Volume: 7, Issue: 3


Education Reforms and Civic Identity Construction in Russia
Рапопорт, Анатолий [about]

KEYWORDS: Russia, civic education, democratic development, identity, patriotism, clericalization of education, history teaching.

ABSTRACT: After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, one of the most important tasks of education, civic education in particular, has been a construction of a new civic identity of Russian citizens. This paper analyzes how the recent tendencies in Russia’s education reforms and general political discourses impact the construction and development of a new civic identity. It concludes that the identity construction in Russia is determined by officially controlled ideological paradigms that are divorced from initially stated goals of citizenship education and shift in response to internal and external challenges, both real and imaginary.


Anthropologists and sociologists know that constructing a new civic identity is a complex phenomenon that requires a certain level of consensus about at least the most basic cultural, social, and ideological norms in the society. The convoluted process becomes even thornier if it is complicated by almost concurrent efforts to develop strong ethnic and cultural identity within a dominant ethnic group in a multi-ethic, multicultural society. This is exactly what has been going on in Russia for the last decade. The vector of civic identity construction that potentially leads to a more unified society and the vector of ethnic identity construction that leads to fragmentation of a society have brought Russia to a dangerous crossroads. In a free democratic society such complex problems would become the focus of an active national dialogue. In an authoritarian society that Russia has gradually become, problems are addressed in an authoritarian manner – there is only one correct solution and it always comes from the top leadership.

The purposes of this paper are a) to analyze dominant tendencies in Russia’s education that influence the development of civic identity, b) to discuss specific themes and discourses, used in constructing civic identity in Russia, and c) to demonstrate that identity construction has been determined by ideological paradigms that reflectively shifted in response to new internal and external challenges, both real and imaginary.

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, several challenges, namely globalization, nation-building, and new identity construction, have produced a serious impact on education reforms in the Russian Federation. With the reemergence of an independent Russia, a new state, ideologically and politically, emerged and distanced itself from the former Soviet Union by claiming to be a new republic adherent to democratic development. The major goal of the civic education reform was “preparation of citizens to live in a democratic state in a civil society. Citizens should possess knowledge and skills, as well as the system of democratic values and be ready to participate in the life of society” (On Civic Education, 2003). However, nation-building and identity construction were among major governmental political concerns, dictating the context, conditions, and priorities of education reforms that were launched immediately after 1991, particularly, in civic education.

Contemporary Russia inherited the problem of identity from the Soviet Union.  One of the major tasks of the Soviet regime was to create a so-called new person that would meet very specific criteria that were listed in the Code of the Builder of Communism. Although the Soviet ideologues recognized ethnic and cultural groups that lived in the Soviet Union, the ultimate goal was to create a new nation whose members would meet utopian Code requirements and identify themselves as Soviet people. Due to a terminological confusion, reluctance to use traditional concepts, and lack of a better term, the official Soviet ideologues created a special term and announced that a new historic community, the Soviet people, had been formed. The Soviet system was ambivalent about identity construction, both ethnic and civic. In search to balance nationalism and internationalism, the Soviet official ideology did not support full-scale ethnic identity processes justly fearing their further development into nationalistic separatist actions.  Ethnic or national identity discourses were limited, subdued, and heavily controlled. On the other hand, the development of civic identity in the Soviet Union encountered a lot of obstacles and was much less successful than the government and ideologues expected: very few agreed to identify themselves as Soviet. When in 1972 Leonid Brezhnev bombastically declared that a new ethno-political community Soviet people was created, it was perceived by the majority of the population, Russian and non-Russian alike, as usual official propaganda, produced in abundance in Brezhnev-era Soviet Union. The term Soviet, as a civic identifier, obviously existed and was frequently used in the Soviet Union; however, it almost never substituted an ethnic self-identifier of Russians or representatives of any other ethnic groups. 

As a result, the citizens of the newly appeared state had a very weak sense of civic identity.  The first and only Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, for example, was blamed not only for the destruction of the Soviet Union but also for allowing to destroy a myth of powerful, indestructible, peace-loving, caring, and just Soviet Union and its citizens that had been carefully crafted by communist ideologues for decades.

