Mari animism

Actually, The Russian State and Church Did Persecute Pagans

The January 26 Geocurrents posting on the historical toleration of animism among the Volga Finns by the Russian church and state needs to be revised. Recent work, mostly by Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian scholars, indicates that repression was far more severe than had been previously supposed. It is possible, however that such works go too far in the opposite direction, motivated in part by anti-Russian sentiments. On such issues I must remain neutral, but I do feel a duty to give their arguments a hearing. If readers are interested, a key text is The Finno-Ugric World, edited by György Nanovfszky and published by the Teleki László Foundation of Budapest in 2004. Page numbers given below in parentheses refer to this book.

According to this perspective, Mordvin and Mari villagers suffered periodic bouts of extreme persecution from the time of the Russian conquest up to the present. After Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) conquered the powerful state of the Turkic-speaking Volga Tatars in 1552, their Finnic-speaking allies were both culturally assaulted and dispossessed of their best lands. Ivan dispensed “Mordvin lands to his boyars and the church. Meanwhile, the pagan population of the region was forced to convert to Russian orthodoxy.” As a result, the Mordvins began to disperse, seeking sanctuary and religious liberty in more remote lands. They also rebelled periodically. In a 1670 uprising, “a tenth of all Mordvins were killed…”(93). The story of the Mari is similar. “The Czars took drastic measures to force Christianity on the [Mari] pagans, who often fled, leaving whole villages depopulated….” (97). Concerted Christianization campaigns were ordered by Peter the Great, who issued “repugnant degrees persecuting the eastern Finno-Ugric religions…” (41). Religious repression of the Mari was especially fierce after the failed Pugachev Rebellion of 1773-1775, which they had enthusiastically supported.

Yet despite such repression, paganism survived among the Mari. It may be that such persistence stemmed more from basic geographical factors rather than from the policies of the Russian state and church. Low population density over vast tracts of land allowed animists to flee persecution, and made it difficult for the state and church to establish effective administration in remote areas.

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Threats to Mari Animism

As we saw yesterday, the traditional animism of the Mari people of Russia’s Middle Volga region was historically tolerated by both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Empire. In Mari El today, animism is officially regarded as one of the republic’s three traditional faiths, along with Orthodox Christianity and Islam. Such has not always been the case, however. Under the early Soviet regime, all forms of religion were repressed. One Mari practitioner recalled “creep[ing] into the forest with [my] grandmother to perform sacrificial rites by night. The police – fervent atheists, communists – would come. They kicked over our cauldrons and chased us away.” During World War II, Stalin relented in the assault on religion, and reportedly even tried to “co-opt the karts’ [pagan priests] spiritual powers when pushing back the Nazi invasion of 1941.” Relatively relaxed attitudes seem to have revived in the post-war era; after the downfall of the Soviet Union, the new Russian government insisted that “ancient paganism” was worthy of respect. Even the local Orthodox bishop argued in 1993 that traditional beliefs should be respected, as Protestantism posed a greater threat to the republic than paganism.

But such accommodating attitudes have declined in recent years. The autonomy of the Russian republics was significantly reduced after Vladimir Putin took office; regional leaders came to be appointed by Moscow rather than selected locally. As the animist establishment in Mari El turned against the republic’s administration, the Russian government came to see the faith as a potentially dangerous vehicle for Mari nationalism. By the early 2000s, Mari traditionalists were complaining that their sacred groves, numbering some 520, were being vandalized and in some instances cut down. The plight of the Mari began to reach the attention of the wider world. In May 2005, the European Parliament criticized Russia for “violating the cultural and political rights of the Mari, … cit[ing] the difficulties the Mari people face in being educated in their first language, [and the] political interference by the local administration in Mari cultural institutions …”

2006 saw an intensification of religious and ethnic strife in the republic. In that year, Mari leader Vitaly Tanakov was found guilty of spreading “religious and ethnic hatred” for his pamphlet entitled “A Priest Speaks.” As Geraldine Fagan, the main English-language reporter on the Mari, explains:

Peoples influenced by the Bible and Koran “have lost harmony between the individual and the people,” argues Tanakov, in what is actually one of only a few references to other faiths in his leaflet. “Morality has gone to seed, there is no pity, charity, mutual aid; everyone and everything are infected by falsehood.” By contrast, he boasts, the Mari traditional faith will be “in demand by the whole world for many millennia.”

