I visited St. Petersburg in February to attend the city’s 4th annual homeschool conference. The warm welcome I received more than compensated for the snow and chill (described by one of my friends as just another “romantic Russian winter”).
As a former Cold War–era army officer, I could not help but be struck by the changes I saw in what was once the main geo-political and military adversary of the United States. I noticed a sharp growth in faith-based institutions, economic development, and many freedoms that were unimaginable during Soviet times.
Expecting Big Things
In the midst of all that, I encountered a maturing homeschool movement led by advocates who expressed genuine optimism for the future. Though candid about the challenges they face, these leaders also conveyed confidence in their plans to achieve substantial growth.
“I do believe that home education has a big future in Russia,” Pavel Parfentiev, Chairman of the Board of Za Prava Sem’i (For Family Rights), told me. Pavel wrote the first book about homeschooling in Russia.
According to Pavel, the main advantage Russian homeschooling families enjoy is a warmer legislative climate than existed during the frigid days of communism. Home education has been legal in Russia since the fall of the Soviet regime in the 1990s.
“Russian law specifically states that the parents are the primary educators of their children,” he explained. “But there is always room for improvement.”
Pavel told me that although there is a growing network of homeschooling families, the movement is still in its early days. Russian families may teach their children at home, but they are required to follow state educational standards not unlike the Common Core. This sort of top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to learning has already been rejected by the U.S. homeschool movement.
It’s a problem, Pavel said, “because sometimes [the mandatory standards] are not very good. We have the right to change this, to get more freedom. But it’s difficult.”
On the positive side, homeschooling in Russia has gained recognition from both the media and society in general. Part of that stems from its growth so far.
Homeschool leaders estimate that there are between 50,000 and 100,000 Russian children being homeschooled. Although that range is well under 0.5% of the Russian school-age population (by comparison, estimates put the growing homeschooling community in the U.S. at close to 4% of the school-age population), it places Russia second only to the United Kingdom among European countries.
“When we first started working in this field, most people were either critical or not understanding of what we were doing,” Pavel explained. Now, “most people do respect home education as a normal and good educational option for parents.”
Alexey Komov, another longtime advocate for home education, shares Pavel’s optimism.
While showing me the summer palace of the tsars (during a snow shower), Alexey said he’s anticipating that the upcoming global conference will showcase all that’s best about home education and will hopefully persuade more families to give it a try.
For example, he said, one of the real challenges Russian homeschooling families face is the lack of a complete curriculum. He hopes to see this issue addressed by taking an American curriculum based on the classical model and adapting it to Russian culture and traditions.
Alexey said he would also like to see homeschooling expand within the nation’s faith communities, particularly the Orthodox Church. It is estimated that as many as 70 percent of Russia’s 150 million people identify as Russian Orthodox.
“Right now, all kinds of groups do homeschooling, but Christians are still a minority,” he said. “We think if we engage this group, which is the predominant faith group in Russia, that will help greatly to expand [home education].”
Focusing on Faith
Whether in the minority or not, Russian Christians, like their American counterparts, find deep inspiration from their faith.
One young couple I met at the St. Petersburg conference, Boris and Victoria, explained they consider themselves in a home education program though their oldest child is not yet 4.
“We do feel like we’re homeschooling already,” Boris said, adding that this has more to do with their education philosophy than it does with teaching their children numbers and letters.
As his wife (through Boris’s translation) put it, “I understand that children are given to me by God, but for a small amount of time.” As for educating them, “I understand that this is my task, and not the task of the teachers out there. I’m becoming more and more convinced that this is the way to go.”
A Great Deal in Common
The hopefulness I witnessed in Russian homeschooling families and the challenges they face was very familiar to me—and I wasn’t alone in that assessment.
Gerald Huebner, HSLDA Canada’s chairman and the GHEC 2016 chairman, attended the conference with me and said he also felt a sense of déjà vu.
Gerald said he was impressed that the Russian families he met were raising the same fundamental questions he encounters at home: Can I do this? How do I do this? How do I know I’m doing enough for my children? Is homeschooling legal? What about socialization? Thankfully, we discussed plenty of answers to these issues at the St. Petersburg
In the end, Gerald said, “it’s just like a conference in Saskatchewan or North Dakota. People from Canada or any state in the United States would feel very comfortable here.”