Since the early 2000s the identity construction discourse has been dominated by three major themes: traditionalism, Orthodoxy, and patriotism. Although these three themes sometimes create their own narratives, their conceptual, contextual, and semantic similarity generates a very specific environment that by its own nature rejects any elements of critical thinking. In what follows I will address each factor and how they manifest themselves in Russia’s education policies.

Three Factors

During its short post-Soviet history since 1991, Russia witnessed two competing curricular models, namely liberal and traditional, which followed one another, and mirrored two distinct social and economic developmental models during the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century. Both models are Russia’s response to major challenges that I have mentioned earlier: globalization, nation building, and construction of the new identity. The choices are highly reflective and demonstrative of the type of citizens that the ruling elite intended to educate. Due to specific features of the contemporary political system and the state of democratic development in the Russian Federation, it seems problematic to argue that curricular reforms, including those in civic education, are dictated by the needs of society. Rather, the changes in civic education in the last decade seem to have been determined by ideological intents. This, in a broader perspective, once again, poses a question of the role of schooling and curricula in social and political reforms, particularly at the most decisive moments of a nation’s history.  Thus, civic education that is particularly susceptible to even miniscule shifts in ideological and political paradigms, found itself at the very intersection of organic needs of society and individual political ambitions.

Patriotism and patriotic education. The first factor that evidences that the official educational policy in Russia is drifting away from initial democratic reforms started in 1992 is intensification of patriotic education or rather utilizing the mobilization effect of patriotism and militaristic elements in education. The ubiquitous patriotic campaign supported by several national programs together with numerous local educational programs in Russia’s regions, presents one of the most intensive patriotic education campaigns in the national history. The heightened official attention to patriotic education starkly contrasts with the more liberal model of civic education of the 1990s. Observers noted that the education reform of the early 1990s to humanize, democratize, and decentralize schools in Russia, drastically changed its direction, and the new model aims at the promotion and restoration of some of the Soviet features, including “centralized control, curricular rigidity and political-ideological functions” (Karpov  & Lisovskaya, 2005, p. 23). They argue that restoration of military education and focus on patriotic education are vivid signs of stylistic re-Sovietization.

The official institutionalized approach to patriotism and patriotic education is best presented in the Conception of Patriotic Education of the Citizens of Russian Federation, adopted by the government in 2003 (Kontseptsiya, 2003) and in three consecutive state programs Patriotic Education of Citizens of the Russian Federation, each of which followed one another and spanned over a five-year period (2001-2005, 2006-2010, and 2011-2015)(Gosudarstvennaya programma, 2001; 2005; 2010).  The Conception that claims to “reflect the whole complex of officially acknowledged ideas” about patriotic education, unequivocally defines patriotism as “love to one’s Motherland, commitment to one’s Fatherland, strong desire to serve its interests, and readiness to defend it, even if it requires self-sacrifice” (p. 2). According to the Conception, patriotism is a specific type of self-realization and social behavior of citizens that are determined by the protection of the unity and sovereignty of Russia, its national security, stable development, duty, and responsibility. By the latter the authors understand the priority of public and state interests over individual and personal interests. The specific features of patriotism in Russia identified by the Conception – togetherness, integrality, obedience to the laws, need of collectiveness – remarkably resonate with basic principles of the famous Russian triad of Autocracy, Orthodoxy, Nationality that constituted the quintessence of the policy of State Patriotism in the second quarter of the 19th century during the reign of Nicolas I. In general, the emphasis on the overall subordination to the state interests at the expense of individual interests is idiosyncratic to the concept of patriotism as well as the idea of patriotic education, which is interpreted as a “set of systematic and goal-oriented activities of state bodies and institutions as well as public organizations aimed at forming and inculcating in citizens heightened patriotic consciousness.., readiness to carry out one’s civic duty, and constitutional obligations to defend the interests of the Motherland” (2003, p. 4). The Concept, as well as three past Programs for Patriotic Education together with the fourth such program that is currently being developed specifically accentuate a military component in patriotic education declaring military education an inseparable part of patriotic education. It is symptomatic that the Concept, which is presented as a traditionalist type of narrative that internalizes uncritical loyalty to the nation and the state, still twice mentions “civil society” as one of beneficiaries of proper patriotic education outcomes. Although the text does not clarify how the development of civil society can benefit from hyper-centralized and ideologically conservative system of patriotic education, the very reference to it is indicative of possible shifts, however insignificant they might be, in the rationale of value-related education among the traditionalists in Russia.

