Russia: Orthodox, Other Authorities Troubled By Marii Pagans

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 28, 2002

By Don Hill/Pavel Boutorine

For the last five years, Russia’s Orthodox Church has had a useful tool for inhibiting the growth of upstart religious competitors, mostly from the West. That is a religion law that gives special status to “traditional,” or long-standing, religious bodies over new ones. RFE/RL correspondents report, however, that in one Russian republic, the 1997 law supports a religious group even more traditional than Orthodoxy — Marii paganism.

Prague, 22 July 2002 (RFE/RL) — The Marii El Republic of the Russian Federation lies 800 kilometers east of Moscow just to the west of the Ural Mountains separating Europe from Asia. In addition to its Russian inhabitants, it is the home of a separate ethnic group — the Mariis, who number some 500,000.

While many Mariis have embraced Russian Orthodoxy as their religion, others still adhere to an older faith, that of Marii paganism. The movement has 100 or more priests, or “karts,” and perhaps 300 remaining sacred groves where traditional pagan rites are performed.

Nikandr Popov is a Marii anthropologist. Speaking from the city of Yoshkar-Ola in the Marii El Republic, he tells RFE/RL that interest in Marii paganism is on the rise: “Young people have a certain interest in this religion, they are now paying more attention. The interest has grown, because it is the roots of our culture, it is the basis of our spirituality, so young people do have more interest in it now. I think in the 21st century there will still be people who will worship their ancient gods.”

But to the dismay of the Russian Orthodox Church and at least one Protestant denomination in the Marii El Republic, the Marii pagans now are seeking recognition as a traditional religion in Russia. That legal designation would put them in the ranks of Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism.

Geraldine Fagan is a correspondent in Moscow for the Keston News Service, a British-based group specializing in religious affairs in formerly communist nations. She recently traveled to Marii El to visit the Marii pagans and their sacred groves. She says that Russian Orthodox leaders are being discomfited by provisions of the 1997 religion law they supported, which — despite not mentioning paganism specifically, supports the rights of so-called “traditional” religions.

“I think it shows the whole slipperiness of attempts to define what is a ‘traditional’ religion — [saying] just because something is ‘traditional’ that [it] is good and positive, and if it has emerged in the last 20 years [it] must be destructive and totalitarian and so on. And, obviously, that is a problem that the Orthodox are facing now, having supported this law.”

Interest in paganism around the world has resurged in the last 50 years as a product of the New Age movement of the 1960s, featuring beliefs in communicating with spirits, reincarnation, and nature worship. But the Marii pagans do not fall under the cloak of such neo-paganism. Their tradition dates to prehistory. It’s a kind of pantheism, in which they find their deities in objects such as trees and sacred groves.

As for popular sentiment, Popov says paganism has not been overly vilified, despite occasional protests from the Orthodox Church. “The Orthodox Church is not concerned [about the spread of paganism]. But talking to the believers, they always say that [paganism] is worshipping of the devil, because it does not recognize Jesus Christ and it goes against the pillars of Christianity.”

There are aspects to the Marii pagan beliefs and practices that more conventional religious communities find disconcerting. Rivalries between leaders of different pagan groups have led to the exchange of curses, which may explain an unusually high suicide rate among the pagan worshippers. Traditional Marii pagan practices include animal sacrifices, magic healing, and spell casting.

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