Moral education. What Russian children are taught about sex at school

1 February 2019

It has become more often that pro-life organizations tell teenagers in Russian schools about the consequences of abortion, the undesirability of sex before marriage, and inefficiency of contraception instead of telling about medical aspects of adulthood and birth control. AIDS.CENTER has studied the most recent and high-profile cases about 'moral education' at schools and has interviewed coordinators of the lectures on family values to ask their opinion.

At the beginning of the month, Novaya Gazeta published an article in which it described how high school students of the Saint Petersburg Public School No. 41 had a five-hour 'spiritual and moral' lecture instead of usual classes. The lecture had four parts, two of which had remarkable names: 'Relationships with parents and independence' and 'Relationships between a boy and a girl. Planning a family'.

 The schoolchildren were confused by the quotations of 'a family relations expert', the priest Ilya Shugaev, suggested by the lecturers. It was said in the priest's brochures that a love marriage does not exist and a wife was compared to a car: 'It does not matter how beautiful a car is, there are plenty of other with equally remarkable features' (an owner of a Mercedes will always look at a Jeep passing by, the priest summarizes). Moreover, the victim is always to blame for the violence (she herself provoked it), сohabitation and sex before marriage are sins (not a surprise), and the only purpose of a woman's life is childbearing.

Illustration: a fragment of the Pro-life poster, author: B. Zabolotskiy.

The lecturers' names: Protodeacon Ioann Didenko and priest Dionisiy Vikhrov. Interestingly, it is not the first time these priests held seminars under the patronage of the Russian Orthodox Church.


However, similar lectures take place in other regions, and we decided to dwell on one of them.

Dismemberment and pores in latex

It began after a lecture on family values that was given at a Public School in Dubna, a city in Moscow Region, to a fourteen-year-old son of Maria Ushankova and his classmates. The boy told his mother about a 'strange woman' who had been telling them about the advantages of women's chastity, the inadmissibility of abortions, and that 'condoms do not prevent HIV transmission'.

At the lecture, this teacher showed the children two videos. The first one of them is a 'not for the faint-hearted' film called The Heavy Truth, the second one was The Lie about Condoms.

If you go to the page of the anti-abortion website, you can get acquainted with the content of the first film. The disclaimer says that the video is not suitable for children and pregnant women: 'If you are not sure that you can perceive the horrifying reality of abortion adequately, please leave this page immediately'.

None of the students was suggested to leave the class though. In the video, one can see an embryo in a womb, its arms, legs, and the next image — without warning — is a woman's crotch. The doctors are pulling a baby which was alive a minute ago. Then in detail: dismembered parts of a child in trays, embryos' heads on the surgical gloves.

The second film told that the barrier contraceptives 'do not protect at all' neither against pregnancy nor against STIs, since HIV allegedly penetrates through the pores in latex, as well as other pathogens.

Illustration: a fragment of the Pro-life poster, author: B. Zabolotskiy.

The main idea: it is better not to have sex before marriage and to find 'the only true love', get married in a church and only then have physical intimacy. Then the lecturer added orally that hormonal contraceptives, in her opinion, lead to cancer, obesity, and infertility. Thus, it can not be discussed as an alternative to women's chastity.

Having listened to the story the mother of the student tried to talk to the lecturer Marina Tretyakova in a social network to clarify some points: how could it happen in a public school? But she did not succeed. Finally, Ushankova described this incident on Facebook and her post became so popular that she was asked for a conversation in the City Department of Education.

The Department promised to address the issue, and the lecturer was suspended from work. However, three months later, Tretyakova unexpectedly filed a lawsuit on the protection of honour, dignity and business reputation asking 200,000 roubles as compensation for damages.

The list of claims

Later, in court, Tretyakova confessed that showing the video with dismemberment to the high school students she stopped it before the scene with the 'pieces of the embryo'. However, she did show the part with abortion.

'Public School No. 8 is a completely ordinary school. As in many educational institutions of the city, we had a lecture on family values. However, children do not always share it with their parents', says Ushankova. And she considers that the decision of the authorities to stop the lecturer's work is wise: such videos not only mislead but they can also cause psychological damage for a teenager.

'The main idea: it is better not to have sex before marriage and to find 'the only true love', get married in a church and only then have physical intimacy'.

Exactly these two statements (about the unscientific nature and harmfulness of the 'moral lectures') claimed by the mother publicly became a subject of litigation in court.  In 'moral educator' opinion, Maria slandered her.

The court has almost immediately rejected her claims on the scientific validity of the information about condoms, but with psychological trauma, it turned out to be more difficult.

The lecturer claimed: since she had a pedagogical education and work experience, and given that she had never had any complaints on her, then talking about 'trauma' is voluntarism, a biased assessment and ultimately slander.

