Russian Paganism

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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