Friday, December 7, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Tolerance Courses Fail to Stem Ethnic Violence in Russian Schools

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 7 – Faced with a rising tide of inter-ethnic violence in Russian schools, educators and officials there have introduced special courses designed to promote tolerance. But because such programs lack adequate government funding and the support of parents and teachers, they have done little to remedy the situation.
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, to mention only the most prominent official in this area, has backed such courses, saying this week that even a single exposure to lectures by priests, mullahs and rabbit would have a positive impact on Russian children “over the course of their entire lives” (
But an article in yesterday’s Novyye izvestiya entitled “The ABCs of Racism,” suggests it will take more than that. Nina Bazhdayeva writes that one in every ten clashes has an ethnic dimension with ethnic Russian students attacking non-Russians or even those with “non-Slavic appearance” (
In the two capitals, the situation with regard to children as other surveys show is the case with adults is even worse, with 25 to 30 percent of violence in the schools involving pupils of different nationalities, clashes that often result in serious injuries or force the parents of non-Russian students to shift their children to other schools.
Such inter-ethnic clashes are especially common, Bazhdayeva reports, in schools where there is a rapid change in the ethnic mix, the case in many large cities, and among students in their early teens, many of whom are copying anti-minority language and actions they learn about from the Russian media or their parents.
The use of ethnically charged epithets by some pupils or critical remarks about the appearance of other students is often dismissed by teachers as simply typical behavior of students in the seventh and eighth classes, but when people in authority do nothing to rein in these students, they often move from words to real violence.
On the advice of specialists, Moscow city and several other jurisdictions have introduced into the curriculum special courses designed to promote inter-ethnic tolerance. A federal program was stopped a few years ago when the central government decided it cost too much – even though it was spending less than a million dollars a year.
The failure of the central government to maintain such programs is viewed by many as an indication that dealing with such clashes is not a priority for the Kremlin, and a recent study by the Moscow Institute of Sociology found that parents believe that schools should be providing knowledge and discipline rather than anything else.
But because it is no longer possible to ignore such student violence, many officials in the educational establishment and elsewhere are trying to come up with a program that will actually have an impact, fearful that unless they do, today’s xenophobic pupils will grow up to be tomorrow’s xenophobic adults.
Among the places where this effort has taken off are the city of Moscow, with its program for “Capital of Multi-National Russia,” St. Petersburg, and, improbable as it might seem, the “Novyye izvestiya” journalist reports, Grozny, the capital city of the Chechnya.
The newspaper’s correspondent there reported that “although we do not have any cases of inter-ethnic conflicts” in the Chechen capital – the reason almost certainly being that there are few non-Chechen children present -- “we are carrying out prophylactic work in the schools” and periodically hold class sessions on tolerance and respect.
But in most schools across the country, there are no such programs, and consequently, inter-ethnic violence among pupils continues to grow. And Bazhdayeva points to yet another source of this: the attitudes of many teachers and school directors, who often support the “majority” ethnic group – the Russians – against the other.
Consequently, if the schools are to contribute to an improvement in the relationship among various ethnic groups in the Russian Federation as experts still insist is possible, then Moscow is going to have to get involved and introduce “required courses on the teaching of the foundations of tolerance” in teacher-training institutions.
“Only then,” Bazhdayeva concludes, “will arrive in the school a teacher capable of resolving conflicts in multi-ethnic classes in a correct manner.” But the tone of her article suggests that she is quite skeptical about the possibility of this happening. And so there is likely to be more ethnic violence in Russian schools and among adults as well.

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