Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Creationism in the Russian Educational Landscape

Creationism in the Russian Educational Landscape
Reviewed by
Inga Levit, Uwe Hoßfeld, Lennart Olsson

Two symbolically connected
events took place in different
parts of the world in 2007. In
the United States, Petersburg,
Kentucky, was the site of the newly
created "Creation Museum", while at
approximately the same time a federal
court in St Petersburg, Russia,
tried a case in which a school girl,
Maria Schreiber, demanded that the
ministry of education must allow an
"alternative" to evolution to be
taught in high school biology classes.
The St Petersburg case would not
deserve much attention, if it did not
reflect the tensions which have
accumulated in Russian society after
the breakdown of the USSR in 1991.

Even though most RNCSE readers
think of creationism as a North
American phenomenon, advocates
of so-called "scientific creationism"
are currently very active worldwide.
This movement was imported to
Russia after perestroika. Important
books in the American and Western
European "scientific creationism"
tradition have been translated into
Russian. In Russia, representatives of
both the Russian Orthodox Church
(ROC) and of some Protestant
churches advocate creationism,
even though both confessions
arrive at this position independently
and remain faithful to their theological
doctrines. The ROC (to which
58% of the Russian population
belongs) has no officially declared
position towards "scientific creationism".
The latter plays no significant
role in official theological discourse,
but unofficially remains a
significant part of the Orthodox theological
landscape. The ROC, of
course, has a strong centralized
organization, but Protestant denominations
have also founded creationist
centers throughout the former
Soviet Union.

The story of the St Petersburg
case began as Maria Schreiber went
to court to force the Ministry of
Education to allow an "alternative"
to evolution to be taught in high
school biology classes (Levit and
others 2006). The journal
(2006 Oct 27) reported from the
court that one issue was the textbook
used for senior high school
biology, General Biology by Sergei
Mamontov, in which the biblical
creation story was called a "myth".
Schreiber (through her lawyer
Konstantin Romanov, a remote
descendant of the last Russian Tsar,
Nikolai II) demanded an apology
from the author and from the Ministry of Education. In a comment,
Andrei Fursenko, the Russian
Minister of Education and Science,
expressed his support for the creationists
in that he welcomed the
teaching of "alternative ideas" in
school (Rosbalt, 2007 Jan 3).

The defense pointed out that
Mamontov's textbook does in fact
mention creationist concepts, such
as the ideas developed by the
French comparative anatomist
Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) in
the early nineteenth century. It
was also pointed out that the textbook
corresponds to the secular
nature of the Russian educational
system in that it does not contain
religious teachings and that a scientific
theory by its very nature
cannot hurt religious sensibilities.
Even though the court turned
down Maria Schreiber's complaint
on February 21, 2007, it is clear
that the St Petersburg case shows
many similarities to the recent lawsuits
in the US. In both countries,
creationists have attacked a secular
school system because they wanted
"alternatives" to evolution to be
taught. In both cases the courts
have prevented the integration of
biblical stories into the teaching of
science in school, and thereby
defended the secular nature of the
state school systems.

However, unlike in the US,
where criticism of evolution and
demands for "equal time" for the
biblical creation story in schools are
articulated mostly by evangelical
groups, in Russia the traditional
Orthodox Church also supported
this attack on the secular education
system. During the legal proceedings,
the plaintiff suggested a
replacement for Mamontov's textbook,
written from an "Orthodox"
creationist position by Sergej
Vertjanov (2005), in which the biblical
story is presented as an alternative
to evolution. And this is just
one of a number of "Orthodox" and
non-Orthodox creationist textbooks
currently on the market in
Russia. His Holiness Alexij II,
Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia,
recently stated in a lecture in the
Kremlin: "Those who want to
believe that they are descended
from apes, should do so, but they
should not force their opinion
upon others" (Die, 2007
Feb 6).


