As political revolution in the former Soviet Union lets loose economic, military, and educational reform movements, the religious revolution is poised to affect the currents of change in other areas of culture, especially higher education.

The emerging expressions of Protestant Christianity—seminaries, campus ministries, academic exchange programs—seem determined to capture the minds of Soviet citizens. Christian influence can be spotted in nearly every educational institution in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS):

• A short-term missions organization has launched a five-year effort to plant Bible-based ethics curricula in each of the 120,000 CIS public schools;

• An association of Christian colleges is spearheading an exchange program of Russian and American academics;

• An international educational institute is placing Western professors in universities across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

What may become the crown jewel of these efforts was unveiled recently: plans for a Christian liberal arts university in Russia.

“The conviction is widespread in the former Soviet Union that a new ethical basis for society—especially for the educational system—is imperative,” says Mark Elliott, director of the Institute for East-West Christian Studies at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Elliott brought together representatives of 38 Christian and professional associations for a one-day conference in April to brainstorm the possibilities of a joint Russian-American venture in higher education. Though there was near-total agreement on the need for a distinct Christian presence within Russian academia, participants disagreed over the most effective model. By the end of the day, two basic camps had emerged: one favoring a separate, comprehensive liberal arts university; the other advocating a “Cambridge model” that would establish a Christian liberal arts college within the structure of an existing, credible Russian university.

Almost all agreed that the first steps ought to be taken quickly. Many fear political tensions now boiling between President Boris Yeltsin and the Congress of People’s Deputies could erupt into renewed political strife and a clampdown on academic freedom.

Since Boris Yeltsin’s rise to power, Elliott says he and other ministry leaders have received numerous requests for Western help in establishing Christian higher education in Russia. Elliot said, “They feel that Christianity holds out the greatest hope of saving their country from moral collapse.”

Official atheism

It is a collapse that has long been in the making. Immediately after the 1917 revolution, churches were closed or destroyed, religious influence in schools and universities rooted out, and private education banned. All levels of education were brought under state control. By the 1920s, a universal, compulsory curriculum was introduced, centered in atheistic communism.

“The Communist party made sure that religious values could no longer be taught in Russian schools,” says John Bernbaum, vice-president of the Washington-based Christian College Coalition. “Russian education was made into the primary vehicle for transmitting Marxist-Leninist ideology.”

Confronted by a lagging, dilapidated university system, Mikhail Gorbachev announced in 1990 that perestroika would extend to educational institutions. Events would overtake Gorbachev, but the idea of reforming the Soviet academy appears to have taken root: Russian higher education is becoming increasingly decentralized, and several hundred alternative, private schools have opened, dozens of them in Moscow. Public education is becoming depoliticized, with courses in Marxism-Leninism no longer required at the university level.

Challenges remain, however. In a nation that only recently renounced atheism as its public philosophy, six out of ten Russians say they do not believe in God. Of the people who claim allegiance to Russian Orthodoxy—the dominant religious force in the nation—94 percent do not attend church even once a month.

Participants generally agreed on St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Nizhni Novgorod (formerly Gorky) as the most likely sites for a Christian university. Conferees called for a similar meeting with Russian educators in Moscow.

By Joe Loconte.

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