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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Priest Brings Schoolchildren Into the Fold

GORODNYA, Central Russia — In a small wooden schoolhouse across the road from a 14th-century church perched on the bank of the frozen Volga River, teacher Sergei Domnin announces it's time to read aloud.

"May I go first?" pleads Olesya Bogdanovich, stretching her hand toward the ceiling. When Domnin nods, Olesya, a slender girl with big, dark eyes, smoothly recites a religious text in Church Slavonic, an archaic and complex language still used in the Russian Orthodox Church as Latin was once used in the Roman Catholic Church.

Olesya, an eager learner who dreams of becoming a lawyer, is not a typical top student. At 14, she is only in the fourth grade, and if not for the efforts of an energetic local priest, it's unlikely she would have set foot in a classroom at all.

Since 1996, the church in this village about 150 kilometers northwest of Moscow has been running an elementary school. Today it is attended by 32 children, mostly from poor homes. The school, which offers weekly lessons in Church Slavonic and divinity in addition to the standard subject matter for grades 1 through 4, is a rare opportunity for children in rural Russia to get a religious education. For many of the underprivileged children who attend, it is also their only chance to get any education.

Religious education in Russia is a novelty in itself. There are only about 100 full-time church schools in the country, with the vast majority in Moscow and other big cities, Larisa Petrushina of the Russian Orthodox Church's education department says.

Still, that's 100 more than a decade ago. The 35,000 church-affiliated schools that existed in Russia before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution were shut down by Soviet authorities.

Father Alexy Zlobin says he decided to organize a church school when he returned to Gorodnya after serving in parliament in the early 1990s.

Back in the village — a collection of one-story wooden houses and a few concrete apartment buildings on dirt roads — he noticed a new phenomenon: Instead of going to school, children from poor families were congregating at the gas station on the highway that leads to Moscow. When drivers pulled up, the children insisted on pumping the gas for them, demanding handouts in exchange.

"They were hungry, cold and dirty. This got me thinking and I started to look into it. It turned out that there were a lot of them — at least 20 percent" of all the children in the area, Zlobin says.

Education officials say they have no way of knowing exactly how many children fall through the cracks. The Education Ministry counted 40,749 children between the ages of 7 and 15 — or 0.2 percent of the total — who were not attending school as of September 1999. But high rates of migration and the lack of new census data since 1989 make it difficult to count accurately.

A report by the State Committee on Youth Policy cites estimates of 2 million school-age teenagers who don't go to school.

Zlobin says the collapse of the social safety net after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the decrease in funds for education have made even public school unaffordable for many people, particularly in rural areas where many collective farms have shut down or cut operations.

"Today to get a child ready for school, buy textbooks and everything else, you need at least 1,000 [rubles]," Zlobin says. "You need to buy them shoes, clothes. And food. In Soviet times they fed children in schools, but now they've stopped all that."

Monthly pay in the Gorodnya area, where the main employer is a poultry farm, averages 500 rubles (about $17.50), he says.

At the church school, money is not a prerequisite. Children are provided with textbooks, clothes, shoes and two or three meals a day. Domnin says the children's disadvantaged background does not make them poor students.

"What's amazing is that the parents in these families have problems — some of them drink, some have other problems — but the children want to learn. You don't have to force them," he says.

After a lunch of borscht and oatmeal — during Lent no meat is served at the school — the pupils pull on their boots and jackets and cross the snow-covered street to the 600-year-old Bogoroditse-Rozhdestvenskaya Church for their divinity class. Before they go in, Domnin reminds them to bow and cross themselves as they enter. Inside, the children listen intently as he names the parts of the church and explains the significance of different icons and frescoes.

Even in subjects not related to religion, the school aims to provide a better level of education than public schools can, Zlobin says. English and music literacy are part of the curriculum, and the priest wants to include environmental education and a class about paying taxes.

Financing for the school comes entirely from the parish's own budget and from private donations, Zlobin says. The same is true for a large white-brick building that just went up down the road to house the high school that Zlobin hopes to open in September. He puts construction costs at the equivalent of $400,000.

Olesya's mother, Taisia Bogdanovich, says she is pleased that her daughter is attending Zlobin's school. She was adamantly opposed to sending her daughter to the local public school. "Of course, I wouldn't send her to that school," Bogdanovich says. "That school is just a disgrace. The girls there have loose morals; they smoke and drink."

But when four years ago a local doctor told Bogdanovich about a new school run by the church, she says she had no objections.

"The girl wants to study. Well, by all means, let her," she says, as Olesya smiles shyly. "She's a girl with character. Whatever she sets out to do, she'll make it happen."