 6 March 1986, contained the following objectives:

* Communist morality should be strengthened as progress is gradually made towards communism.

* Patriotic and internationlistic education will imbue Soviet man with love for the motherland, of the October Revolution, and with pride for the historical achievements of the first socialist state in the world.

* Atheistic education is promoted in a manner which shows a surprising sensitivity to the rights of believers.

* All manifestations of alien ideology and morality must be combated.(6)

With the downfall of communism, however, this agenda disappeared from both official pronouncements and school practice. A study of over 150 schools in Moscow discovered that, by early 1990, educators had ceased attempting to inculcate a communist worldview.(7) Anthony Jones, one of the foremost authorities on Soviet education, summarized the predicament facing Soviet educators: "The question now facing educators of course, is what should replace the old, politically based system of morality? What are to be the new sources of moral upbringing, the new values that will provide a guide to appropriate behavior?"(8) He believed, "In part it will come from the culture of the pre Soviet period, which includes a return to religion."(9)


On 9 October 1990, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics adopted the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations. The law ended more than sixty years of official religious repression and granted legal standing to religious organizations. Moreover, it allowed them to engage in religious instruction, charitable activities, and publishing endeavors.(10)

The legal changes also had important implications for moral and atheistic education in the nation's public schools. The law ended the official funding of atheistic propaganda. Furthermore, religious education was not banned which some took to mean it could be permitted.(11) Scattered reports of religious instruction in public schools had already appeared in the fall of 1989 and early 1990. These ranged from talks by Russian Orthodox priests to elective courses with tides such as "Religious Instruction" or "History of Religion" that intended to deepen children's historical, cultural understanding of religion.(12) Nonetheless, most religious education was still widely avoided or ignored. For example, in the above-mentioned study of over 150 Moscow schools, Medik found that only eighteen schools provided extracurricular activities that attempted to develop students' attitudes toward religion or atheism. In three cases, atheism was still taught. In ten schools, religious teachers gave specific religious education. In the remaining five schools, educators set forth a general overview of world religions from a "professional scientific philosophical basis."(13) For the most part, it appeared that Soviet schools had ceased imparting a communist worldview but had not offered any ideological replacements. The ideological vacuum created an opportunity for Western religious groups hoping to impart their moral and religious perspectives.


Teaching Christian ethics in former communist countries had never been the aim of the JESUS Film Project, a division of Campus Crusade for Christ. Its mission was to spread the Christian message by distributing and showing a movie about Jesus' life using the Gospel of Luke as its script. The JESUS Film Project's policy was to show the film in connection with local Christians and cooperating churches. In this way, new converts would be provided with the relationships and resources to help them grow in their new faith.

In the Soviet Union and its communist satellites, however, such a strategy made participating Christian believers vulnerable to arrest and imprisonment. Frustrated with this closed door, the leadership decided to attempt distributing and showing the film through government film agencies. In 1990, the JESUS Film Project successfully negotiated the dubbing and distribution of the film in the Soviet republic of Georgia. During the next year, the film premiered in thirteen Soviet republics and Eastern European countries between September and December of 1990.(14)

When writing the contracts, the film distributors asked the national studios producing the film to invite the cultural, religious, and Communist Party leaders to the premiers. They reasoned that, if the leaders attended, the rest of the populace would not be afraid to come. To their surprise, numerous communist officials attended the film's premiere. In what would prove the most important coup de gras for the JESUS Film Project, the minister or deputy minister of education from almost every republic and country attended. Afterwards, the highest school officials in fifteen republics and countries asked the JESUS Film Project to show the film in their public schools.(15)

To follow up the invitation to show the JESUS film in Russian public schools, Paul Eshleman, leader of the JESUS Film Project, scheduled an appointment with Russian Deputy Minister of Education, Eugene Kurkin. Before going, Eshleman was faced with a possible dilemma:

Someone said, "Well you know that if we give [the schools] a film, they will show it. And you know if they show it, some kids are going to come to Christ. And then how are those kids going to be followed-up?" And I said, "I don't know. Maybe we could lead one teacher to Christ in every school, and that teacher could follow them up." And they said, "Well, they would never let follow-up material be taught in school." And so I said, "Maybe we could develop a course on Christian ethics or something, and we could put some follow-up material in the course. And they would teach the course." And so that's where the course on Christian ethics and morality was developed ... because we needed a course that would give principles of Christianity and include some basic follow-up for new believers that could be taught in an educational environment. And I actually invented the name of the course. I wrote it on an envelope while I was flying on the plane over to Moscow. We had no course.(16)

On 24 January 1991, Eshleman met with Kurkin to discuss the matter of showing the JESUS film. Eshleman offered to give a free copy of the JESUS film video to each of the over 66,000 Russian schools and to have American teachers train Russian teachers in a course entitled Christian Ethics and Morality. Kurkin said the Ministry would consider Eshleman's proposal. Five days later, the Ministry gave the JESUS Film Project permission to try three experimental convocations in Moscow, Vologda, and Leningrad. At these convocations, the Western Christians would show the JESUS film, distribute the Christian morals and ethics curriculum, and train the teachers in its use.

The problem for Eshleman was that there was no ethics and morals curriculum, and they had never before held teacher-training convocations. To meet this challenge, a new division was created within the JESUS Film Project named the International School Project (ISP). The leaders assembled a writing team that included staff members of Campus Crusade for Christ and professors associated with Campus Crusade for Christ's seminary, the International School of Theology. As they set about writing the curriculum, the authors faced the difficulty of addressing a unique church-state dilemma.