The publication of creationist literature
in Russia was pioneered by
Protestant churches, which serve
only about 2% of the Russian population.
In the 1990s translations of
several creationist biology textbooks
appeared. The publishing
house The Protestant alone has
translated books by European and
American creationists (for example,
Gish, Ham, Snelling, Wieland,
Morris, Clark, Junker, and Scherer).
Most of the books achieve copy
runs of about 10 000, which is a
lot by Russian standards.

One of the non-Orthodox creationist
textbooks published was a
translation of a "critical textbook
of evolution" originally written in
German by Reinhard Junker and
Siegfried Scherer (1997; see
Kutschera's "The basic types of
life", RNCSE 2006 Jul/Aug; 26 [4]:
31–6). This book repeats some
statements from "ordinary" textbooks
of evolution, but at the same
time calls into question the major
claims of modern evolutionary theory.
For example, it repeats the creationist
conception that microevolution
and macroevolution are separate,
unrelated processes and that
even the most primitive living
organisms are so complex that
they cannot have evolved by random
mutations and natural selection.
At the same time, this book, as
is characteristic of the works by
the "intelligent design" movement
targeted at the general public, contains
no direct appeals to confessionally
determined statements:
although the reader is given the
impression that science is impotent
and incomplete without religious
beliefs, specific appeals to
particular religious doctrines are
difficult to pinpoint.

By contrast, the Orthodox creationist
writers, who became
active in the second half of the
1990s, have chosen another tactic.
They very clearly articulate positions
in keeping with Orthodox
theology. One of the early attempts
to present an Orthodox view on
school biology was articulated, for
example, by Father Timofej Alferov,
whose book bylines simply read
"Father Timofej" (Alferov 1996,
1998a, 1998b).

The books were strongly criticized
by scientists (for example,
Eskov 2000; Borisov 2001; Surdin
2001). In addition to pointing out
that the books spread religious ideology
in the guise of a science text,
the critics also identified many factual
errors in the textbooks. This is
not surprising, since Alferov, who
holds a diploma in thermal physics
(in addition to his theological credentials),
clearly writes about biological
issues from outside his field
of competence.

Vertjanov's textbook (2005),
presented during the Schreiber
proceedings, illustrates the newest
generation of creationist textbooks
in Russia. The book concentrates
exclusively on biology, is well illustrated,
and combines "Orthodox"
interpretations with quite traditional
biological passages. The structure
of the textbook copies the structure
of secular textbooks and corresponds
to Russian educational
standards. The difference between
"Orthodox" and secular views
becomes evident only in the final
sentences of each chapter, where
one can read, for example, "[the]
wonderful properties of the DNA
should induce us to think about the
Creator" or "biocoenoses [ecosystems]
present harmonic systems of
organisms, where certain species
and communities cooperate wonderfully
with the others demonstrating
the wholeness and interconnectedness
of the blessed world" (Vertjanov 2005: 301). The
textbook also includes a supplement
with quotations from the
Holy Fathers, which can be related
to biological problems.

The most outright creationist part
of the book is found in chapter 4,
which is devoted to the origin of life
and includes a section entitled "The
Hypothesis of Evolution and the
Creation of the World". As in other
creationist books, the author argues
that there are no "transitional forms"
in the fossil record and that there is a
"plan of creation" that determines
the real course of "evolution". The
intention of the chapter is evidently
to discredit the theory of evolution
and the "materialistic worldview"
using both theological and "scientific"
arguments. "There are a few qualified
biologists who are still convinced
of the evolutionary-materialist
version of the origin of life"
(Vertjanov 2005: 198). Just like his
American and European colleagues, Vertjanov argues that the earth was
created in six days. Summarizing the
ages of all 23 generations from Adam
to Joseph, he concludes that the
earth is about 7500 years old. The
author also claims, without showing
any evidence, that "contemporary science
slowly comes to the acceptation
of every word of the Holy Bible" (2005: 224).

