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.