Ministry of Education officials wanted to replace communist moral education, and they were willing to look to religious groups for help. When justifying allowing the teaching of Christian ethics, Evgeny Kurkin claimed: "Seventy years ago, we closed God out of our country, and it has caused so many problems in our society we cannot count them, ... We must put God back into our country, and we must begin with our children."(17) Olga Polykovskaya, the Russian Ministry of Education official responsible for moral education, articulated a similar need:

I was not a believer at the time the project began. After the collapse of Communism, I was interested in finding a foundation for moral education. My degree in history enabled me to understand the historical aspect of Christianity and Russia. I saw this project [the International School Project] as a way to help Russia with moral education.(18)

Like Kurkin, Polykovskaya believed that Christian ethics and morals could improve the well-being of Russian society.

Realizing this need, the leaders of the JESUS film project used a particular argument to bolster their case for adopting Christian ethics. Eshleman outlined their case:

We're the very best friend that any government in the world can have if we teach the principles of Jesus. The very best thing we can do for any country in the world is help all of their students to come to know Jesus so that they're kind and care about one another. The whole reason society breaks down is that they aren't kind and they don't care about one another. They don't care about people who are sick and dying and have AIDS and all the other things, and they are not kind to one another. Now, if we can get them to do that, they're going to save on jails; they're going to save on all the necessities for orphans that are abandoned; and they're going to save on all the money we've invested in drags and alcohol and child abuse and everything else because people care about each other and they are kind to one another. Therefore, we ought to go into every country in the world and get the government to help us, and governments ought to help us because in so doing they help themselves. And therefore everything we can possibly do in the schools we ought to do.(19)

Those who created the curriculum used this argument when presenting the rationale for the teaching of Christian ethics. In the opening page of the elementary and secondary curricula, the authors wrote: "The people who have developed this curriculum share the belief that personal spiritual convictions are the strongest and most enduring foundation upon which to build a moral society. Students who have a sound basis for ethical commitment are more likely to exhibit consistent moral behavior."(20) All the lessons communicated similar messages about how Christian morality can contribute to society's well-being.

Yet, the most important message, ISP leaders believed, centered upon the message of how an individual needs a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" in order to live a moral life. The minutes to one of ISP's early planning meetings revealed this perspective: The teachings of the holy scripture have provided an unparalleled foundation for society for nearly 2000 years. The spiritual power and strength needed to follow these principles comes from a personal commitment to God through Jesus Christ. therefore, we teach not only the scriptural principles as a code of ethics, but also the need for re-birth of the spiritual life in each individual. This gives him eternal hope for the future and access to the power of God in his everyday life. In short, we must not teach the principles of Christianity without bring gap people to Jesus as the Savior and the Lord.(21)

The tension between offering education about Christian morals and leading teachers and students toward a conversion to Christianity was clearly noticeable in the curriculum. While half the lessons touched upon ethical teaching, the others covered topics such as Jesus' incarnation, Jesus' resurrection from the dead, the "message of salvation," and how to know you are saved.(22) Kenneth Woodward wrote in Newsweek magazine:

In theory, the visiting Americans are supposed to train Russian teachers in teaching Christian ethics, not doctrine. To the Russians, this means demonstrating how the values Jesus taught, such as forgiveness, can benefit secular society. But in fact, The CoMission's teaching manuals say very little about the ethics Jesus taught: the Sermon on the Mount, for example, is ignored. Instead the manual's entire thrust is to lead students step by step toward making a "voluntary" commitment to Jesus as "Savior and Lord." In short, to act like Jesus, students must first have faith in him.(23)

Woodward overstates his point when he claims that leading one to convert to Christianity was the curricula's "entire thrust." In truth, some of the lessons solely sought to teach children about Christian ethics. Nonetheless, he recognized the fundamental tension between evangelism and education found in the curricula.

The attempt to teach not only Christian ethics but also present an evangelistic message through government-sponsored channels raised thorny church-state issues. For the Russian Ministry of Education officials, the Soviet Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations and the Law of the Russian Soviet Federate Socialist Republic on Freedom of Religion required that the curriculum and convocations be educational and not evangelistic. Russian Ministry of Education officials insisted that ISP convocations adhere to church-state law. Alexei Brudnov, Chairman of the Alternative Education Department in the Russian Republic, claimed, "At our convocations, no rites, no prayers, no cults are admitted because this is totally the sphere of church and not the sphere of education and culture."(24) He also asked the Westerners to agree that the convocations "must be inter-confessional." By this he meant:

These convocations must be open for everyone who wants to share these views and wants to bring back to life Christian roots of Russian history, who wants for their children to be involved in Christian education and Christian culture. And at these convocations no religious propaganda must be available.(25)

It was not entirely clear what might be considered religious propaganda.

In contrast to the Russian officials, Paul Eshleman had little concern about using the state to further Christian ends. In an interview four years after ISP's beginning, he claimed:

The biggest lie in the whole world today is the separation of church and state. It is absolutely the most devastating, wrong thing ever perpetrated on mankind. The very first thing we ought to do is develop our whole educational system around the Scriptures. It's the principles for how to live life. If you think you can raise children without Scriptural principles, you're doing it exactly wrong. Every educational system ought to be shot through with the Scriptures.... We need to realize that educators are in a difficult position because they don't know how to allow Christian principles to be taught and not have to give the same opportunity to people from cults and all kinds of other issues. So it puts them in a bad state. But they certainly can teach the moral teachings of Christ without turning any school into a worship center.(26)

In addition, Eshleman showed little fear about using the government to exclude other religious groups. In the same interview, he asked and answered this question himself: "Should it be open for every other religion in the world? No, I don't think it should be. That's because I'm a follower of God and His Word. And that's why I think the Bible ought to be taught in the public school system."(27).

