Kazakstan: First Lady 'Meddling' in Education

President's wife is criticised for introducing mystic's teachings into the country's schools.

Kazakstan: First Lady 'Meddling' in Education

President's wife is criticised for introducing mystic's teachings into the country's schools.

Educators and doctors are up in arms at a decision to allow the wife of the Kazak president to run controversial educational experiments, based on the teachings of a Russian ascetic who advocated walking barefoot in the snow, at selected schools throughout the country.

From the start of the academic year, a college of higher education, secondary school and kindergarten in each region of the country will take part in the "Self-knowledge" programme at the initiative of Sara Nazarbaeva, the wife of Kazak head of state Nursultan Nazarbaev. Its critics have dubbed the project "Sara-Knowledge".

"There's no grounds for introducing it - and no one knows what kind of an impact it might have on young impressionable children. And apart from that, the curriculum is already overloaded. But even if we dared to object it, who would listen to us?" said a teacher from one of the schools earmarked for the experiment.

The president's wife first introduced the programme, aimed at improving the physical and spiritual well-being of the young, last September in 10 institutions of Almaty. In March, the Kazak ministry for education and science decided to widen its scope.

The programme is based on the philosophy of Porfiry Ivanov, a self-proclaimed doctor from the Russian provinces who died in 1983. Ivanov, a mystic who called himself the brother of Jesus, advocated an ascetic lifestyle, involving fasting, dousing oneself in cold water and walking barefoot in the snow. He has achieved cult status and centres of his followers have sprung up in many cities in the former Soviet Union.

"The time has come to bring the material and spiritual aspects of the human being into harmony. For this purpose, 'Self-knowledge' lessons must be advocated in all schools of the republic," Nazarbaeva is reported to have said.

Nazarbaeva has been a follower of Ivanov for several years and gives lectures on the spiritual health or "Detka" programme to soldiers and prisoners. Little is known about the latter apart from one visit to a military base, where a number of troops doused themselves with water and promptly caught colds.

The First Lady has long been interested in child development. She created the charitable foundation "Bobek" (Baby) 10 years ago, and, through the international movement SOS-Kinderdorf, has helped establish family-type children's villages and rehabilitation centres for orphans all over Kazakstan.

Her latest venture, though, has upset many Kazaks, but few are prepared to speak out publicly against her, fearing retribution.

"Dilettantes should not create education programmes. What is the point of introducing Ivanov's teachings into schools, kindergartens, universities and the army?" asked Anna Uralova, a journalist at the Pavlodar newspaper Novoye Vremya.

"To carry out these endurance tests on children, especially when the temperature drops, is not just foolish - it's criminal," said a doctor who wished to remain anonymous.

The Russian Orthodox Church, meanwhile, is concerned that Ivanov is beginning to enjoy cult status. "This is not a harmless teaching about a healthy way of life, but a heretical religious teaching, as Christ is replaced by Ivanov, who is considered by his adherents as a charismatic personality," a church newspaper said.

The authorities, though, are determined to forge ahead with the controversial education programme. After the results of the "Self-Knowledge" experiment are analysed, it may be extended across the entire Kazak schools system.

Some teachers and parents have welcomed the initiative, believing it enhances children's education.

"We strive to teach children to love themselves, which helps them to love others. The programme gives them an understanding of the complete picture of the world and helps them to feel a part of this world," said Irina Kravtsiv, the head of a kindergarten in Taraz.

"The kindergarten that my son goes to used the Porfiry Ivanov system since last year. My husband and I live by his precepts. Most importantly of all, there are never any arguments in our family. Love of your nearest and dearest is one of the most important aspect of Ivanov's teachings," said Svetlana Turenko.

For Nazarbaeva, the programme is just the beginning of a long-term project. "I have taken on a difficult task, and the results will perhaps only be seen in 100 years. But we need to return to the 'pure sources' of human wisdom and moral values, otherwise society will never get better," she said.

Svyatoslav Vest is the pseudonym for a journalist in Kazakstan

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