|Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society|
|The "Letter of the Ten"|
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The Substance and the Commotion Over the Matter of the Academicians
On 23 June 2007 Kentavr, the popular science supplement to Novaya Gazeta issue N? 3, published an open letter of ten RAS [Russian Academy of Sciences] academicians to V. V. Putin, President of the Russian Federation entitled "Is the ROC [Russian Orthodox Church] Policy the Consolidation or the Collapse of the Country?"*
But in September 2007 RIA Novosti reported (http://www.rian.ru/society/20070913/78603929.html):
"PUTIN IS OPPOSED TO THE MANDATORY INTRODUCTION OF RELIGIOUS COURSES IN THE SCHOOLS. RF President Vladimir Putin is convinced that the mandatory study of courses on religious topics in the schools cannot be introduced by order from above. At a session of the National Projects Council Sergey Baburin, the leader of the People's Union Party, asked the President 'to remove apprehensions in connection with the disappearance of such school courses as '"The Principles of Orthodox Culture" and "The History of World Religions". 'An appeal of the World Russian Congress has come to me', confirmed Putin, but at the same time he said that an appeal from representatives of the Russian intelligentsia had also come to him that our country is, however, secular. 'It is written in our Constitution that the Church is separate from the State. You know how I myself feel, including toward the Russian Orthodox Church, but if someone thinks that we now need to act differently, in another way, then the Constitution needs to be changed', said Putin. 'I do not think that we ought to engage in this right now', he added".
There were 53 days of Russian life between these two texts. And if one follows the course of events falling as if from a horn of plenty as reactions to the questions asked of the President of Russia by the RAN scientists then one finds an unprecedented multitude of responses, debates, articles, sociological polls, TV and radio discussions, interviews, Internet forums, and resolutions which filled the Russian information space. "An information pretext", as professionals of the information media jungles of modern-day Russia call such things, provoked such a response that it continues today. What happened? The substance of this commotion is sometimes completely empty, [such as] the commotion over whether to call it "The Letter of the Ten" or "The Letter of the Ten Academicians"?
The issue of the commotion is understandable: some simply needed to make some noise in order to be noticed the next time like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, reminding us of their existence. Others needed to again record their paranoid ideas about plots or signals from above meaning the start of some sort of fundamental changes or new smokescreens about something politically exotic. A third group needed to be disparaging, to obscure the issue, to call the academicians "Bolsheviks", "atheists", "senile Stalinists", and people "among whom a hand almost reaches out to the neck" with the word 'culture'.
It is characteristic to the highest degree that none of the opponents began to debate the substance of the issues raised by the authors of the letter. There was a lot of nitpicking about words, digressions from the subject in a desired direction, but just not a discussion of the substance.
But the substance of the letter is deep and important. It is really momentous and comes down to, is Russia to be or not to be? How is it to meet and respond to the ideological, philosophical, moral, and intellectual challenges which it encounters? The scientists raised the question with all frankness, honesty, and openness, what kind of Russia is there to be? What decisions are to be made in the fields of science, education, and culture so that the country is viable and competitive, as V. V. Putin reminds us, enlightened and preserving itself as a distinctive and advanced civilization?
The authors of the open letter are not political figures but scientists, "representatives of the intelligentsia", as V. V. Putin called them. Their overall cultural level is undoubted as is their high level of civic consciousness. They gave an assessment about what everyone can see is happening before their eyes with the rationality, deliberation, and clarity of judgment inherent to scientists. They called a spade a spade without going into subtleties and nuances of phrase but pointed out the substance of Church policy about the schools, science, and the state. The clericalization of the state is obvious and for a long time the public did not at first notice but then tried not to notice this process and its possible catastrophic consequences.
Why did the public awakened and everyone sound off about this strategic problem for the country? In some sense I am an "insider", that is, a person acquainted with the situation from the inside and I will say right away that the authors of the open letter had and have no politics, no secrets, and no "secret designs". Their social and moral reputation, their simple human responsibility, respect for the truth, and need to express it are arguments in favor of my words. I think that every honest person who is open to reason understands this. A question arose in one of our recent conversations with V. L. Ginzburg: why did the letter produce and still continues to produce a public response? Vitaly Lazarevich noted that when the authors of the letter approached large newspapers with a request for publication Rossiyskaya Gazeta simply refused to do this and Izvestiya asked for $10,000 for publication of the appeal as an advertisement. As a result it was published in a little-known supplement to Novaya Gazeta.