Those writing the curriculum demonstrated greater concern about government coercion and exclusivity. Alan Scholes, a curriculum writer and professor from the International School of Theology, claimed that curriculum writers did not want to support a state-imposed Christianity. Yet, they also did not want to force American ideas of religious pluralism on Russian culture. In the end, they took a middle ground by drawing upon the principle of voluntarism.(28) Their approach is captured in an essay Scholes wrote for both curriculums entitled, "The Power of Voluntary Commitment":

One of the benefits of Christianity is that it appeals to the individual heart and conscience. When students freely choose to follow Christ, they are transformed from within in a way that surpasses the effects of any imposed ethical system. One of the dangers of teaching religious ethics in a state-supported school is that students may see it as imposed morality or enforced belief. The desire of the writers is for the curriculum to result in neither. When Christianity and Christian morality have been studied in an atmosphere where belief is optional and voluntary,, many individual lives are transformed and those individuals go on to constructively influence their society.(29)

In the remainder of the essay, Scholes encouraged teachers to follow three principles in order to safeguard the free choice of their students. He advised them to present other beliefs, encourage students to ask questions, and freely share their own viewpoints as long as they carefully label those as opinions and respect students who disagree. The question remained whether this emphasis upon voluntarism would satisfy Russian officials' concerns about church-state boundaries.


On 15 May 1991, in Perova, a suburb of Moscow, 250 Soviet teachers and principals gathered together the first ISP convocation. This convocation and the other 126 that followed contained three basic parts that attempted to balance both Christian evangelism and education. First, on each day of the four-day convocation, Christian professors presented lectures arguing for the truth of Christianity. During the first Moscow convocation, Udo Middleman, a fellow with the LaBri Fellowship and the son-in-law of Francis Schaeffer, and Ronald Nash, a former philosophy professor at the University of Western Kentucky, spoke on topics such as "A Christian View of the World," "Christianity and History," and "Christianity and a Moral Society." As the titles indicate, the lectures were not merely informative talks aimed at providing a basic knowledge of Christianity. Instead, they attempted to make a strong intellectual argument for Christianity.

Second, in conjunction with a lecture on the resurrection, ISP showed the JESUS film. During the first convocation in Moscow, Eshleman explained to the Russian educators how the topic of moral education related to the JESUS film:

It doesn't do any good to teach people to follow a system of morals and ethics if there is not motivation to follow that system. People need to do the right thing, even when no one is looking. We believe that if people make a commitment to the God of the universe, to follow His ways, they will do the right thing because they are motivated from within. This faith in God also will give them the supernatural strength to do the right thing even when it is difficult. If we are going to place this kind of faith in God, we need to know what He is like. That's why we have shown you this film on the life of Jesus. He said that He came to show what God is like. He is like Jesus.(30)

At the end of the film, teachers were given a chance to receive Christ.

Third, during the convocation, teachers were broken into administrative, secondary, and elementary groups, and at times, these groups were divided into small groups of six to twelve teachers. In these settings, Western participants (of whom usually less than 50 percent were educators) discussed interactive teaching methods such as story-telling, role-playing, and drama. Then, they applied these methods using portions of the lessons contained in the curriculum. The sample lessons covered topics such as the appeal of Jesus' moral example, forgiveness, and teaching children to pray.

An overview of the convocations' three components reveals the tension between evangelism and education. The balancing job was a difficult one, as Eshleman admitted:

We had a fine line to walk. These had to be educational conferences or they would not be co-sponsored by the Ministry of Education. We had to prepare the small group leaders to be especially sensitive in how to bring teachers to the point of commitment within this educational context. Several times in the conferences, such as after the "JESUS" film showing, it would be especially appropriate, and we wanted to take advantage of these.(31)

What ISP leaders saw as a fine balance between education and evangelism looked strongly weighted on the side of Christian persuasion.

Despite the explicit Christian apologetics, the Russian Ministry of Education granted ISP limited approval to hold additional convocations in Tallinn, Estonia (3-7 June 1991), Novgorod (12-15 November 1991), and Pushkin (19-22 November 1991). When the Soviet Union ceased to exist on 25 December 1991, the Russian Ministry of Education expressed a willingness to partner with ISP in an official joint venture. Brudnov even expressed the Russian Ministry of Education's official support in a letter to ISP which reaffirmed that the educational approach, especially when applied in voluntary supplemental classes, avoided any church-state problems:

We have chosen the right direction in the implementation of this program within the network of "additional education" which, in its socio-pedagogical essence, is public, democratic and oriented toward the development and self-actualization of personality.

That is why the program of Christian Education as an additional .curriculum does not contradict the Russian Federation Legislation on education and is welcomed by all official and professional circles of society.(32)

With an official partnership and support from officials such as Brudnov, the future work of ISP appeared to have overcome any significant church-state barriers.


