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From Russia with love: sex education and the state

Anna karenina blog
Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Keira Knightley as adulterous lovers Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky in a scene from the film Anna Karenina. AP Photo/Focus Features, Laurie Sparham.

Should life copy art?

It’s a resounding “da” from Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s euphemistically named Children’s Rights Commissioner, who wants schools to dump sex education and instead rely on the classic role models of Russian literature.

Astakov is the official who recently hit the headlines for backing Russia’s law against Americans adopting Russia’s orphanage children – many of them handicapped.

Now he’s giving advice you couldn’t make up on the comedy circuit. Except that Asakhov’s views, if adopted by the Russian parliament, could become law in the current climate of hard line nationalism.

If that happens the result could be as tragic as, well, a Russian novel, for the thousands of young Russians notoriously at risk of HIV, unplanned pregnancy and STDs in one of the riskiest countries in the developed world for sexual activity.

Ruslit, Astrakov opined, is “the best sex education that exists…everything is there about love and about relationships between sexes. Schools should raise children chastely and with an understanding of family values.”

Chastity and family values?

Take the most romantic of Ruslit, Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. In which high-school-age Lara has sex with the aging lothario who was her mother’s lover --  then ends up pregnant by the married hero, while wedded to a Bolshevik revolutionary.

Family values are also thin on the ground in Mikhail Bulgakov’s celebrated The Master and Margarita:  a surreal satire whose heroine is a frustrated wife who meanders from her marriage to a twisted affair, an orgy and hinted Satanism.

Leo Tolstoy was torn between the misogyny of The Kreutzer Sonata – in which a husband, inflamed with anger when his wife discovers contraceptives, murders her in a fit of jealousy -- and the pathos of Anna Karenina, who pays the fatal price of suicide for her adultery. The ultimate in unsafe sex.

Or the class could turn to Leonid Andreyev’s novels for an enlightening dose of rape, sexual violence and venereal disease.

And what about the writers themselves as role models?

Tolstoy’s insensitivity to his wife is notorious, along with her 13 or more pregnancies. Anton Chekhov was a confirmed womanizer. Russia’s legendary poet Alexander Pushkin, author of Eugene Onegin, died after jealously challenging his wife’s brother-in-law to a duel over her affections. Vladimir Mayakovsky, the groundbreaking modernist poet, was famously a philanderer and a suicide.

Parents familiar with their great works of literature may wonder about Astakhov’s judgment. And turn, with relief, to the banal -- but safer -- sex education texts.

Olivia Ward covered the former Soviet Union from 1992 to 2002. Some of her favourite writers are Russian.


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