‘Reflections that verge on Nazism.’ A new course devoted to ‘foundation of statehood’ is introduced in Russian universities
Алла Константинова
‘Reflections that verge on Nazism.’ A new course devoted to ‘foundation of statehood’ is introduced in Russian universities
13 September 2023, 20:10

Teaching those who teach. Photo: knowledge centre Mashuk

Starting September 1, every first-year university student is starting a compulsory course — ‘The Foundation of the Russian State.’ The course, thought up by the President’s Administration, is aimed at forming students’ view of Russia as its own civilization, therefore reconciling them with its growing international isolation. Thankfully, the officiants’ idea is unlikely to be successful: Mediazona came to this conclusion after conversations with tenured university professors and a careful study of the Ministry of Education’s guidelines for the course.

“Russia is our sprawling country, reaching every little corner, every university, every first-year student all the way from Moscow won’t be possible without your help,” Olga Petrova, the Deputy Minister of Science and Higher Education, ensures the audience in a video with a broad smile on her face. She oversees “youth politics and educational activities.” “All of this should happen calmly, comfortably for all the parties,” she adds.

That’s just one of the promotional videos by the knowledge centre Mashuk in Pyatigorsk, where in early August, as Petrova herself proudly reported, several dozen teachers from all over the country underwent “advanced training.” The Ministry of Education’s plan is to proceed as follows: after returning to their regions, the teachers will “methodologically accompany the implementation” of the new discipline “Fundamentals of Russian Statehood” (FRS), which will be compulsory in every single university beginning September 1. In total, more than six thousand teachers have been trained in this way, the official added. 

The video depicts people with lanyards excitedly discussing something in modern classrooms with projectors and electronic whiteboards. There is a pink sticker clearly visible in the shot, it reads, in handwritten cursive, “Russia is the best and strongest state in the world.”

“Russian Worldview.” What this course is about, who it’s made by and how will it be taught?

The FRS was thought up in the Kremlin after the start of Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine, independent media outlet Meduza was told in Autumn of 2022 by two sources close to the president’s office. They compared the new course to “scientific communism” that was taught in universities in Soviet Russia. The students should “understand the ideology: where Russia is headed and why,” said one of the officials.

In January of 2023 Vladimir Putin ordered the Ministry of Education to strategise and implement the course into curriculums.

By April it was revealed that the course would consist of five parts: “What is Russia,” “Russian state as a civilisation,” “Russian worldview and the civilisation’s values”, “The political system of Russia”, “The future’s challenges and the country’s development.” The course will take up 72 hours of students’ time, including 20 hours of homework besides 52 hours of lectures. “That’s 26 full [1.5 hour long] classes, 13 per term, so one class a week. A very coveted schedule,” a professor from one of Moscow’s universities tells Mediazona.

In the spring, Olga Petrova promised that the implementation of the new course “will not entail any cuts to the curriculums of philosophy and history.” Whether it will affect the hours given to other disciplines, she did not specify.

Olga Petrova, Deputy Minister of Science and Higher Education. Photo: government image

Andrey Polosin curated the project—until May of this year, he worked as director of the department of Rosatom, the state nuclear energy corporation, in charge of interaction with the regions, and then became vice-dean of the RANEPA. According to sources cited by Meduza, as a long-term comrade of Sergey Kiriyenko, Polosin received a request from the Kremlin: “to save the lost generation,” i.e. youths that don’t support the conservative views of the current regime. The concept for the new course was developed by the president’s office in tandem with the Ministry of Education, as part of a project named “Russia’s DNA.” Polosin was made the scientific leader of the project.

In the summer, the concept of the course, a 50-page PDF file, was sent out to universities. In July, Kommersant reported that none of them received a textbook to go with the course.

The concept, which was first received by major universities in the Russian regions, states that a student that has successfully finished the course should then “understand the modern Russian state and political apparatus of the country in a broad, cultural, historical way, aligning with the country’s values,” “form a skill of conceiving and articulating their political views as citizens,” and “improve skills of critical thinking and independent thought.” 

Apparently, the textbook for the course only appeared in August. Another independent media outlet, Verstka, got to know it a little better. It reports that the list of authors includes 14 people, lead by an Orthodox monk, Rodion (Larinov), who holds degrees in theology and physics. The textbook’s scientific editor is Pavel Uvarov, a 67-year-old historian who was mentioned in connection with a scandal surrounding the dissertation of former Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky. Uvarov chaired the expert council of the Higher Attestation Commission (HAC). When the council voted for the revocation of Medinsky’s academic degree in 2017, Uvarov was the only one who abstained and initially defended the official, but later changed his mind and resigned from his position.

Verstka reports that the authors of the textbook compare “Western” and Russian values. For the former they quote abortions, veganism, euthanasia, and the childfree movement, calling it “the cult of death” that leads to developing “ultraliberal ideologies” amongst Russian citizens. All of that said, the textbook claims that Russia’s war with Ukraine is nothing more than “restoration of the Russian peoples.” The textbook also takes a close look to the constitution, namely its definition of a marriage as “the union between a man and a woman” and points out that the west “normalises everything that was always considered perverse when it comes to gender identities.”