Despite the new opportunities, some leaders within ISP expressed apprehension about undertaking such a massive short-term endeavor without a follow-up plan. With this need in mind, Eshleman formulated a strategy to send 150 teams of four people to each city where a convocation was held for a year. Eshleman began forging the partnership that would supply these resources on 11 October 1991 during a meeting with Paul Kennel, the president of the largest association of Christian schools in America, the Association for Christian Schools International, and Bruce Wilkinson, president of a major Bible teaching ministry, Walk Thru The Bible. Both Kienal and Wilkinson committed to helping supply additional teachers as well as a video curriculum that could be used for follow-up. At the end of the meeting, they decided to name this new partnership "The CoMission."(33)

Marketing The CoMission to American churches, parachurch organizations, and fundraisers required being explicit about their evangelistic intentions. Thus, the leadership formulated the following purpose statement:

The CoMission exists for the purpose of calling together the Body of Christ to cooperatively share resources in order to maximize the accomplishment of the Great CoMission in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) through forming strategic alliances and planting indigenous Bible studies for children, youth and adults in each of the 120,000 local public school districts throughout the former Soviet Union as well as Bulgaria, Albania, and Romania no later than December 31, 1997.(34)

The CoMission added another controversial element that would further strain its adherence to Russia's new church-state law. While ISP leaders faced the difficulty of including enough educational content to downplay its evangelistic elements, The CoMission's attempt to form small-group Bible studies for converted teachers or those considering Christianity further weakened their educational front and clearly exposed their evangelistic and church-planting intentions. An earlier version of the mission statement had explicitly indicated that The CoMission would aim to start churches. However, due to opposition from the Ministry of Education, the statement was changed. Wilkinson recalled:

Originally, [the current mission statement] was word for word what I wrote but there was one word different. Instead of the word, "Bible studies" there was the word "church," and it didn't include the word "children." The purpose was to start a local church within walking distance of everybody. And because of our arrangement with the Department of Education we backed off from that in March of '92 at the meeting at Moody, and I actually changed that purpose statement publicly. [The Department of Education didn't want?] ... the mixture of church and state. Although the Department of Education doesn't have a problem with us starting churches, they don't want to mix it into an educational venue or blend it in people's minds, so that they believe you are bringing religion to the independent, safe territory of the school.(35)

The fact that The CoMission sought to use the state-run education system to begin church-planting bothered some missions-minded evangelicals. As a result, some groups decided against joining The CoMission because they feared the limitations created by such a church-state partnership.(36)

Walter Sawatsky, a scholar of Protestantism in the former Soviet Union, also raised concerns about the lack of reflection by Western missionaries about church-state dynamics.

Most Western missions ... show minimal interest in church and state questions, the social role of Soviet Christians, or their potential contribution to economics and national education. Yet the capacity of Soviet evangelicals to respond to such issues will determine whether they will be a serious factor in Soviet society, or whether they will become increasingly irrelevant.(37)

Sawatsky's characterization could easily be applied to The CoMission leadership. As noted earlier, Eshleman showed no reservations about using government connections, resources, and power to transmit the Christian message. Other CoMission leaders such as Wilkinson and Kienel shared similar views. Both of them, for example, believed that the Establishment Clause had been misinterpreted and overzealously applied. Wilkinson shared:

You know, when the original issue of church and state surfaced in our country, the purpose of it was to keep the state out of the church. And it simply was switched around to say the church cannot influence the state. But that is so far from the wise intent of the constitution of the Bill of Rights.... It's interesting that this whole subject [of church-state separation] is not discussed in The CoMission. Outsiders discuss it, but those of us who are working in it, it's irrelevant to us. It's interesting to us.(38)

Kienel also expressed little concern about using government education institutions to further Christianity:

This country started out as a distinctly evangelical country. It really did. I think that the way it was is the way it should be. Other countries were Muslim or Hindu or something like that.... In their government schools, they don't have a pluralistic view. I really think that's the way we ought to be. I think that we ought to declare ourselves what we claim to be and what we were--that is a Christian country. I'm not sure that we ought to have a so-called pluralistic society. Because if anything goes nothing goes It just grinds to a halt I know that sounds like heresy. It's just the way it is. When one religion is regarded in the same manner as another religion, you don't have anything.(39)

The major CoMission troika (team of three) did not believe Christian missionaries should worry about corruption from using the state educational system nor were they convinced the state should show fairness to a variety of religions.

These leaders were willing to accept the limitations of such a church-state partnership because of the open door it offered. Speaking of The CoMission leaders, Eshleman remarked, "None of us believed the door of opportunity in the Soviet Union would stay open long. Therefore, we realized we'd better not quibble about policies and procedures. We'd better just get on with the task as quickly as possible."(40) Conversely, Sawatsky asked for evangelicals to reconsider their understanding of this open door and their role in the events of the former Soviet Union, especially since it might influence future missionary activity:

Much of the missionary energy now being expended in the former Soviet Union is based on the theory that in the great cosmic war between God and Satan, there is a temporary respite. Soon the door of opportunity may be closed again, hence we must get the minimal proclamation to as many as possible. Such missionaries are too busy to wonder whether their style of work might be a precipitating factor in closing doors.(41)

Sawatsky's words carried a prophetic ring to them. Nonetheless, The CoMission leaders believed God would bless their work, and thus they should move ahead despite any possible obstacles.


The CoMission received a major endorsement when Russian Ministry of Education officials agreed to an official partnership similar to that with ISP. The agreement was announced in grand fashion at an Association for Christian Schools Conference in Anaheim, California on 5 November 1992. At a national press conference, Wilkinson, the executive director, announced that The CoMission was giving an "RSVP" to the Russian Ministry of Education's invitation to train Russian educators to teach Christian ethics.