Like his colleagues from the
American Creation Museum,
Vertjanov also claims that dinosaurs
co-existed with ancient humans.
Vertjanov also contributes to the
"scientific" description of the world
before the Fall when he reconstructs
the food chains in Paradise.
One of his ideas is that mosquitoes
before the Fall obtained necessary
hemoglobin from plants (instead of
animals), which "should have been
very rich in it". Although
Vertjanov's textbook was not recommended
by the Ministry of
Education, it is used both in private
schools and in some state schools.
For example, it is used in Moscow
in the private grammar schools
Jasenevo and Saburovo and, as an
experiment, in State School Nr 262
(Zheleznjak 2005).

It is notable that Vertjanov's
textbook was subject to criticism
not only by scientists (Mamontov
2005) but also by some Orthodox
theologians. At present, conflicting
positions regarding evolution
seem to exist within the ROC. So-called
"Orthodox creationists"
reject the theory of evolution completely
based on theological and
pseudoscientific arguments. The
"Orthodox evolutionists" interpret
evolution as the continuation of
divine creation. The transition from
the lifeless to the living world and
from animal to human are interpreted
as acts of direct divine creation
(Levit 2003, 2006). Even
though neither of these schools of
thought actually welcomes
Darwinism and the theory of natural
selection, the difference is that
"evolutionists" do not reject evolution,
but give it another (partly theological)
explanation that would
be comparable to the position of
many "theistic evolutionists" in the
US. The radicals, like Vertjanov,
deny the very fact of evolution.


The first author interviewed the
archpriest AV Skripkin, who represented
the Orthodox Church during
the Maria Schreiber proceedings
in St Petersburg, to learn more
about the position of the Church
towards creationism in schools.
The archpriest is generally very
positive towards the initiative of
the schoolgirl and her lawyers. In
his view Darwinism is a kind of
pseudoscientific mythology. It is
responsible for the positivism and
progressivism in the modern
worldview and therefore also for
the anti-human catastrophes of the
twentieth century. The problem of
Darwinism is not a scientific issue,
Skripkin continued, it is a worldview.
The choice between creationism
and Darwinism is the
choice between "divine humanity"
and "human animality".

At the same time, Skripkin
emphasizes that the Bible never
has been, and never will be, a
chemistry textbook. There must be
a borderline between science and
religion and each should do its job.
Skripkin, however, welcomes
Vertjanov's textbook and maintains
that this textbook can be
used not only in Orthodox but also
in state grammar schools. It is his
personal view, Skripkin stressed,
because the Church has no ultimate
doctrine about this issue.

Skripkin, along with many other
Orthodox leaders, wants a high
profile of Orthodox religiosity in
all schools. In addition to trying to
squeeze religious beliefs into the
biology classes, the Orthodox
Church also tries to make religious
teaching compulsory in state
schools. The most debated issue in
this respect is whether to introduce
a new course, "The Basics of
the Orthodox Culture", in Russian
schools. In 2002 the federal
Ministry of Education published a
letter to the education departments
of the local governments
with recommendations on how to
establish the new optional course
"The Basics of the Orthodox
Culture" (Ministry of Education
2002). The course should be taught
at all stages of the school system
(from elementary to high school)
and include issues such as "The
Orthodox worldview", "The
Orthodox way of life", "God and
Creation", "The Natural and
Supernatural Worlds", and so on.
Proposed test questions include,
for example, "What did God create
first?" Although this course caused
sharp debates in Russian society, it
was established in many schools.
For example, in 2003, 70% of the
schools in the Belgorod region
already had the new course in
their curricula.

As a reaction to the growing
clerical influence on education,
ten Full Members of the Russian
Academy of Science — including
two Nobel Prize winners (Vitaly
Ginzburg and Zhores Alferov) —
published a letter to President
Vladimir Putin that warned against
making "The Basics of the
Orthodox Culture" a compulsory
element of federal education programs
(BBC Russian Service 2007).
The academicians not only argued
that theology is mixed with science,
but also pointed out that
making such a course compulsory
in a multi-confessional country
would lead to ethnic tensions.