In 2009, the Mari El Supreme Court confirmed the condemnation, ruling that Tanakov’s pamphlet spread religious and other forms of “extremism.” The booklet is currently banned throughout Russia. Meanwhile, other minor assaults on the faith continue to occur. Mari traditionalists, for example, have been barred from advertising their festivals in state newspapers.

Mari animist leaders have responded to such attacks through a media outreach program and by stressing the environmentalist credentials of their religion. The main Mari website English-language website, MariUver, however, focuses not on Mari traditional beliefs but rather on the common concerns of all of the Finno-Ugric minority groups of Russia. Recently postings have emphasized linguistic threats much more than religious ones, as well be explored later in Geocurrents.

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And the Suicide Capital of the World Is … The Republic of Mari El


Suicide rates vary greatly from one part of the world to another. As the first map indicates, self-killing reaches its peak over most of the former Soviet Union, and is common across Europe north of the Alps as well as in southern and eastern Asia. Suicide rates are low across most of the Muslim world (with notable exceptions in Somalia, Kazakhstan, and Iraq) and much of Latin America. But one must regard such official data with some skepticism. Where suicide is highly disparaged by religious beliefs, questionable deaths are often classified as accidental. I thus find the World Health Organization’s “0.0” figure for the female suicide rate in Egypt hard to swallow.

At the top of the suicide chart is either Lithuania or Belarus, depending on the source. South Korea, Japan, Kazakhstan, and Russia chart near the top, exceeding twenty-four self-inflicted deaths per 100,000 people per year. Japan’s rate is more than twice that of the United States, and that of Belarus is three times higher. As the U.S. has plenty of suicides itself, the elevated figures of Russia and Japan signal to many observers serious social and psychological problems.

But while the world map of suicide distribution shows significant geographical variation, it actually under-reports it by at least a factor of two. If gargantuan Russia were divided into its first-order constituent units, we would see figures as high as sixty-six per 100,000. The world’s “suicide capital” is not Lithuania or Belarus, but rather the Russian internal republic of Mari El (population 728,000). Mari-El’s neighboring republic of Chuvashia also suffers extremely high rates of self-killing. Nowhere else in the world, evidently, is suicide as common as it is in this part the Volga basin, a fascinatingly diverse and historically significant region that tends to vanish into the undifferentiated Russian vastness.

High suicide rates in the middle Volga seem to be rooted in the region’s cultural background. In regard to the Mari, religious practices are often blamed. Mari El is the last redoubt of animism in Europe, and Christian critics have linked the prevalence of suicide to “pagan” beliefs and practices. As Geraldine Fagan reported in 2002,

According to local Baptist pastor Timothy Gerega, Mari-El has the highest suicide rate in the CIS — up to 17 a week — which he ascribes to the strength of local paganism. “There are usually two rival groupings, each with their own kart [pagan priest], in every village,” he says. “The karts are constantly putting curses upon the other faction.” In addition to prayer gatherings, [Mari anthropologist Nikandr] Popov admits, traditional Mari pagan practices include magic healing and witchcraft.

Such explanations, whatever their merit, cannot hold for the Chuvash, who are have been largely Christian for generations. According to Mark Ames, non-religious cultural traditions provide the key:

Historically, suicide has always played a key role in Chuvash culture. Until a century or so ago, the ultimate form of revenge a Chuvash could take on his enemy was to go into his enemy’s courtyard and hang himself on his doorstep. In the morning, said enemy would open the door and see the avenging Chuvash hanging there, neck snapped, tongue hanging out, eyes bulging. The living lose. Game over: … the surviving Chuvash would never recover from the shame, while the dead, suicidal Chuvash would live on as a man of honor and integrity, a real fighter.

The Chuvashian practice of killing one’s self to spite one’s enemies might seem culturally incomprehensible to most readers. Still, there is a universally recognized power in self-destructive protest. Egypt may have one of the lowest rates of suicide in the world, but recent weeks have seen a spate of Egyptian self-immolations, as young men follow the example of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian youth whose flaming end sparked demonstrations that took down a regime. As a result, Muslim clerics across Egypt have been denouncing self-sacrifice as un-Islamic, and one hard-core fundamentalist (Salafiyya) leader has gone so far as to assert that, “Whoever tries to commit suicide ‘Tunisian style’ to motivate Egyptians to revolt is a heretic,” destined to Hell. Such religiously inspired denunciations, however, have not yet put an end to politically motivated self-burning across the Arab world.

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