Strauss Center News

Updates from the Strauss Center and our affiliated distinguished scholars and fellows


Matt Orr, 2020-21 Brumley Fellow

Jun 7, 2021 |

Next to step into the Brumley Spotlight, a series that explores our Brumley Fellows’ year-long research projects, is Matt Orr.

For his Brumley project, Matt created Civic Education and Democracy in Post-Soviet Europe, a website that uses civic education as a window for understanding democratization in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Matt states, “Civic education is understood as the types of formal and informal political and ideological training that children receive in school, meant to prepare them for future political participation.” His website focuses on the Eastern Slavic nations of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, which, according to Matt, “despite their common Soviet legacy, show various paths toward educating post-Soviet generations.” We asked him a few more questions about his work:

Tell us about the “journey” that your project went through. Did you change the focus, topic, or deliverable as you went through your research? How did your project develop?

My original idea was much broader, including all 15 of the former republics of the Soviet Union. I had wanted to do a database of indicators and a comparative tool, but soon realized that the most powerful comparison is between the Eastern Slavic nations, each of which is currently going through political upheavals that will have major ramifications for the political and ideological identity of each country going forward. Dr. Suri was supportive of a more condensed and narratively focused project that looks at the interconnectedness of a smaller set of cases.

Do you have some examples of possible ramifications in the Eastern Slavic nations’ current turmoil?

In fact, the political division and turmoil that we see in Belarsus and Russia today is a result of the inability of the current ideological apparatus to correspond to demands and aspirations that nonetheless arise from civics materials, despite their authoritarian bent. This is in stark contrast to Ukraine, where the things written and said in new civics textbooks now largely correspond to the country’s democratic and European course. But in 2004 and 2014, we saw this very thing, where some of the people who attended the revolutions were young people motivated specifically by things they learned in school civics class. This is what Russia and Belarus do not want.

What was the most eye-opening thing you learned through this process?

That civic education receives little focus among regional scholars and journalists in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Why do you think civic education receives less attention in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine?

Civic education receives less attention from both sides of the political divide because both slides calculate that it is not in their interest to bring it up. The democratic opposition is afraid of bringing it up because they are afraid of the political consequences of being accused of trying to indoctrinate the youth. The governments in Russia and Belarus are afraid to bring it up because doing so would recognize and further exacerbate the divide in society about the curriculum. Both Russia and Belars and Russia need to show the “unity” of their nations in the face of political divides they say are exacerbated by forces from abroad. Bringing up the issues but not making sufficiently pro-regime/authoritarian changes afterwards would disappoint more conservative elements of society. Therefore, reworking the civics curriculum is politically dangerous from both directions for Russian and Belarusian authorities. In Ukraine, but also Russia and Belarus, citizens and scholars have largely been focused on other issues more directly related to politics, geopolitics, repressions, etc.

For the layperson: can you provide a few examples of the training involved in civic education, such as textbook selection?

For the most part, “training” is precisely what is lacking, if we talk about Belarusian and Russian civics. Things are mostly built around preparing for state examinations, memorizing unuseful facts, instead of engaging in activities that will help young people become more efficacious citizens, such as writing their representatives or engaging in discussions and debates, learning voting procedures etc. To hopefully better answer your question, there are several entire areas where the content of Ukrainian civics books is different from or goes much further than in Russian civics textbooks. Obviously the content should be different because the countries are different, so the important elements are only those content differences that are directly motivated out of creating a more active, informed, democratic citizenry.

There are lots of examples but it’s hard to generalize them. Setting aside the methods (ways) with which these issues are raised, just some examples from glancing at the Ukrainian civics materials again: Increased focus on the role of international organizations in rights defense (transparency international, ECHR, Universal Declaration of Human Rights) Women’s rights (UN Declaration on the Rights of Women), more concrete and lengthy focus on corruption and lobbyism, more focus on the U.N and citizenship in a global context, and much more focus on modern mass media, social media, and types of cognitive manipulation, more content on civil society organizations and youth participation in them. These are just a few that come to mind but there are more. I need to be more systematic about this going forward.

Textbook selection is a whole other issue. Russia and Bealrus each only have about a half dozen approved textbooks, of which only 2 or 3 really dominate the entire system. One of Putin’s first actions upon his return to the presidency in 2012 was to reduce the number of available textbooks for civics and history classes.

What do you hope to do with your project or what you learned after the Brumley program?

I hope to continue to popularize the topic of civic education in the former Soviet Union among regional experts and scholars. The insight I have gained into these countries through my research will aid my professional development.

What was the most important thing you learned doing this project?

I learned that form informs content. Displaying information on a website creates new challenges but also cool opportunities! Indeed, distilling information into smaller, more accessible pieces is an important skill in itself, and making a website is just one example of that. I would have taken more time to explore the possibilities for displaying information on website making tools before finalizing the content. 

Do you have any research/Brumley related advice for the new cohort of Fellows?

Stick to a consultation schedule with your faculty mentor. Should be easier to do when you can meet in person!

Make sure to check out more of Matt’s website here!