It is difficult to definitely assess the effectiveness of the now more than 15–year long government campaign to instill or intensify patriotic sentiments. Anecdotal evidence and general accounts in state-run or government-dependent media present a picture of triumphal success. However, some studies conducted in “pre-Crimea” Russia demonstrate a much more ambiguous and nuanced results of the patriotic campaigns.  (Bykov, 2010;  Milyukova & Vinokurova, 2007; Ovchinnikova & Ulyanova, 2010; Sinyagina, 2011; Tsylev & Mulina, 2010). According to the Levada Statistics Center (Public Opinion, 2015), the number of those who were definitely proud of Russia decreased from 27% in 2007 to 13% in 2013. The number of those who were definitely proud of living in Russia decreased from 54% in 2007 to 28% in 2013.

Clericalization of society and schools. Another factor that demonstrates a dramatic shift in democratic reforms in Russia and the attempt to impact civic identity is the intensification of debates about the role of religious education and introduction of religious curriculum in public schools. The most critical step so far has been the launching of a course Foundations of Religious Culture and Secular Ethics. This 51-hour course is now part of a national curriculum. 34 hours of the course are taught in the last quarter of Grade 4 (April, May); the remaining 17 hours are taught in the first quarter of Grade 5 (September, October). The course consists of six modules: (a) Foundations of Orthodox Culture, (b) Foundations of Islamic Culture, (c) Foundations of Buddhist Culture, (d) Foundations of Jewish Culture, (e) Foundations of World Religious Cultures, and (f) Foundations of Secular Ethics. This is a required course but students are free to choose which module they want to take. The choice of religions is determined by the concept of so called “Russia’s traditional religions.” Although the course is supposed to be about cultures, each religious module mostly covers topics of religious doctrine introduced through cultural artifacts.

Debates about the role and place of religious education in contemporary Russia is an example of the many challenges that Russia’s education has faced since the demise of Communist ideology and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, religious education was limited to three official institutions: Moscow and Leningrad Academies (also included seminaries) and Odessa seminary. Recruitment, curricula, and the whole education process in those institutions were under constant control of the government. The revival of religious education began in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Russia is a secular state. Article 14 of the Constitution clearly indicates that Church is separated from the State and no religion can be established as state religion or to be mandatory.  It should be noted that the most active in promoting the idea of religious education in public schools is Orthodox Church. Other religious denominations never officially insisted on this.

The first attempts to teach Orthodox doctrine in public schools was made in 1992 when the Church initiated catechism lessons in schools (Basil, 2007; Glanzer & Petrenko, 2007). This move faced a strong opposition from both general public and state authorities (Mitrokhin, n/d).  In 1992 the law On Education recognized the right of all churches to teach religion within their institutional structures and in private circumstances, but it established the secular character of education in government and municipal schools. The more conservative law of 1997 On the Freedom of Conscience was the first legislation to address the question of religious instruction in public schools. The new law allowed religious organizations to teach in public schools under the condition that their courses were taught outside the framework of school official curriculum and were strictly voluntary. Priests appeared in schools again. They conducted various religion-based classes using school premises as extracurricular activities. However, the second attempt to bring religious instruction to public schools failed too.  Although some dioceses reported growing number of students at extracurricular classes, the analysis demonstrated that most of these numbers were unreliable and the initial interest of some parents gradually faded out (Mitrokhin, n/d).  The failure of this second attempt was primarily due to two reasons: (a) most parents expected such classes to be more of general knowledge about religion, rather than catechization and (b) the number of qualified instructors to properly teach religion-based classes was catastrophically small.

