MOSCOW -- She has defended Soviet policies, seemed to praise Josef Stalin, and stressed the importance of fostering "spiritual values" in the young generation.
Critics of Russia's new education minister say her appointment is a disturbing sign of the times – a signal that President Vladimir Putin's emphasis on "tradition" and espousal of the Russian Orthodox Church as a moral compass during his third term are encroaching on everyday life in what the constitution says is a secular state.
With Putin's blessing, Olga Vasilyeva was appointed to head the Ministry of Education and Science on August 19, less than two weeks before the start of the school year on September 1.
Vasilyeva, 56, has promised to support teachers, who struggle to get by on state salaries. But many in Russia, from educators to liberal commentators, say that her defense of Soviet policies and ties to the Orthodox faith make her a questionable choice to head one of the biggest networks of secular academic institutions in the world.
"I've got just one question: What does this person have to do with secular education?" Aleksandr Plyushchev, a prominent journalist with Ekho Moskvy radio, said in a blog on August 22.
A historian of the Russian Orthodox Church, Vasilyeva wrote her doctoral dissertation on The Russian Orthodox Church In Soviet State Policy In 1943-1948. In 2002, during Putin's first term as president, she became head of the religious studies department at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.
'History, Traditions, Spiritual Values'
Vasilyeva, who met with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill on August 29, is a former head of the Center for the History of Religion and the Church at the Institute of Russian History, part of the country's Academy of Sciences. Before her new appointment, she had been a deputy chief of the Putin administration's Public Projects Directorate since 2013.
According to a report that year in the Kommersant daily, the 30-person presidential directorate was created in 2012, after Putin's return to the Kremlin, to promote patriotism by disbursing grants for public projects and coordinating policies encouraging patriotism in the regions.
Vasilyeva has come under fire from critics for suggesting that some estimates of the number of people who suffered or died during Stalin's oppressive rule are exaggerated.
"The most important thing for the people who came in 1991 was to cross out the history of the Soviet period, blacken the past, remove from society's consciousness the truth of traditions, the pride in the greatness of our country," she was quoted as saying in a speech in July, adding that "we did not speak about patriotism from 1991 to 2002"
The most reliable foundation for the future "was and remains patriotism," she was quoted as saying. "This is respect for our history, traditions, spiritual values. Remember 1934, when Stalin said that we now have a fatherland, we have a history."
'Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality'
Commentator Aleksandr Golts placed Vasilyeva in the tradition of Sergei Uvarov, a minister under the conservative, repressive 19th-century Tsar Nicholas I, who is said to have coined a three-word formula for the Russian state's priorities in educating the people: "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality."
"A century and a half later, the Russian authorities have fulfilled the covenant of Count Uvarov and linked autocracy and Orthodoxy together in public education," Golts wrote. "The new minister personifies this union."
A source close to the previous education minister unleashed blunter criticism of Vasilyeva's appointment, calling it a "spit in the direction of modernizing ideas" in an anonymous comment to the newspaper Vedomosti.
Andrei Illarionov, a former Putin adviser who is now an outspoken critic of the Russian president, called her appointment on August 19 a "symbolic act" timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the botched hard-line coup against reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The unsuccessful putsch hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Putin once called the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
Nationalists have leaped to Vasilyeva's defense, lambasting liberals in the process.
"With her appointment, we expect deep changes in the very approaches to education and enlightenment of Russian youth," prominent commentator Aleksandr Prokhanov wrote in a column in the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia.
"The whole liberal gang has risen up against her appointment. She has been slandered in newspapers and on radio stations. They insult and humiliate, practically calling her a fascist," he wrote. "I don't doubt that Olga Vasilyeva will make it through this severe test because it is not only she who is going through this test, but our whole country."