The CoMission leaders envisioned restoring Christianity to Russia. Wilkinson noted, "The second we put our foot on their territory, we're going just to try and equip them to regain the Christian heritage of that great nation."(42) Likewise, Eshleman told journalists, "We have the opportunity to give them a little bit back of their own heritage and history, to say, `This is your heritage, your Christian heritage.'"(43) When asked if it was not ironic that what they were doing in Russia is actually illegal in the United States, Wilkinson noted:

Yet it is, it's very ironic that the very issues that now are against the law in our own country [are allowed in Russia].... It is against the law to pray in school.... It is against the law to post the Ten Commandments on the walls. It's interesting isn't it that those issues which are the backbone of America in our history and our education are the very issues that the Russians who weren't allowed to pray, weren't allowed to have any [religious] morality, are now saying that flat out did not work? In fact, it is one of the reasons why it unraveled, and we are coming back to Christianity saying that is the answer. The old answer is the fight answer. It is ironic.(44)

The CoMission leaders perceived that they were undertaking in Russia what they would have liked to do in America--bring back Christianity as the basis for the country's educational system and its general cultural ethos.

The approach to religious education Asmolov described at the press conference, however, was not one that sought to recover a Christian past in the manner that The CoMission leaders understood. He shared two very different visions that sought to do justice to the, religious and moral pluralism in Russia. One part had similarities to the current American approach to religion in public education. During mandatory classes, he noted, the schools would teach about religion. Asmolov explained:

We introduced a new course, and it is called The Greatest Books of Humanity. One of these books is the Bible. But, we also have the myths and legends of ancient Greece and the Koran. In other words, students should know the history of spiritual culture. As a matter of fact, all the questions connected with religion, they are part of a greater context, the context of all human culture.(45)

Yet, Asmolov perceived problems with this approach. He observed that with this type of education, "We have a problem: How to reflect the spiritual tapestry of mankind in a handbook or textbook without an ideology."(46)

Their solution to this problem could be described as a second, more pluralistic approach. It drew from earlier types of communist moral education and the principle of volunteerism. He noted:

For the program of Christian ethics and morality we introduce a new term, a new notion which is additional education. This education is not mandatory. In Russia, we have Muslim, Christian, and Jewish schools. But the main education in Russia was and will be secular education. But there is another question. Have we the right to deprive our Children of the knowledge about God, and about Christian values? No, and once again no. That's why we have centers of spiritual pedagogy. As forms of additional non-mandatory education. To come to the center-to attend it, or not, this is the matter of [a student's] free choice.(47)

The Soviet tradition of mandatory extracurricular education focusing on the moral development of children would be replaced. Now, the state would allow voluntary religious education taught by religious adherents.(48)

What Asmolov proposed was not a recovery of Russia's Christian past. Instead, it was a combination of the contemporary American approach and an even more pluralistic perspective. Students would be taught about religion in regular classes. In supplemental education classes where the Christian morals and ethics material were taught, they could voluntarily choose the religion they wanted to learn. Any church-state problems, Asmolov believed, would be solved by the principle of volunteerism as applied to supplemental classes.


Since Russia's original Christian roots were Eastern Orthodox, ISP and The CoMission eventually sought to improve their relationships with the Orthodox Church.(49) They extended an invitation to Father Hegumen Ioann (John) Ekonometsev (Chairman of the Department of Religious Education of the Moscow Patriarchy) to attend a convocation in Riga, Latvia during 17-21 May 1993. Father Ekonometsev sent three representatives to the convocation, and they submitted a final report to him. According to ISP accounts, the priests wrote positively about their experience and recognized the teaching presented at the convocation as "non-confessional truth."(50)

These positive reviews paved the way for a series of roundtable discussions with Father Ekonometsev in the early summer of 1993. Out of these discussions came a specific commitment from Campus Crusade for Christ and ISP to support the Orthodox Church in a variety of projects. However, the plans from this meeting were not put into action because of rising Orthodox concerns over the religious freedom and privileges extended to Western Christians.

From the moment The CoMission started, ISP officials had urged that the message being given to the larger American public and the message being given to post-Soviet education officials be consistent, systematic, and formalized. Despite this advice, different messages continued to be communicated on the two continents. One Western missionary warned the Executive Committee of The CoMission in April 1993 that these mixed messages would create problems with the Orthodox Church:

As we understand it, the Ministry of Education and The CoMission have an agreement, stating that The CoMission will provide a Christian based morality and ethics curriculum and training for teachers, by teachers, within Russian school districts. On the U.S. side of the ocean, however, we all hear that it is being advertised as the largest evangelism outreach ever, that it will change the course of history, and that anyone can be a part, regardless of qualifications. The gap between these two definitions of CoMission's role in Russia is huge. If in fact CoMission and the Ministry of Education is as we understand it, then it is not unlikely that the Orthodox will use The CoMission's own advertising to support their accusations of "hidden agendas" within Protestantism. They may subsequently apply pressure to have CoMission and very possibly Protestant ministries expelled from Russia.... The point we are trying to make is this: CoMission cannot afford, for its own sake and for the sake of all Protestant ministries working in this country, to be anything other than "squeaky clean" in its representation and fulfillment of its intentions in Russia.(51)

These prophetic words would soon be fulfilled. In the summer of 1993, Father Ekonometsev joined Patriarch Aleksii II on a trip to the United States. During the visit, American Orthodox priests raised the concern to Ekonometsev that The CoMission was composed of Protestant church-planting groups that were not making full disclosure of their activities.