The situation changed dramatically in 2002 when it became clear that the whole ideological paradigm was turning in more conservative state-centered anti liberal direction.  The one of the first signs of such turn was the support of religious courses in public schools from officials of Ministry of Education and Science (Basil, 2007). Although the signs of support were vague and ambiguous, they were indicative of serious changes in the attitudes of the state to education reforms in Russia.

There are three basic claims advanced in the support of the introduction of religious education, particularly Orthodoxy, in public schools. First, religion is seen as a primary remedy for all evils of society.  A collective term “social problems” in Russian political rhetoric includes crimes, alcoholism, narcotics, homelessness, and family violence, to name a few. Recent political tradition refers these social problems to the late 1980s and 1990s, or in other words, to the Perestroika years and the first decade of Russia’s independence.  Regular religious education, as its proponents declare, will help to explain to young people the level of immorality and sinfulness of such behaviors and reverse the trend. Besides the fact that there is no evidence that religious education in public schools significantly reduces social problems, this claim seems simply illogical. The burgeoning of religious education in Russia started exactly in late 1980s and 1990s, the very time that many also relate to the exacerbation of social problems. Paradoxically, many politicians and religious educators when speaking about the outburst of negative social phenomena in the last years of the Soviet Union and the first decade of Russia’s independence, literally compare it to the previous years, which were the years of complete control of the Communist Party and criminal prosecution for any religious education outside of the aforementioned religious schools allowed by the government. 

Second, the proponents of religion education in public school argue that religion should fill in an ideological vacuum to substitute perished Communist ideology that dominated or at least was supposed to dominate in public consciousness during the Soviet time. Attempts to find an appropriate substitute for Communist ideology started in early and mid-1990s. Specific interest in patriotism and other national values awoke in Russia after Boris Yeltsin, the first Russian president, summoned a committee to develop the national idea of Russia. Despite the obviously bureaucratic approach, that step, belated and faltering as some think (Blum, 2006) or even futile and illusionary as other predicted (Torosyan, 2004), revived a significant attention to the problem of patriotism.

Third, religious education in public schools is necessary, its supporters say, because Orthodox Christianity is a part of Russian identity. One cannot be Russian, they say, if he or she is not a faithful Orthodox believer.  This argument is based on the belief that one of the pillars of Russian nation is Orthodox Christianity borrowed by early Russian princes from Byzantium.

Engaging in “history wars.” The third factor that plays an important role in the development of both civic and ethnic identities in Russia, is the policy to adhere to the official interpretation of historical events, particularly those related to histories of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, post-Soviet Russia and its neighbors. The term nation-building presents an interesting example of a syntactic dichotomy: on the one hand, the nation-building process, as the term implies, aims at building a nation; on the other, due to its ideological nature, nation-building is an endless process whose ultimate goal, a nation, never takes a final shape. That is why history, or rather mythology, from which political leaders usually draw inspiration, is so carefully monitored and constructed to make sure that “a continuous process of redefinition, revision, reinterpretation, and rewriting of historical narratives” (Zajda, 2009, 4) is under control. Russia is obviously no exception here. History and memory wars (Torbakov, 2011) that have started in Russia’s political and educational discourses almost a decade ago, demonstrate very recent examples.

New national history, or rather the interpretation of the official traditional historical narratives became a new battlefield in many post-Soviet countries (Rapoport, 2012; Smith et al., 1998; Volodina, 2005).  National history, as soon as it finds itself outside of academic discourses, develops into a powerful ideological tool. It tells the nation about its achievements and successes, it reminds the outside world about the might and greatness of the nation. The most ambitious and delicate task that national histories are delegated to fulfill is to legitimize the new nation and to justify the actions instigated by this nation’s rulers. That is why new national histories that ultimately turn into national mythologies are considered among most guarded treasures, as well as any attempt to critically examine a national history might be considered a crime. In June 2007, at a meeting with educators Russia’s President Putin condemned the history textbooks sponsored by Western funds, accusing them in falsifying history. He called the texts about World War II that included criticism of the political or military actions of the USSR “inadmissible and even insulting for our people’s interpretation of history” (Sokolov, 2007). He also blamed those who used international grants for creating history textbooks and called for writing a new textbook. This was immediately supported by the ruling party in the Russian parliament whose Speaker announced that a new bill would require an official state registration of history textbooks. State registration means that the government will carefully check and control the content of textbooks. Besides, the number of history textbooks that teachers can use in classrooms will be limited and only few state-endorsed publishers will publish those textbooks.