Supporters of “Western values” aim to achieve “physical immortality of humans by gradually transforming the natural human into a bio-object devoid of individual physical and sexual characteristics, spiritual and moral qualities,”  state the authors.

“By renouncing Russia, people do not cease to be Russian, and they could not possibly become someone else," Verstka quotes the manual.

Andrei Polosin, the course’s curator, assures that 80% of the country’s students will take the ORG course at the final press conference at RANEPA on August 24. In the universities where “preparation is delayed,”  a “correction” will be made in autumn. He added that the new discipline will be introduced in the second semester.

“As Polosin emphasised, the course is not based on propaganda but on teaching a system of knowledge about what a state is, how it works, what kind of relationships and interactions happen  between the state and the individual, as the normative-legal system that is currently in place presupposes,” the government news agency TASS reported from the press conference. “The main question the academic supervisor asks is in solving which state task could use participation of university students.”

Professors of history, philosophy, and political science will teach the subject to first-year students of all majors, representatives of several key universities confirmed to Mediazona, the list of which is provided at the end of the Ministry of Education and Science PDF document. But there is a looming problem — there are simply not enough teachers.

“You know, exciting first-year students is not a trivial task,” Evgeny Lukov, vice-dean for educational activities at Tomsk State University, smiles in a conversation with Mediazona. “We have three thousand first-year students! Many teachers have been trained — these are political scientists, historians, philosophers... They’ve all gathered together here… Yeah...”

According to Lukov, ORG at Tomsk University will be taught only in the first year during the first semester, as “there were no other instructions.”

Elvira Symanyuk, director of the Ural Federal University (named after Boris Yeltsin) told Mediazona that their university is responsible for training teachers from the entire Ural region.

“All teachers took an online course, and then there was an offline training stage. We have already trained three waves of specialists from the entire district, and not only from the district — teachers came to us from all over the country to study as we are a key university to the project,” Symanyuk said, overjoyed with pride. “Everyone received certificates and is ready to teach this course.”

According to her, it was not necessary to cut hours for other subjects to teach ORG at Ural University.

Putin’s grudge, bullshit, a measure to dumb down and pacify students — these are the opinions of those who would never be trusted to teach this new course

“I would call this course a measure to dumb down students, to make them docile and complacent,” argues Denis Skopin, a former philosophy lecturer at St. Petersburg State University, in a conversation with Mediazona.

“Intellectually and substantively, this course does not meet any standards of modern scientific humanistic knowledge,” the philosopher believes. “And the theory that is promoted there, the so-called civilizational approach, emerged 150 years ago and ended its existence in science a hundred years ago. People within modern humanitarian science look at this theory with nothing but irony and contempt.”

The course has a “unique conceptual base”, the students are offered to “unilaterally accept principles”, as per Yan Lyevchenko, a scholar of cultural studies and a former professor for the Higher School of Economics.

“I’d say it’s nationalistic on one hand and geared towards a civilised view on the other”, he continues. “So the idea that Russia is its own civilisation, an island country. The theory of civilisations is a worldview according to which the world consists of civilisations that are constantly battling with each other. And one of these civilisations is destined to win (even though it’s entirely unclear what the victory actually entails). One of the main points of support for the contemporary Russian ideology is a sort of grudge held against the world that ceased to be multipolar with the nullification of the socialist block. Putin’s personal grudge that spread to a worldwide stage, as it were. So that is what the civilisational method is tailored to.”

Upon getting to know the course’s programme, Lyevchenko told Mediazona that this “dreadful” document was written in “an incredibly stiff and artificial language” and intellectually focuses on the past, even though it’s full of hypotheses on the future.

“Even as I’m saying all this it’s as if I’m chewing cardboard,” the culturologist chuckles as he quotes the document: ‘Russia has got 11 time zones and 16 climate zones.’ That’s so cool! You know, it’s an indisputable, purely numerical equivalent of greatness. ‘Unprecedented territorial length.’ According to the authors of the textbook, this is an ‘astounding advantage’ of the country. It is therefore only permitted to describe it as such, not as an abuse of power issue, for example.”

The definition of an “ethno-national diversity of Russia” raises lots of questions, Lyevchenko continues. “Because it’s either ethnic — so your ancestry — or national, i.e. the identity you choose. So it’s a sort of eugenics, musings on the verge of nazism. But that shouldn’t be surprising given the circumstances.”

The scholar also notes the convoluted and overly difficult language, as if it’s constructed in a way to make sure the reader doesn’t even get the idea to try and decipher it. 

