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Belarus's Ideological Trojan Horse

By Vera Rich

Last summer, when President Alyaksandr Lukashenka suddenly decreed the introduction of new compulsory ideology courses in secondary and higher education, the Belarusian teaching profession was completely unprepared. No dedicated textbooks had been readied, nor even course notes for the instructors. Indeed, the final tender for textbooks appears to have closed only on 15 February -- the day before the courses were due to begin.

In fact, some texts were in circulation and use before this date, although the demand for them rapidly exceeded the supply. One, A. Maykhrovich's "Ideology -- Essence, Purpose, Possibilities," was provided for publication on 29 August 2003, only days after Lukashenka had announced the new courses. Another, Ya. Yaskevich's "Principles of the Ideology of the Belarusian State: Questions and Replies," was sent to the printing presses on 29 November. The print runs of both were very small -- 500 copies for the Maykhrovich, 3,100 for the Yaskevich -- and clearly cannot serve the needs of the entire Belarusian population.

Nevertheless, they were delivered to the author of this article by students as examples of what they had been given to read in connection with the courses. If these works are typical of the teaching of the new courses then one can conclude that the instructors are interpreting their task in a very broad sense and taking full advantage of the indication of Nadzeya Hanushchenka, head of the department for teaching social sciences at the Education Ministry, that the Education Ministry would not try to control the ideology lecturers or the content of their teaching.

"Ideology -- Essence, Purpose, Possibilities," published by the Institute of Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, is a 48-page pamphlet. Its main thrust is historical, focusing on the historical development of political ideas in Europe and later in the United States. The subtext is one of presenting Belarus in that same Western context: 16th- and 17th-century figures like Frantsishak Skaryna and Leu Sapeha are cited as exponents of the "liberal democratic tendency" and the effect of Western "liberal democratic views" on the "antifeudal liberation movement" in Belarus in the 19th and 20th centuries is noted.

Communist theory and its founders receive fairly little attention. There is a passing reference to Karl Marx's emphasis on the role of the "North Americans and French" in the development of the concept of human rights. However, the Marxist view of the nation as a phenomenon of the bourgeois era and the resulting Soviet aim of the "melding" (sliyaniye) of nations and cultures comes in for considerable criticism. (Incidentally, both this and Yaskevich's book are themselves the fruits of "sliyaniye" -- they are written in Russian, not Belarusian).

The final chapter -- "On the Spiritual-Ideological Basis of Belarusian Society and State" -- while asserting that every nation will necessarily develop the principles of "liberalism and social reality" in its own way, makes it clear that for Belarus that way should be a "developed civil society" based on "humanitarian principles" and cherishing the "fundamental values of the social and cultural life of the Belarusian nation" (patriotism, the motherland, family, tradition, and language) as well as the moral values rooted in the Christian tradition and the "principles of the work ethic, so strongly rooted in Belarus." Special emphasis is placed on "democratic organization" as a means of countering "rigid state repression."

Yaskevich, pro-rector of philosophy and cultural studies at the Republican Institute of Higher Education of the Belarus State University, presents her work in a catechetical question-and-answer style. Her professional interests are reflected in the diversity of her subject matter, which includes not only such "obvious" topics as "What Is the Role of the Spiritual Values of National Slavdom?" but also "What Values Do Belarusian Citizens Find Attractive in Buddhism?" A key chapter, "Dynamics of the Ideological Process," focuses on such issues as the role of political culture in the formation of the ideology of a democratic state; the "political socialization of the personality," types of participation in the political process, the role of the media, and the development of an open information society.

An equally important chapter, although one that students might find tougher going at first, is "Ideology of the Belarusian State and Political Risk," which includes a useful explanation of the international risk indices so often misunderstood by the leaders and political commentators of low-rated countries. A final and equally important chapter, "Ideology of the Belarusian State and the Educational and Instructional Process," focuses not, as might be expected, on purely political instruction, but the importance of the humanities in modern education and the role of national history and tradition for education in citizenship.

These books, as has already been noted, were not commissioned exclusively for the "ideology" courses, nor do they enjoy any official imprimatur. They may well be replaced at a later date by some standard work. In the meantime, those lecturers who use them as course textbooks are exposing their students to works focusing on the history of predominantly "Western" political ideas, with a stress on the importance of the individual and his/her role in civil society. Unlike the set texts of the Soviet era, there are no obligatory and ritualistic citations from the "Leader" and, while both concentrate on ideals rather than the realities of today's Belarus, they also stress the importance of the students' thinking and observing for themselves.

If this is the way the courses are being taught generally, Lukashenka may have introduced a Trojan horse into the curriculum.