Indeed, Orthodox creationism
in all its forms is confronted not
only by atheist movements and scientists,
but also by the Muslim
communities. Thus Nafigullah
Ashirov, chairman of the Moslem
Board for the Asian part of Russia,
criticized the plans of the
Orthodox Church sharply, arguing
that it could lead to ethnic conflicts
as well.


Our overview of the modern
Russian educational landscape
reveals several trends relevant to
the understanding of creationist
movements in modern societies
based on science and technology.
We distinguish two major types of
creationism, which we conditionally
label "scientific creationism" and
"clerical creationism". The ordinary
"clerical" creationism assumes
that the entire world and its biological
diversity is a result of supernatural
activity and thus makes any
discussion of natural causes meaningless.
"Scientific creationism", in
contrast, tries to incorporate religious
elements into scientific theories
as an auxiliary but unavoidable
element of explanation. It is characteristic
of this kind of proposals
that they include elements
immune to any kind of scrutiny or
criticism. "Scientific creationism" in Russia attempts to act in a "confession-neutral" manner as, for example,
the adherents of the ID movement
do. It is, however, common
for authors to propagate a particular
religious view in educational
texts. The purpose of "scientific
creationists" is to "infect" the reader
implicitly with the idea that science
is helpless when faced with
the "ultimate questions" related to
the meaning and purpose of life
and our existence. Biology, they
want to prove, is even incapable of
explaining biological evolution,
that is, of fulfilling its most fundamental purpose.

"Scientific creationism" initially
came to Russia in the form of translated
texts by Western Protestant
creationists and members of the ID
movement. Because the most
important creationist arguments
are of a universal anti-scientific
nature, they are easily converted
into any cultural context and were
able therefore to influence the
Orthodox creationists, who saw
them as useful in their doctrinal
attack on secular education. They
can nevertheless be seen as a part
of the international creationist
movement and their arguments are
directed towards the broadest possible

Encouraged by the successes of
the "scientific creationists" and by
the growing influence of the
Orthodox Church in Russia, the
ordinary "clerical creationists" also
strengthened their efforts to give
Russian education clear confessional
colors, thereby changing the
educational landscape. The "clerical
creationists" apply a different
strategy than the "scientific creationists"
consisting of two parallel
tactics. The first tactic is trying to
make religious education with an
Orthodox bias part of the compulsory
curriculum. The course "The
Basics of the Orthodox Culture"
for ordinary schools is an example
of this tactic. The second tactic is
intervention into areas of science
important for shaping the worldview
of modern man. The production
of new "Orthodox" science
textbooks and participation in the
Maria Schreiber trial are examples
of this second tactic.

Thus to a certain extent the
strategies of the "scientific creationists"
and the "clerical creationists"
do not contradict each other
and can co-exist peacefully in the
same educational context as long
as they face a common enemy: evolution.
Both in Europe and in North
America, it is biology — and particularly
evolution — that is the primary
target of creationism. Since
the creation story takes up only a
few pages of the Bible, and the rest
is the history of the "holy people",
one might therefore expect that
the main attack would be against
secular historical education, not
against one of the natural sciences.
But the crucial role biology, and
especially evolutionary theory,
plays as part of the modern scientific
worldview has made it into an
arena for major educational battles. This is the case in Russia much as it
is in the rest of the world. As long
as schools teach evolution as a fundamental
theme in biology, religious
anti-evolutionists will join
together as allies in the battle to
remove or neutralize it — even
when these allies are themselves
deeply divided over religious doctrine
and theology. Even though the
short-term goal of removing evolution
causes the coalition to deemphasize
the longer-term sectarian
objectives, they are simmering
just below the surface and present
a clear and present danger to the
nature of public education in
Russia just as they do in other parts
of the world.

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