“Still, I have to say that I don’t live in some bubble, I read all this when I taught at HSE and saw with my own eyes how the situation worsened in regards to instructions,” he specifies. “They became more and more in-depth, convoluted, and the texts became more and more similar to each other. They formed a blueprint of sorts and it was really important to adhere to these guidelines. And here we”re dealing with a catechism that is offered up to be basically memorised. It’s not a coincidence that the word “lector” is thrown around so much. Okay, a lector in a higher party school was not a teacher, but specifically a lector. So he was someone that quite literally gave voice to ideas. And in Soviet times in structures that dealt with party education there were these handbooks that all the lecturers used, and if they ever strayed from the script the working people of the Soviet Union quickly reported them accordingly. They only heard one thing: a person is thinking freely and critically, and therefore they pose a danger to society as a whole.”

Both Denis Skopin and Yan Lyevchenko take a close look at the recommended literature provided in the concept of the course. The first spot on the list is reserved for “Sociocultural Economics” by Alexander Ausan, the dean of MGU's Economics Department, the second — for “Comparative Politology” by Grigory Golosov, a professor of the European University of St. Petersburg. Alongside articles by the curator of the new discipline, Polosin, and Kremlin official Alexander Kharichev, the list also includes works by the former rector of the European University and researcher of medieval republics, Oleg Kharkhordin.

“So, these are decidedly liberal, modern-thinking individuals,” says Skopin. “And for some reason, in a course with such content — unscientific and outdated — there are works by people who think completely differently, those who have absolutely no connection to the theory of civilisations that is being pushed in this course.”

Doctor of political science Grigory Golosov admitted on Facebook that he learned about the inclusion of his book in the list from an interview with sociologist Mikhail Sokolov.

“I must say that the other books included in the compulsory list are mostly credible, but I’ll speak for myself,” Golosov wrote. “Whether my book will move from the concept project stage to some next stage, I don’t know, but I would be glad if it did. Let students read this textbook rather than nonsense”.

Golosov told Mediazona that he had not read the concept and had no intention of reading the manual when it becomes available: “I don't have the time nor interest.” “I was only interested to see  if my book was mentioned there, and it turned out that it was,” Golosov explained.

Alexander Auzan told Mediazona that he “knows no more about the course than you do” and, citing his busy schedule, declined to familiarise himself with the concept.

Gleb Yarovoy, a candidate of political science and a former associate professor at Petrozavodsk State University who currently works at the University of Eastern Finland, believes that the introduction of the new course will result in personnel problems for universities, especially in the regions far removed from the capital.

“It is clear that this course is constructed in a very strange and one-sided manner,” he says. “But the main question is: who will teach it? For all these years, the state has been doing everything to reduce the number of people in social science departments and to teach this less and less. Now they want 50 teachers to magically appear overnight, ready to go and teach this course to students from morning till evening. But miracles don’t happen. If you’ve been successfully working for many years to undermine this system, then at the regional level, finding a sufficient number of teachers capable of conveying what is said there to students is practically impossible.”

In addition, Yarovoy believes that university administrations will find it difficult to control the actual content of ORG classes. “You either need to assign a FSB guy to each teacher or use some kind of surveillance,” he jokes. “Moreover, even in the years when I was teaching, there was no secret that students would report on teachers to some ’curators.’ And now, this is definitely still the case. But I’m not talking about the fact that a teacher might put this program on the shelf and go tell the students the truth. I’m just saying that some of the semantic components outlined in this program are so complex that it will require the teacher to be well-prepared. None of my former colleagues with good education, who, for various reasons, continue to work, will want to deal with this nonsense out of respect for themselves.”

Denis Skopin says that in universities, “instructors who are least competent are usually put on such courses,” and students who do not need or are not interested in ideology classes will have to be coerced into attending lectures. “And so this unnecessary course will be delegated to the least qualified people, who will take on these courses because they are not given anything else and they don’t know how to do anything else,” the philosopher sighs.

Yan Levchenko concludes that Russian universities have not been able to adopt modern, humanistic, and effective forms of higher education.

“Students spend a lot of time at the university, they simply wear out their clothes there,” he says. “Either they wander the halls, skip something, because sitting in the university for six lectures — well, it’s just ridiculous, it’s impossible. But they already spend a lot of time at the university in a completely meaningless way, like spiders in a jar. Therefore, from the administration’s point of view, if they have, for example, not six classes but seven — what’s the difference? And the student self-government will immediately vote and say how great it is that such a course has appeared. And they will also post stories on Instagram about how cool it is.”

Regarding the financing of the new course, Elvira Symanuk, the director of Ural Federal University, did not provide an answer, stating that it was “not within her competence.” “I know what grant it is, but I have no authority to speak about it,” she said and advised contacting the accounting department. The university did not respond to Mediazona’s official request for information on the funding of the new course.

As of the time of publication, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, to which Mediazona twice sent a request for information on the funding of the new course, had not provided a response.

Editor: Dmitry Tkachev

Translator: Anna-Maria Tesfaye

Support Mediazona now!

Your donations directly help us continue our work

Load more