RUSSIA: Mari Paganism - Traditional Religion Or Destructive Cult?

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 12 July 2002

This article by Keston News Service's Moscow correspondent was first published in Russian on 11 July 2002 on the religious affairs website of Russian Journal (

In accordance with Russia's 1997 law on religion - for which it lobbied - the Moscow Patriarchate is obliged to respect historical paganism. In accordance with Orthodox belief, however, it would do the exact opposite.

The 1997 law's preamble states that religions "constituting an inseparable part of the historical heritage of Russia's peoples" are to be accorded respect. The law's official commentary specifies that such religions include "ancient pagan cults, which have been preserved or are being revived in the republics of Komi, Mari-El, Udmurtia, Chuvashia, Chukhotka and several other subjects of the Russian Federation."

This state of affairs does not appear to cause disquiet at the highest level of the Russian Orthodox Church, however. At the consecration of Ioan (Timofeyev) as bishop of the newly-created diocese of Ioshkar-Ola and Mari-El in 1993, Patriarch Aleksi II pointed out that Protestant missionaries pose a great danger to the republic but emphasised that local beliefs should be respected.

Unlike in western Europe, paganism among the Mari constitutes an unbroken tradition rather than a New Age construction. Mari anthropologist Nikandr Popov points out that pagan prayer meetings were permitted by decree during the Second World War - with collections being made for the front - and survived subsequent Soviet attempts to suppress them. Today Mari pagans gather together for approximately 20 festivals annually, at which they offer animal sacrifices in specially designated sacred groves. There are now 360 such groves in the republic and around 120 karts (pagan priests), according to one of the claimants to the title of head kart, Aleksei Yakimov.

Formerly chairman of Mari Ushem ("Union"), a Mari national organisation, Popov is assisting the pagan movement by deepening the karts' knowledge of pre-revolutionary pagan traditions since "they often didn't used to think about what was being done, or why it was being done." Popov stresses the benefits he believes the Mari draw from their faith: "There is a great richness in the ancient belief - it allows direct communion with the cosmos, which pagans call God, and emphasises the preservation of nature."

The benefits of paganism are disputed, however. 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, in every village," he says. "The karts are constantly putting curses upon the other faction." In addition to prayer gatherings, Popov admits, traditional Mari pagan practices include magic healing and witchcraft (koldovstvo).

Locally, the Orthodox also have reservations about being obliged to respect a religion which, were it not for its claim to traditional status, they would surely rank as a destructive cult. In an interview with Keston News Service on 31 May, Bishop Ioan described pagan gatherings as "occult perversions of traditional paganism." Despite the fact that elements of Russia's 1997 law on religion kept the Orthodox "in a certain place," he said, they nevertheless related to paganism in Mari-El "as our consciences dictate - we regard individuals with respect, but view paganism negatively. There cannot be any question when we are talking about the truth - there cannot be multiple truths." Bishop Ioan is particularly concerned about support given to Mari-El "as a sort of pagan reservation" by scholars from fellow Finno-Ugric nations Finland and Hungary. "We cannot return to the Stone Age, but that is what they want. When people take up neopaganism in Europe they view it as an experiment, but for me it means the loss of people."

Asked whether he was able to express his views openly, Bishop Ioan pointed out that the 1997 law on religion outlawed incitement to religious hatred. "I can say what I like if I am asked in private," he said, "but I cannot criticise pagan representatives openly."

While Nikandr Popov confirmed that Bishop Ioan is not particularly outspoken about paganism, he maintained that there are some Orthodox priests "active in that line." Initially stating that "a certain threat" to the pagans' sacred groves came from representatives of the Orthodox Church, Popov admitted that he did not know for a fact who was responsible, but went on to describe serious damage carried out to one of the major pagan sites, Oak Grove, last year. "They sawed into a very important 100-year-old oak - a very deep cut - so that it would dry out. What blasphemy!"

The Mari republican authorities are unequivocal in their support for paganism - or, in the words of the local official dealing with religious affairs, Valentina Kutasova, "the ancient Mari religion". Paganism is officially one of the republic's traditional religions alongside Orthodoxy and Islam, and the leaders of all three are regularly invited to state events. (With some glee, Aleksei Yakimov related to Keston that the Orthodox had not wanted to see the pagans represented during Patriarch Aleksi's official visit to Mari-El in 1993, "but we got in all the same!") Leaders of the three traditional Mari religions are also, says Kutasova, members of a state body which meets every quarter in order to discuss implementation of the 1997 law on religion in the republic. It is in accordance with this law, she maintains, that the Mari authorities "work to prevent the traditional religions from opposing one another," and not due to some local policy.

Bishop Ioan, however, disagrees, seeing the revival of paganism to have taken place "purely on political grounds" - as a way of bolstering Mari nationhood and with it Mari-El's justification for relative autonomy from Moscow. To some extent Popov confirms this view. "Without the Mari religion our people might die," he says. "I don't see any other institution which would preserve them. The statehood which we were given does not protect our people." Here the 1997 law on religion is on the pagans' side. Asked if the Orthodox posed any threat to Mari paganism, Yakimov laughed. "They once threw us out of a building, five years ago," he said. "But they can't do anything against us as they don't have the right to." (END)