Betrayed. That’s how Olga, an education official responsible for moral upbringing in the Soviet Ministry of Education, felt after the downfall of communism. In an interview five years later, she shared with me her devastation:
For many years, I had been sure that I was doing exactly what is needed. I was horrified when I saw all the ideals that I trusted and all the ideals that I was talking to young kids about breaking down. And I was honestly sure that our society was the very best and the most just and there would be just good people around me always…. And now, I realize I have lived in an ideal world. It’s like an illusion. It was a shock, a personal tragedy for me, when all the ideals of my whole life were destroyed.
Olga’s feelings of betrayal are understandable. The former Soviet Union had a well-established system of character education. In fact, after studying the Soviet and American education systems, one American professor 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 . . . “upbringing” or “character education.”1 Yet despite this well-developed system of character education, communist ethical education ended with incredible failure. Between 1988 and 1993, crime among youth soared and crimes committed by all juveniles increased by almost 50 percent.2 What went wrong? During two visits to Russia after the demise of communism, I interviewed Russian educators to learn the answer. Through it all, one thing became clear: Soviet education diminished the God-ordained role of parents in moral education (Dt. 6:4-9)).
During communism, Soviet teachers faithfully imparted a form of moral education bereft of parental involvement or devotion. They merely followed the advice of early two early Soviet educators who wrote, “The parents’ claim to bring up their own children and thereby to impress upon the children’s psychology their own limitations, must not merely be rejected, but must be absolutely laughed out of court.”
The state expected to direct children’s affections in other directions. Olga recalled, “The base of all our education work was patriotism [and] love to our motherland.” Other teachers made similar claims. “Everything was about being a good patriot, like to love the motherland, to love the party, to be a hard working person so that you could work not for your person, but for the motherland, for the common good,” recalled a teacher from Kiev.
The individuals who supposedly incarnated these virtues were political leaders such as Lenin, Stalin and those who died for their country such as heroes of the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Lenin was particularly prone to glorification. Stories about his accomplishments and moral outlook filled required textbooks. “In the first ABC book, when young children first start to read,” Dima, a 28 year-old educator explained, “they read stories [about] how good Lenin was, how he took care of us, about working people and poor people that he worked so much to help.” Most important of all, “he sacrificed his life many times for the sake of his ideas.”
Parents, on the other hand, instead of being moral models were often considered potential subverters of children’s loyalty to the communist state. Children’s collectives constantly promoted this attitude. For instance, one communist youth organization known as the Pioneers memorized the rule, “A Pioneer tells the truth and treasures the honor of his unit.” The celebrated model of this principle was Pavlik Morozov. A Pioneer during the time of farm collectivization, Pavlik reported his own father’s collaboration with other Russian farmers to hide grain from the police. The message to children was clear. Loyalty to the socialist family held priority over one’s blood family.
How successful were Soviet efforts to reduce the roll of families in the process of moral education? Despite communism’s best efforts, it could not replace the importance of parents. Only 1 teacher out of the 117 I interviewed admitted that her moral models had been Lenin or Krupskaya (Lenin’s wife)—and these were the educators who were supposed to teach communist ethics! For the vast majority of teachers, they looked to other examples of moral living. Tatayana, a teacher from Moscow described the most common example:
My mother never thinks about herself and gives herself to people surrounding her completely, without any return. All her actions and all her behavior, sometimes it’s possible to consider it strange, because very often she will do something for another person and this action can make something worse for her.
People say to her, “Nobody acts this way or lives the same way. It’s impossible to live this way.”
But she answers, “I cannot do any other way . . . I can’t do something else, it’s my nature to do this.”
To give an example, it was [a] very common thing that our nephews and relatives lived in our home. They used to live in our house for years. They came to us from different cities and they lived in our house. We had people in our home constantly. Yet, my mother was able to find time for everybody, to surround them with her care and with her kindness. To make everything exactly the same way that she did for her own children.
Natasha, an English teacher, also vividly recalled the primary role of her father in her moral development:
Before I began reading the Bible, I had something inside me, and I felt people should have this special morality and ethics—and if they follow these principles, life will become better. It’s just because of my parents. They taught me how to live. My dad—he was like a model for me. Maybe because of that I had problems with my husband, because in him I didn’t see the model, and I didn’t see all the values my father had. He helped me a lot, my father, and when I speak about him, I can’t help but cry. He helped me so much when I had a lot of troubles. He brought me up in the way I want my son to be brought up. He treated me so kindly. At the same time, he was strict for me. He wanted me to be just a good person. He wanted me to be clever and to be kind, just a real lady.
Parents—not Lenin or Krupskaya—were the real models to which Soviet educators looked for moral inspiration.
This experiment in ignoring parents not only failed in the Soviet Union. When my wife and I lived in some apartments after our return from Russia, we were neighbors with an Israeli man and his German wife. The man had been raised in the secular communal form that the communists celebrated, a Jewish Kibbutz (to give some idea of the anti-religious nature of the Kibbutz, he told me they roasted pork hot dogs on Yom Kippur). He, himself, had been raised communally without his parents (who still lived in the Kibbutz). He hated it and said he would never raise his children that way.
What about those Soviets who could not look to their parents? Sadly the Soviet system produced an incredible amount of family dysfunction that included divorce, abuse, alcoholism, and the killing or imprisonment of many parents, so there were plenty of interviewees who could not look to their parents. A few turned to literary figures and remembered drawing moral illumination from Christian Russian authors like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Some teachers just being introduced to Christianity, however, shared how they were also turning to a new source.
Helen, an English teacher from the city of Ryazan, was one such educator. She shared how her father was far from a moral model: “He left us when I was four, and my mother raised us alone. There are four children in our family—two brothers and a sister. She had a very hard time. She didn’t have enough money even sometimes for food because our family was very poor.” This tragic childhood left an indelible impression on Helen. She recalled, “I could never call anybody father.”
Her heart only began to heal when some American Christians introduced her to a new model of Fatherhood:
Once during a prayer meeting, I heard that they called God “Father.” Then I understood that I could also call him Father. And when for the first time I called him Father, I felt such comfort, such warmth. As if I got a new birth.
I understood all the time that I felt helpless. Anybody could hurt me. I didn’t have a defender. I now understand that I have found a defender. And now I understand that I can call Him Father, and I ask my Father to help me in my life and to protect me here. That’s why it’s really something for me. And now I understood that I may be strong with Him. Now, I am not alone. Now, I can address God as Father.
Russian teachers such as Helen would affirm a truth we must always remember: Whether it is the earthly or heavenly model, the parental model is irreplaceable not only for moral education but also for life. We need our fathers and our heavenly Father to be our protectors and our moral models.
For more about Soviet moral education see The Quest for Russia’s Soul: Evangelicals and Moral Education in the Former Soviet Union from which portions of this post were extracted.