Analyzing the situation, we agreed that [the following] had become external factors of the effect: Firstly, several widely known Internet publications had immediately put the open letter on their websites; second, at literally the same time the newspaper Kommersant reported that Vyacheslav Glazychev, a member of the Public Chamber, had "called attention to the protection of the secular nature of the country, for now creeping clericalism is spreading (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=788941&NodesID=7)); third, at that same time Izvestiya published a Der Spiegel interview with A. N. Solzhenitsyn in which the writer, in response to the question of whether the ROC has become a state church, "an institution which had actually legitimized a Kremlin ruler as God's vicar", expressed himself with characteristic directness and dogmatism, "on the contrary, one should be surprised how in the a few years which have passed since the total subordination of the Church to the Communist government it has managed to gain a fairly independent position. Don't forget what terrible human losses the Russian Orthodox Church suffered during almost the entire 20th century. It is just getting on its feet. But the young post-Soviet government is just learning to respect the independent organism in the Church. (The "Social Doctrine" of the Russian Orthodox Church goes much further than the government's program" http://www.izvestia.ru/person/article3106464/).
cumulative effect became practically unavoidable. There turned out to be plenty of reasons for the media's interest in the letter if one adds to this that at this time our market-oriented press had nothing to print then in view of the "dead season". But nevertheless this is not the main thing. The letter responded to an issue of the day and became the drop which overflowed the cup of silence and breached the dam of indifference and apathy. The effect of the letter turned out to be quite strong, and did not die down by the start of the academic year when the issue of the relationship between science and religious education in state and municipal educational institutions arose again. And discussions on the subject of whether there is to be "religious education" and "religious science" in Russia as a secular country flared up with new force.
Those who one way or another have followed and are following the situation around "the letter of the ten academicians" cannot fail to see a number of serious changes both in the public consciousness and in the government. In my view, they are on the whole beneficial and significant. The process of public dialogue and a discussion of the issue of the role of science and religion in society are itself beneficial inasmuch as they arouse the mind, force it to think, and consciously decide for oneself to one degree or another. This makes people not only more enlightened but more responsible, that is, it instills traits which are so necessary to Russians as citizens of a great country. Undoubtedly, a reassessment of the role of the Orthodox Church in public and cultural life has occurred and continues to occur. The euphoria and hopes for a moral cleansing with the aid of the ROC (Moscow Patriarchate) has dissipated to a considerable degree, replaced by a more realistic and sober view of the activity of the clergy. It is increasingly clear that the cultural and educational level of Orthodox priests is far from meeting the expectations and assumptions which Russians have had, who were previously not at all interested in Church life in Russia. It became clear that the data about the religiosity of the population was, to put it politely, incorrect. If previously it had been said that about 80% of Russians were Orthodox then now it is found that the most religious believers (regular churchgoers) are really 6-8% and the rest, for the most part, only think that they are Orthodox Christians. Surveys conducted during discussions of the issue of religious education showed that talk about the overwhelming number of believers in Russia was greatly exaggerated**. It is noteworthy that people have stopped being afraid to admit that they are non-believers or even atheists. There has come to be more realism and less hypocrisy and conformism in questions of philosophical self-determination. The fog in these questions has begun to clear. For the first time in the post-Soviet history of Russia people have begun to think seriously about whether it was worth careening from Orthodoxy to Bolshevism and from Bolshevism to Orthodoxy. Is it possible that there are other alternatives in the realm of convictions and that our conscience is actually free?
The "letter of the 10 academicians" is a milestone in the recent history of Russian consciousness and self-awareness. It not only helped us to stop in time and think how far we have retreated from some of our achievements in the fields of culture and education, but also [helped] leaders at various levels to adopt more considered decisions about fundamental questions of educational policy. For example, before the new academic year A. Fursenko, the Minister of Science and Education, admitted that the solution to the question of teaching the history of culture and religion in the schools is left to public opinion, "and in this sense the 'letter of the academicians' has played a positive role in provoking a public reaction" (http://www.portal-slovo.ru/rus/news/10546/).
Moscow authorities also exhibited realism and rejected the notorious OPK ("Principles of Orthodox Culture"), proposing [instead] a textbook [entitled] "The History of World Religions" for classes 10 and 11 of general educational schools prepared under the editorship of Academician A. Chubar'yan. This elective course will be taught by history teachers, that is, secular people who have educational training http://www.portal-slovo.ru/rus/news/10466/). For younger students the "Moral Values" secular cognitive learning course, whose methodological educational methods were developed by the Genezis Center for Social and Psychological Adaptation***, is gaining increasing popularity within the framework of developmental programs.
The signs of positive change might multiply but a conclusion suggests itself: our chances of understanding that we live in the 21st century, a century of science, progress, democracy, and the improvement of the conditions of human existence and that we are an active part of a world community seeking harmony, peace, and prosperity, are increasing. One of the conditions of both civic harmony and Russian prosperity is to understand and act on this basis.
** For example, according to data of the Social Information Agency, "58% of St. Petersburg residents consider themselves to be believers or deeply believing people. Only 4.3% call themselves to be convinced atheists and 13% agnostic [ne ubezhdennye ateisty]. How 20% of citizens classify themselves was not specified. It was also noteworthy that there were 14% more believers among women than men and that 39% of those surveyed supported the appeal of the academicians to the President, 37% opposed it, and 23% were undecided" ((http://www.rosbalt.ru/2007/08/08/403870.html)
*** See I. V. Baranova, S. R. Gupta, and Ye. N. Figina. Nravstvennye tsennosti. Razvivayushchaya programma dlya mladshikh shkol'nikov. Metodicheskoe posobie dlya uchiteley i psikhologov [Moral Values. A Developmental Program for Young Students. A Methodological Textbook for Teachers and Psychologists]. Moscow, Genezis, 2003.
Translated by Gary Goldberg
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