In Russia, a test of God vs. Darwin
Baltimoresun, Originally published January 3, 2007
By Erika Niedowski
Sun Foreign Reporter
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia // This nation's first-ever lawsuit on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution began with a biology textbook, a bunch of bananas and a man dressed in a monkey suit.
And it only got more tangled from there.
The student who brought the case, saying the teaching of evolution offends her religion, has accused her school of trying to flunk her as punishment for speaking up.
The principal has suggested that the girl and her family are not being driven by devout beliefs, but by a push for publicity.
And people on both sides - including the Russian Orthodox Church and one of the textbook's authors - are locked in a debate that touches not only on Darwin's observations on the origin of species but on atheism, Marxism-Leninism and the fall of civilizations.
The case revolves around 16-year-old Mariya Shraiber, who says her biology text presents a one-sided version of life's origins based on Darwin's theory and is dismissive of the view that God made man. The lawsuit challenges Darwin's theory as anti-religious, atheistic and unproven. It quotes the textbook as referring to biblical teachings as "legends" and calling it "stupidity" to assume that God created the world.
"It's quite disrespectful," said Mariya, who has short fingernails painted bright pink, multiple earrings in each ear and a fondness for poetry. "I believe we have the right to learn not only the theory of evolution, but creationism as well."
Education officials counter that the book, used by the vast majority of Russian high school students, presents various views and that the secular state is in the business of teaching science, not religion.
"I don't think it created a problem worth a lawsuit," said Andrei Polozov, principal at School No. 148 in St. Petersburg, known as Cervantes Gymnasium. "If a student disagrees with this or that, he's most welcome to express his point of view."
The lawsuit, which names the municipal education committee and federal education ministry as defendants, seeks amendments to the textbook. It also asks for something that Mariya's lawyer, Konstantin Romanov, says is appropriate when someone has been offended: an apology.
Mariya, who does not attend church, says the lawsuit was her idea. But she is weary of the publicity, forming her finger and thumb into the shape of a pistol and holding it to her temple when asked if she is tired of giving interviews.
She did not attend the first two court hearings and seems far less interested in the outcome than her father, Kirill Shraiber, who spoke to the court on her behalf, and Anton Vuima, a family friend who heads a public relations firm called Spiritual Heritage.
Vuima, whose firm goes by the slogan, "We Create Sensations," believes that nothing short of society's collapse is at stake when it comes to the teaching of evolution. He, like the lawsuit, contends that Darwinism, while not a political ideology, stems from Marxist-Leninist ideology; after all, both Darwin and Karl Marx, who is said to have offered to dedicate Das Kapital to the scientist, wrote of grand struggles for survival.
Before launching the current "information war" against Darwin - which includes the Web site antidarvin.com and a special number that is accepting text-message "votes" for and against the scientist - Vuima set out to determine how society as a whole had become so morally bankrupt.
He decided, in short, that it was because of a lack of faith in God. And, by his logic, since Darwin's theory as presented in schools essentially teaches that there is no God, Darwin himself is the enemy.
"If we want to have a high level of morality, not just in Russia but all over the world, we have to challenge Darwin's theory," Vuima said. "Darwin's theory kills morality. It denies the copyright of God."
Mariya's lawyer frames the argument in decidedly less sweeping, more legalistic, terms: "Secular education should not be based on offending the feelings of religious believers," Romanov said.
The Shraibers announced their plans for the lawsuit at a March news conference that featured free bananas. In July, when they mailed the paperwork to court, they were accompanied by an actor in a monkey suit - a stunt since dubbed "stupid" by Romanov, who asked that the monkey not come near him.
"That was his idea," said Mariya, pointing to her father, a graphic artist who runs an advertising firm.
Mariya says the publicity makes her uncomfortable. She dyed her hair jet black and has taken to wearing a hood in public.
The Russian Orthodox Church is standing behind her. The Rev. Artemy Skripkin, head of the youth department of the St. Petersburg patriarchate, attended court hearings in a show of support. The next, perhaps final, one is scheduled for February.
"We consider it inadmissible when one theory - the theory of Darwin - is presented as the only true theory," Skripkin said. "Russia has always been presented as an atheist country. We are not all atheists.
"What this school is advocating is atheism, which is wrong."
But Sergei Mamontov, one of the authors, says the book doesn't advocate anything - except the teaching of science. Taking offense to Darwinism, in his view, is like taking offense to the theories of Einstein or Copernicus.
"In middle and high school, students learn scientific theory - and not religious theory - for one simple reason: Nobody is able to prove religious theories," said Mamontov, a professor of biology at Russian State Medical University and a member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences. "You just have to believe in them."
Mariya is scheduled to graduate from Cervantes Gymnasium next year, but it is unclear whether she will be able to do so. As she explained recently on a day that she skipped school to do two more interviews, she expects up to six failing grades at the end of the term. Her father is trying to get her into another school, but says he can't find one that will accept her.
She seems uncertain how to respond when asked whether her lawsuit - and the principles outlined in it - are worth the effort.
"I think," she said, "I should do something good in life."