In August 1993, after returning to Russia, Father Ekonometsev met with ISP leaders Alexei Brudnov, Alexander Asmolov, and another deputy minister of education to discuss their relationship and his concerns. Ekonometsev's greatest complaint was that The CoMission did not fully disclose its goals of starting new churches through its Bible studies. As a result, he suggested it was attempting to bypass the Orthodox Church. The deputy ministers sought to receive new assurances from The CoMission that it was not a church-planting organization and that the fears of the Orthodox Church in this regard were ill-founded. These assurances were given by ISP and CoMission leaders. In August, The CoMission sought to encourage a spirit of partnership with the Orthodox Church by encouraging its team leaders to initiate contacts with local Orthodox priests and pursue possibilities of cooperation.

Despite this apparent reconciliation, the fate of The CoMission's partnership with the Ministry of Education still hung by a thread. New legislation restricting the religious freedom of foreign-based religious groups had made its way to Yeltsin under strong Orthodox support. Yet, other events ultimately saved Yeltsin from having to make a decision about the law. On 21 September 1993, Yeltsin dissolved the Supreme Soviet and called for a new legislature on 11-12 December. The Supreme Soviet refused to disband so Yeltsin ordered a siege of the Russian White House. During the siege, acting "President" Alexander Ruskoi signed the law. However, on 5 October, Yeltsin forces captured the Russian White House and arrested Ruskoi, which in effect nullified the revisions to the 1990 law.(52) The CoMission had been spared from potentially fatal legislation. Still, those commenting about event believed this close call should have caused ISP/CoMission leaders to reflect. Writing in The Washington Times, editorialist Larry Witham noted:

The threat of the law has stirred some soul searching among Christians who swarmed into Russia without "cultural sensitivity." The Commission [sic], a cooperative effort of Campus Crusade, the Navigators and other "parachurch" groups, entered state schools to teach evangelical faith on the pretext of support from an education minister. The minister, however, denied the endorsement. The clash has been called a misunderstanding but for Patriarch Aleksy it was deceptive and may have been the final incentive to lower the boom.(53)

Witham's understanding of the situation was distorted. The CoMission had been endorsed by the former Soviet minister of education and a deputy minister of Russian education but never by the Russian minister of education. In addition, it had been given permission to train educators to teach the curriculum in voluntary supplemental education classes and not regular classes. Nevertheless, he understood the tension well enough. The Orthodox Church felt deceived about the evangelistic and church-planting goals of ISP and The CoMission.


Ultimately, the fragile political partnership between the Russian Ministry of Education and The CoMission would be broken by Russian Orthodox opposition. In early 1995, an Orthodox priest in the city of Nizhny Novgorod learned that a CoMission member was teaching the curriculum on "Christian Ethics and Morality" at the request of a Russian teacher during regular school hours. Since the agreement with the Ministry of Education stated that CoMission team members would only work with teachers and not with students to teach the course in the voluntary after-school classes, the act was a breach of the Protocol of Intention. What further confirmed Orthodox suspicions were the CoMission documents found by the same priest that outlined the goals of The CoMission as communicated to American audiences. The documents related The CoMission's intention to send 12,000 missionaries to Russia over a five-year period to start Bible studies that would eventually form churches.(54)

A photocopy of the materials was sent by the archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church in Nizhny Novgorod to Shumacher, the speaker of the Upper House of Parliament, and Chernomyrdin, the prime minister. The material was then sent to Minister of Education Evgenii Tkachenko. The information, according to a report from ISP leaders, contained the following:

A photocopy of a document on CoMission letterhead which gave a brief history of The CoMission. It mentioned the goal of sending 12,000 CoMission members to Russia over a five year period with goal of introducing the JESUS Film and curriculum to all 120,000 schools in Russia. It also mentioned future plans for starting neighborhood Bible studies.

A photocopy of a document on ISP letterhead stating that there were plans for setting up model schools with the goals [described by the archbishop as "missionary goals"] of working with teachers, administrators, and directors within school systems, as well as examples of lesson plans.(55)

Along with these documents, the archbishop sent a letter informing the officials about the Protocol of Intention that Deputy Minister of Education Asmolov had signed. In the letter, he claimed that Russia is a monoconfessional state whose history is closely related to the Orthodox Church. Thus, the Ministry of Education should not associate with the missions organizations flourishing in Russia. The Federation Council, as representatives of the history of Russia and the legislative body, he argued, cannot give a negative response to the stand of the Russian Orthodox Church. Therefore, he requested that the ministry of education take disciplinary action against Asmolov and sever the relationship with CoMission/ISP because of the legal violation.(56)

Shumacher complied with this request and ordered that the Minister of Education take the necessary steps to stop The CoMission. On 3 February 1995, after reading the offending materials, Asmolov and Brudnov sent a letter of response to Chernomyrdin and Shumacher with the signature of the Ministry of Education. They claimed that their partnership had focused on educational goals, required presentation of the material from a historical and cultural point of view, encouraged partnership with the Department of Education and Catechism of the Moscow Patriarchy, and abided by all laws regarding the separation of church and state. However, since there had been the reported violation of Department of Supplemental Education policy by a CoMission member, they had no choice other than to suspend the protocol of intention with The CoMission.