The mythology preservation campaign logically continued in May 2009 when new Russia’s President Medvedev signed an executive order to set up a presidential commission “to oppose attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia’s history” (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, May 20, 2009).  The awkwardly and bombastically named Presidential Commission of the Russian Federation to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia's Interests was set up to officially "defend Russia against falsifiers of history and those who would deny the Soviet contribution to the victory in WWII” (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, May 20, 2009). The Commission was dissolved less that three years later in February 2012, leaving a trace of controversial decisions and questionable statements (Kantor, 2012).

The top-down criticism of historians and history textbooks, sometimes justified but most time misplaced, turned into noisy and showy multilevel discussions. Those discussions that could have potentially become productive national debates about historical legacies and history education turned into a traditional blame game of unorthodox historians and interpretations of the past not supported by officially approved narratives. Not surprisingly, this campaign gave an opportunity to the authorities “to repurpose history education by developing and promoting a unilateral narrative in Russian history textbooks” (Tsyrlina-Spady & Lovorn, 2015, p. 42). The unilateral unchallenged version of history is a far cry from initial attempts to develop democratic citizenry in Russia but an opportunistic opening for influencing the identity development.

Russia has driven itself into a trap. All new states, as a rule, tend to be concerned about nation-building and constructing new civic or national identities. Both of these phenomena play a significant role in mobilization and consolidation of a society. All Central European states, Eastern European states and the countries of the former Soviet Union have been going through these processes (Rapoport, 2012). Curricula in these countries, particularly social science and history curricula, purposely serve the nation-building goal and promote the narratives of self-determination. The best and most convincing way to prove that a nation deserves statehood and can build its own nation-state is to juxtapose current blossoming of a nation with previous historical injustices committed by an oppressing power (Janmaat & Vickers, 2007). This clearly is the case in all former Soviet satellites, where carefully constructed historical narratives legitimize newly obtained independence from either direct Russian rule or omnipotent Soviet (aka Russian) dominance by demonstrating sometimes truthful, sometimes exaggerated evil nature of Russian influence.  In the early 1990s, Russia’s nation building and identity construction were based on legitimization of the new non-authoritarian anticommunist government and democratic citizenship. The principal elements of value paradigm then were humanism, tolerance, democratic development, ands universal world values. Gradually, the paradigm has shifted.  Instead of trying to solve difficult problems collaboratively or even honestly repent for many a sin of the Soviet Union, Russia, that is poignantly building its own nation and thus, needs its own evil, internal or external, to fight, cannot find anything better than to blame all her opponents in ingratitude and conspiracy, bringing up very questionable historical evidence.


Identity construction is a lengthy complex undertaking particularly in such diverse and multifaceted nation as Russia. Civic identity is a social construct and as such it is constructed and developed in the course of national discourse. The latter is impossible without a dialogue, a debate where all agencies and agents should have their legitimate voices. Identity is a result, a dynamic consensus, a changeable social contract that absorbs myriads of symbols and meanings understandable or at least acknowledgeable by the vast majority of citizens.   But “making the social contract explicit implies recognizing ideological differences, while the Russian regime is designed specifically on denying divisions in the public sphere” (Laruelle, 2013, p. 3). As a result, as it usually happened in Russia, the ruling elite imposes its own variant of the contract, aka identity, and thus ignoring, silencing, and eventually extruding any alternative opinion. Education, particularly moral and character education, becomes a tool of direct ideological influence used by only one part of society instead of advancing values, dispositions, ideas, and norms that could appear in a healthy national dialogue.


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