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.
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."
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
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.
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."
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).
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."
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."
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!"
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.
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."