In a religiously pluralistic society such as Russia, allowing various forms of ethics (Protestant Christianity being one) to be taught in voluntary, supplemental education classes appears quite just. In theory, each ideological or religious group could hold a supplemental education class on their particular brand of ethics. The voluntary nature of the class would preclude students from being indoctrinated into one particular ideological or religious view in a way that would violate their consciences. The Russian Ministry of Education actually envisioned this type of equal playing field among religious groups. Olga Polykovskaya claimed, "Dr. Asmolov, Deputy Minister of Education, believed that religious diversity should be allowed in education. `All flowers should be able to grow in the garden.'"(57) True to this vision, the Ministry of Education allowed Islamic and Catholic representatives to hold conferences similar to those held by ISP.(58)

The practical difficulties of ensuring an equal playing field are what caused problems in Russia. As noted above, education officials did not exclude evangelistic elements from supplemental education classes. Moreover, although The CoMission was asked to teach those Christian beliefs that were common to all Christian groups and they claimed that their curriculum adhered to this request, the reality was that the curriculum represented a distinctly Protestant approach to Christian ethics and Scripture. As a result, the Orthodox Church believed that the Ministry of Education was favoring an evangelical Protestant form of Christian education in the public schools. Yelena Speranskaya, a staff member of the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, contended that the Church's primary problem with The CoMission was this matter of fairness. She claimed:

The result of the example in Nizhny Novgorod is that the Orthodox priests were kicked out from school. So The CoMission comes, and Orthodox priests are kicked out, and the Americans start to teach. This brings out a very negative reaction from our church and from most of the population.... Maybe it wouldn't have been so bad because there is no doubt that the schools do need help and Christian education, but this is all going like a competition when Americans force out Russia priests.(59)

If religious liberty for all religious groups was to exist, the Orthodox wanted it to be fairly granted. The Orthodox Church had good reason to distrust Western missionaries who were using government schools to further their evangelistic and church planting aims without revealing this agenda.

Yet, the Orthodox leaders also wanted more than honesty and fairness. Father Vladimir Yaschenko Alexandrovich, assistant to Father Hegumen Ioann (John) Ekonometsev, the chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of Christian Education and Catechization, claimed, We can't do as Americans do, because we can't have such sects equal to our traditional Orthodox church. We need legal laws to prevent them from their activity."(60) Orthodox leaders believed the state should prohibit the access of Western missionaries to Russia in order to help the Orthodox Church recover its special place of privilege in Russian society.

This attitude proved fatal not only for The CoMission's government partnerships at the national level, but also for religious freedom in Russia. In the fall of 1997, Orthodox efforts to inhibit the work of foreign missionaries succeeded. Under the strong influence of the Orthodox Church, Yeltsin signed a new law restricting both religious liberty and foreign missionary activity. The new law requires foreign religious groups to exist in Russia fifteen years before they can publish literature or carry out their activities. It also prohibits them access to the public schools during those years.(61)

The patriarch expressed strong support for the law and noted of foreign missionaries, "I'm convinced that sects and pseudo-missionaries are driven by the wish to sow the seeds of religious enmity in Russia, rather than to educate people."(62) Beneath the patriarch's concern for religious unity, there also appeared a strong nationalistic sentiment. He claimed of the foreign religious groups: "This is a source of danger not only for the church, but also for the state, for state unity is the guarantee of the future."(63) Faith in the unity of the nation-state appeared to be an odd faith for the leader of Orthodoxy in Russia. Yet, this was the ultimate answer for the patriarch and his church. In the end, the Orthodox Church preferred to struggle against The CoMission and other Western missionaries not by the power of its ideas but by the use of government power to restrict their activity.

(1.) The CoMission would eventually consist of eighty-three participating organizations,

(2.) CoMission Press Conference, unpublished transcript, 5 November 1992, 11.

(3.) Ibid., 17.

(4.) Dennis Kelly, "New Russia Welcomes U.S. Religious Educators," USA Today, 10 November 1992, D1; and Kenneth Woodward, "Iisus Kristos Loves You: U.S. Evangelicals Put God Back in Russian Schools," Newsweek, 4 January 1993, 45.

(5.) Uric Bronfenbrenner, Two Worlds of Childhood: U.S. and U.S.S.R. (New York: Pocket Books, 1973), 26.

(6.) J. Morison, "Recent Developments in Political Education in the Soviet Union," in The Making of the Soviet Citizen, ed. George Avis (London: Crook Helm, 1987), 24-26.

(7.) I.V. Metlik, "Religion in School: Experience of a Study of the Problem," Russian Education and Society (June 1992): 80-94.

(8.) Anthony Jones, "The Educational Legacy of the Soviet Period," in Education and the New Society in Russia, ed. Anthony Jones (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1994), 13-14.

(9.) Ibid., 14.

(10.) On 25 October 1990, the Russian republic passed a law, the Law of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic on Freedom of Religion, that was even more expansive than the Soviet law. It was this law that would take effect in 1992 after the USSR and its laws were dissolved. See W. Cole Durham, Jr., Lauren B. Homer, Pieter van Dijk, and John Witte, Jr., "The Future of Religious Liberty in Russia: Report of the De Burght Conference on Pending Russian Legislation Restricting Religious Liberty," Emory International Law Review 8 (1994): 4.

(11.) The actual text of the law regarding religion and public schools was entitled Separation of School and State (Religious Organizations). It stated:
   The state system of education in the USSR is separate from the church and
   is secular in nature. Access to the various kinds and levels of education
   is granted to citizens regardless of their attitude to religion. Citizens
   may be instructed in a religious doctrine and obtain a religious education
   in the language of their choice either individually or jointly with others.
   Religious organizations that have charters (or statutes) registered in
   accordance with the established procedure have the right in accordance with
   their own enactments to set up educational establishments and groups for
   the religious education of children and adults and also to engage in
   teaching in other forms, making use of premises that they own or that are
   made available for their use for this.

See "Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religion," Journal of Church and State 33 (Winter 1991): 194.

(12.) John Dunstan, "Soviet Upbringing Under Perestroika: From Atheism to Religious Education," in Soviet Education under Perestroika, ed. John Dunstan (London: Routledge, 1992), 81-105.