'In her defense, she brought an expert opinion, concealing that it had been expired several years ago, and the diploma for the teacher's moral deed from some kind of Orthodox competition', recalls Maria Artemova, Ushankova's lawyer.

'She was given an expert opinion on this programme in the center for additional education at the Nizhniy Novgorod Institute for the Development of Education in 2009, which was then expired in 2012 due to the new education law', she remarks. The linguistic expertise, which is mandatory in such cases, was also attached to the papers. So was a statement, paradoxical for the Pro-life movement, of which the plaintiff remains a member: 'Since abortion is not murder by law, then I haven't shown the murder to children!'

Illustration: a fragment of the russian Pro-life poster

Pro-life movement

Pro-life, which Tretyakova belongs to, is a decentralized worldwide movement for 'the defense of human life', advocating for the prohibition of abortions. It has been active in Russia for several years. As well as in dozens of countries around the world. Informally, it involves a variety of organizations, but most often religious ones, which are usually based on conservative Christianity.

'The case of Marina Tretyakova is the first conflict situation with parents in our community. I think this is due to a misunderstanding on both sides and a lack of communication skills on the part of the lecturer. I don't think there was anything criminal, just a misunderstanding. The lecturer meant well, but couldn't explain herself to the parents. The Council of the Movement was against the court, we tried to change the lecturer's mind, although I personally can understand her — she lost her job and wants to restore her business reputation. 'We are ready to take responsibility for our educational material and methodological recommendations', now says Sergey Chesnokov, coordinator of the Pro-life movement in Russia.  And confirms: yes, the woman worked with them for a long time.

'Lecturers, who work with the movement, usually agree on sites themselves and no one sent Tretyakova to the school No. 8 on purpose'

Chesnokov himself, the man affiliated for many years with the Russian Orthodox Church, reveals the details of his colleague’s work biography at our request: 'First, Marina Tretyakova worked under the 'For Life!' education program in the Nizhny Novgorod region, and after moving to Dubna, she settled in the deanery of the Moscow regional diocese, in which she lost her job as a result of the conflict', he explains. 

According to his words, lecturers, who work with the movement, usually agree on sites themselves and no one sent Tretyakova to the school No. 8 on purpose. The teachers send the coordinators photos and video reports about the conducted classes. The movement checks the work and pays subsidies to regional partners, where lecturers are employed so that the partners can compensate them for the “expenses incurred”. That is, they pay money but indirectly.

Unambiguous morality

'Our goal is the revival of traditional moral values which, unfortunately, have been mostly lost. These values underlie the centuries-old experience in building personal happiness and a strong state. We want to help people comprehend it', says Konstantin Shestakov, the head of the 'Enlightenment' programme of the Pro-life movement. It is his 'department' in which Tretyakova was working.

Shestakov himself, like many of his colleagues, doesn't believe in condoms. And he blames propaganda of contraceptives' for the HIV epidemic. 'Propaganda for organisations that fight AIDS often sends the wrong message that contraception is a guaranteed protection. But protection is not yet a guarantee!', claims the man.

In a conversation with a reporter, recalling the last interview of the former Minister of Health of the Russian Federation and the current Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, Tatyana Golikova, Konstantin hastens to assure that her proposal to tell teenagers about contraception is a “dead-end road”.

 But we can and should talk about morality and about motherhood. "Everything that children need to know about sex is present in Russian classical literature", he quotes a well-known statement from the former children's ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov.

Lectures of his subordinates are not considered "educational activities" and are not subject to mandatory verification of compliance with scientific facts. Nonetheless, organisers emphasise that their function is to pass moral values. "It is not our goal to discuss HIV or go into medical details", says Konstantin.

Instead of a conclusion

Complaints against pro-life education rarely reach court. And specialised departments tend to trust 'moral fighers'. Moreover, the current Children's Rights Commissioner for the President of the Russian Federation, Anna Kuznetsova, the wife of an Orthodox priest, also collaborated with the movement and, like Tretyakova, was using the Pro-life materials when she was head of the Penza charitable foundation 'Pokrov'.

Illustration: a fragment of the Pro-life poster, author: B. Zabolotskiy.

The litigation on the Dubna case lasted for four months. But it ended in nothing. But taking into account the influence and pressure from Chesnokov's educators, it is unlikely that given stories will be the only cases. It is their moral lectures that nowadays replace sex education classes, once rejected by the conservative majority.  

And it is sex education that Pro-life supporters tend to blame for the growth of teenage pregnancies and the spread of STIs. However, global experience shows the opposite. Nonetheless, it won't be soon for Russian schoolchildren to find out the difference themselves. And there are no alternatives to 'moral lectures' in sight for educational institutions in our country.

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