The appointment of Olga Vasilyeva as head of Russia’s Ministry of Education worries many advocates of education reform, but it’s too early to determine the direction her policies will take.

Vasilyeva is open about her conservative beliefs. Immediately before her appointment as Education Minister, Vasilyeva was in charge of public projects in the Presidential Executive Office. Photo: TASS

New Minister of Education and Science of Russia Olga Vasilyeva has started dismantling the team of her predecessor, Dmitry Livanov. On Aug. 29 she dismissed three deputy ministers and four department heads in the fields of information policy, property management and human resources. The firings provoked a new round of debate and speculation about the first major changes Vasilyeva, a conservative and a strong advocate of patriotic and religious education, will make to Russia’s educational system.

Vasilyeva is the third person to head the Ministry of Education and Science since its creation in 2004. Neither of her predecessors found much favor with the public.

The first, Andrei Fursenko, whose friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin was widely speculated as the reason for his appointment, expanded the steps required to conduct scientific research and introduced a uniform standard of education.

His most notable accomplishment was the introduction of the Unified State Exam (or EGE), which high-school graduates are required to take to enter university. Even though one of the main purposes of the EGE was to fight corruption in university admissions, cheating on the exam was widespread. Additionally, the introduction of the EGE led students to focus more on studying to pass the test rather than actually learning their subjects.

Fursenko’s successor, Livanov, was best known for shutting down “ineffective” universities and for creating the Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations (FASO). The goal of this institution was to free scientists from everyday tasks not related to their scientific research, but instead resulted in scientists becoming more dependent on grants aimed at achieving particular performance goals rather than doing more experimental research.

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A true conservative

The decision to dismiss the unpopular minister in the run-up to September’s parliamentary elections was not surprising, although the selection of successors was unconventional. Olga Vasilyeva, 56, looks like a stereotypical schoolteacher, which she was, although since 2002, she has been the head of the Department of Church-State Relations at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). In recent years, the Russian Orthodox Church has taken on a more assertive role in the country’s cultural and political life, and the Kremlin has been vocal about Russia’s promotion of “traditional” values.

Officially no reason was given for Vasilyeva’s selection for the post, however, there is one interesting fact that might have played a role. Vasilyeva used to give lectures at the Sretensk Seminary, where she became friends with its head, Archimandrite Tikhon, who is said to be Putin’s personal confessor. She also counts Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill among her acquaintances.

Vasilyeva is open about her conservative beliefs. Immediately before her appointment as Education Minister, Vasilyeva was in charge of public projects in the Presidential Executive Office. As weekly newspaper Vlast wrote in 2013, one of her most successful projects was the implementation of the “spiritual bonds” concept, which promoted traditional values and patriotism in education.

Also in 2013, she presented a report on the values of the Putin’s policies at a university in the southern city of Saratov. Explaining the history of the term “patriotism” in Ancient Rus’, Vasilyeva cited Ivan the Terrible: “Treason against the ruler is regarded as a treason to the motherland,” she said, adding “One should not betray the Russian state and its ruler. One should love and protect them.”

In a speech at the Tavrida international youth forumin 2014, Vasilyeva said: “It is impossible for the society to develop normally without conservative forces. Conservatism maintains the connections between different time periods and does not let the gap between them grow and [the connections] disappear.”

The same year, Vasilyeva gave a lecture for the employees of the Presidential Administration in which she discussed the conservative ideology.

An apologist for Stalin

For many observers, a bigger problem than Vasilyeva’s conservatism is her attitude towards Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. In 2013, Vlast published an article describing a private lecture Vasilyeva gave to members of United Russia party in which she argued for Stalin’s rehabilitation. “With all his vices, Stalin served for the state’s benefit, as on the eve of the Great Patriotic War [ed. World War II], he began the policy of uniting the nation, he revived pre-revolutionary Russia heroes and started to propagate the Russian language and literature which largely contributed to the victory in the war,” Vasilyeva said, according to witnesses.

Among Stalin’s accomplishments, she mentioned the resurrection of Orthodox activity abroad and the revival of patriotism. Vasilyeva argued that today Russia is going through the same processes, rediscovering Orthodoxy and patriotism after a period from 1991 to 2002 during which they were not discussed. “It is impossible to build the future without a solid foundation, which in our history always was and still is patriotism, nothing new was offered. This includes respect to our history, traditions, and values. Just recall 1934 when Stalin said that from now on if we have the Fatherland, we have the history,” Vasilyeva said in the speech.

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The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia publicly asked Vasilyeva to clarify her attitude towards the Stalin period, but has not received an answer.

Personal values, public policy?  

Vasilyeva’s commitment to conservatism and Orthodoxy may not necessarily be reflected in her work, however. “Her personal scientific focus does not have a relation to the work she is going to be doing,” said Andrei Zayakin, founder of the Russian public movement Dissernet, which examines the authenticity of the dissertations of prominent figures. “Among other things, she will have to fight those who sold dissertations at the Higher Attestation Commission, appoint competent people in replacement of up to 70 rectors accused of plagiarism and clean out the dissertation committees.”

Likewise, it is unjust to cast Vasilyeva as a zealous Stalinist based on a few select phrases. Despite the lofty rhetoric of her speeches, she takes a more balanced view of Stalin in her academic research.

However, how to treat Stalin in Russian history textbooks has been a subject of intense debate in recent years and experts question whether Vasilyeva will push for a balanced approach in the state unified history textbook currently under development. Putin announced the creation of this text in 2013 and, so far, three versions have been approved. Historians and educators have complained that the books put too much emphasis on contemporary history, including pages describing Russia as surrounded by hostile forces, and a detailed discussion of the international sanctions and accession of Crimea to the Russian Federation, while the Stalin-era repressions receive only a couple of pages. The books also avoid using the accepted term Kievan Rus to describe the early Russian state and focus on the role played by the church in every era. On her first day of work as minister, Vasilyeva called the books balanced.

Since Vasilyeva’s appointment, Russian media has been actively boosting its traffic with such headlines as “Vasilyeva recommends parents to block children’s access to Internet” or “Vasilyeva wants to substitute physical education with dancing classes,” but such statements are often overblown. For instance, with regard to the Internet, she meant that parents should take a more active role in controlling their children’s online access. Regarding the dance class, her suggestion was for one P.E. class a week to be replaced with a dance lesson.

It will be possible to truly assess Vasilyeva’s performance only after she has made more decisions than replacing a few members of her staff.