(13.) Metlik, "Religion in School: Experience of a Study of the Problem," 84.

(14.) Paul Eshleman, The Touch of Jesus (Orlando, Fla.: New Life Publishers, 1995).

(15.) Ibid.

(16.) Paul Eshleman, interview with author, San Clemente, California, 30 November 1995.

(17.) Cited in Kelly, "New Russia Welcomes U.S. Religious Educators," D1.

(18.) Olga Polykovskaya, interview with John Geiger, Moscow, Russia, 12 December 1995.

(19.) Paul Eshleman, interview with author, San Clemente, California, 30 November 1995.

(20.) Paul Eshleman and Nelson Hinkson, eds., Elementary Character Development Curriculum (Laguna Niguel, Calif.: Children of the World, 1993), 1; Paul Eshleman, Nelson Hinkson, and Curt Mackey, eds., Christian Ethics and Morality: A Foundation for Society, Secondary Curriculum (Laguna Niguel, Calif.: International School Project, 1992), 1.

(21.) ISP internal memo, 10 January 1991.

(22.) See Eshleman and Hinkson, eds., Elementary Character Development Curriculum; and Eshleman, Hinkson, and Mackey, eds., Christian Ethics and Morality.

(23.) Woodward, "Iisus Kristos Loves You," 45.

(24.) Alexei Brudnov, interview with author, Anapa, Russia, 13 September 1994.

(25.) Ibid.

(26.) Paul Eshleman, interview with author, San Clemente, California, 30 November 1995.

(27.) Ibid.

(28.) Alan Scholes, "The Church/State Puzzle in the Soviet Classroom," Christianity Today, 25 November 1991, 22-23.

(29.) Eshleman and Hinkson, eds., Elementary Character Development Curriculum, 5; Eshleman, Hinkson, and Mackey, eds., Christian Ethics and Morality, 11.

(30.) Eshleman, The Touch of Jesus, 201.

(31.) Ibid., 204.

(32.) Alexei Brudnov, letter to International School Project, 4 February 1993.

(33.) Eshleman, The Touch of Jesus.

(34.) CoMission Promotional Materials, 1993.

(35.) Bruce Wilkinson, interview with author, Fort Mills, S.C., 17 January 1995.

(36.) Eshleman, The Touch of Jesus, 225.

(37.) Walter Sawatsky, "After the Glasnost Revolution: Soviet Evangelicals and Western Missions," International Bulletin of Missionary Research 16 (April 1992): 57.

(38.) Bruce Wilkinson, interview with author, Fort Mills, S.C., 17 January 1995.

(39.) Paul Kienel, interview with author, Odessa, Ukraine, 19 November 1994.

(40.) Eshleman, The Touch of Jesus, 227.

(41.) Sawatsky, "After the Glasnost Revolution: Soviet Evangelicals and Western Missions," 58-59.

(42.) CoMission Press Conference, unpublished transcript, 5 November 1992, 3.

(43.) Ibid., 5.

(44.) Ibid., 13.

(45.) Ibid., 16.

(46.) Ibid.

(47.) Ibid., 14-15.

(48.) This approach was similar to an in-school released time program that had been outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court. See McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948).

(49.) Realizing the influence of the Orthodox Church, the leaders of the ISP had sought approval from the Russian Orthodox Church for the curriculum. According to ISP material, "Initial approval was sought from the Metropolitan of Moscow in 1991. The Metropolitan had Professors Ovsyannikov and Professor Komarov at the Novadichey Monastery review our material. After two months of study, they indicated that it was suitable for use in a supplementary education environment" (ISP Promotional Material, n.d.).

(50.) CoMission Promotional Materials, n.d.

(51.) E-mail correspondence with ISP, 4 April 1993.

(52.) Elaine Springer, "Religion and Law in Russia--A Timeline," East-West Church & Ministry Report 1 (Fall 1993): 4.

(53.) Larry Witham, "Parliament's Fall Buries Restrictive Religious Law," The Washington Times, 25 September 1993, D4.

(54.) Minutes from meeting with Alexei Brudnov, Tim Petty, and Elaine Griffith, trans. Vladimir Ilukhin, 14 February 1995.

(55.) Ibid.

(56.) Ibid.

(57.) Olga Polykovskaya, interview with John Geiger, 12 December 1995.

(58.) For example, a delegation from the National Catholic Education Association was invited to visit the country to meet with educational leaders. Some of these groups, however, possessed neither the same missionary mentality of the Westerners nor the resources. See J. Lucinio, "Faith on the Loose: Russia's New Experience of Religious Freedom," Religious Education 89 (Fall 1994): 483-92.

(59.) Yelena Speranskaya, interview with author, 5 May 1995.

(60.) Father Vladimir Yaschenko Alexandrovich, interview with author, 30 June 1995.

(61.) For an English translation of the law, see "Russian Federation Federal Law: `On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations,'" Journal of Church and State 39 (Autumn 1997): 873-89.

(62.) "Russia Restricts Religion," The Christian Century, 8 October 1997, 864.

(63.) Ibid.

PERRY GLANZER (B.A., Rice University; M.A., Baylor University; Ph.D., University of Southern California) has recently completed his Ph.D. in social ethics on The CoMission. His articles have appeared in Phi Delta Kappan, Contemporary Education, Religion and Public Education, and Christian Educator's Journal. Special interests include religion and moral education, church-state relations in public schools, and religion, ethics, and education systems.
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Author:Glanzer, Perry L.
Publication:Journal of Church and State
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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