Страницы из учебника 5 класса по предмету "Истоки"
“The Plough and the Ax”: pages from the fifth-form textbook “Roots.” Photo courtesy of Anton Carliner/SCHSCHI and Takie Dela


“What Can We Learn from the Plough and the Ax?”
Alexandra Koksharova
Takie Dela
December 13, 2016

Parents of pupils at a Moscow school have complained to the Prosecutor General’s Office that their children are being indoctrinated with a religious ideology. Takie Dela spoke with Inna Gerasimova, who was behind the complaint.


After coming home from school at the start of the school year, Inna’s 11-year-old son Yegor asked, “Mom, do we really have to have icons at home?”

“No, where did you get that idea?”

Yegor took the textbook Roots (Istoki), which he had just been issued, from his backpack.

The textbook’s author addresses schoolchildren as follows.

“You do know, of course, that icons guide the Russian individual on weekdays and holidays, on long journeys and in times of war. People turn to them in joy and in sorrow, and miraculous icons are especially revered.”

“I can’t remember our ever having taken icons on a journey,” chuckled Yegor.

Inna is an atheist, and there were no icons in their home. She tried to explain to Yegor that all this was not obligatory, of course, although he was well aware of it himself.

Yegor Gerasimov is a fifth former at School No. 2065 in New Moscow. Nearly half of his classmates are from Muslim families, and there are also children from Jewish and Catholic families. In September 2015, a subject entitled “Fundamentals of the Spiritual and Moral Culture of the Peoples of Russia” (abbreviated ODNKNR in Russian) was introduced to the mandatory school curriculum. The Roots textbook is used in sixty-two Russian regions. According to Hieromonk Gennady (Voitishko), head of the information service of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Synodal Department for Religious Education and Catechesis, the Roots program is “a kind of prototype of secular ethics that takes regional specifics and traditions into account.” Officials argue that ODNKNR is not an attempt to indoctrinate children religiously, but the parents at School No. 2065 have formed a quite different impression.


It was at a parents’ assembly in August that Inna found out her son would have a new subject at school beginning this year. The head teacher was then unable to explain what exactly fifth formers would be learning during this class, but the subject’s name, Roots, did not arouse suspicion amongst the parents. They were amazed only when they saw the textbook for the subject. Initially, they tried to find out from the head teacher how such a thing could have got into the school. The head teacher promised to get to the bottom of it. Then they sent letters to the school’s headmaster, complaining about religious indoctrination and asking that the textbook be changed. The headmaster responded to all of the letters by explaining that there had been no choice: the education department had issued the program, and there was nothing to be done. The school could not switch textbooks.

Inna decided that her complaint that the textbook was not secular had be to well founded, and so she undertook a painstaking analysis of Roots. She collated its content with laws and regulations.  She counted the number of times such words and phrases as “God” (60), “miracles” (66), “evil spirits,” and so on were mentioned in the book. Among other things, although the textbook has a total of 126 pages, a third of those pages are taken up by illustrations.

The parents’ main complaint against Roots is that the textbook lacks any academic component whatsoever. Alexander Kamkin, the book’s author, does not cite specific sources, and historical events and cultural landmarks are described by evoking either infernal or divine forces. For example, in a chapter dealing with Solovki, the construction of the Solovki Special Purpose Camp (SLON) and the destruction of the monastery are characterized as the advent of a “great evil.”

“Disaster struck in 1920. […] The monastery was closed, its shrines were descecrated and destroyed, and its churches were defiled.”

Kamkin does not specify who exactly desecrated and defiled the shrines. The only historical personage in this chapter is Moscow Patriarch Alexy II, who visited Solovki in 1992.

If that were not enough, Kamkin suggests that fifth formers take a new look at the Moscow Kremlin.

“Look carefully, not only with your eyes but also feel with your heart, with your soul.  Don’t you think that the Kremlin’s Cathedral Square resembles a gigantic all-Russian candleholder?”

The textbook opens with the topic of “The Plough and the Ax,” which takes up five lessons.

“The children took a quiz on the topic ‘What can we learn from the plough and the ax?’ After lessons in programming, chemistry, and biology, how can you talk for five lessons in a row about the plough and the ax? Every other sentence in the textbook says that only God makes all things possible, only with his help do things get done, that ‘prayer and effort make all things right.’ This ‘proverb’ is quoted in the textbook,” says Inna.

At the next parents’ assembly, the head teacher suggested that disgruntled parents turn in the textbooks, but the remaining children could continue using Roots in class. It was then that the parents of all twenty-four children in the class wrote formal requests, addressed to the school’s headmaster, asking that the class be exempted from studying the subject. The textbooks were then confiscated from the fifth formers, but they kept studying the subject all the same. This incident took place in only one class of fifth formers, but the other four fifth-form classes at the school kept using the textbook. There was no difference, however. Inna knows the course curriculum by heart and says that the assignments the teacher now gives her son are the same as in the textbook.

“The instructor cannot do nothing about it. He is 100% dependent on the system, on the education department, like everyone else,” says Inna.

Inna sent a complaint, signed by all the parents whose children are in the class, to the prosecutor’s office. There was no response for one and a half months. Then the complaint was first sent down to the education department before being sent back to the headmaster.


“We don’t mind our children learning something new about Orthodoxy,” explains Inna, “but not from this textbook, because one cannot speak only of Orthodoxy while saying nothing about the fact that paganism once existed, and that nowadays Islam exists alongside Christianity, and that basically we live in a multi-ethnic country. It’s wrong to present one religion so onesidedly while engaging in manipulation when it comes to a textbook for children. We aren’t against religion. We’re against pitching the subject matter in this way, in which Orthodoxy is discussed as the only possible religion.”

Translated by the Russian Reader