MOSCOW –An influential figure in the Russian Orthodox Church has said he’d like to see “neo-paganism” made illegal in that country. In remarks at the international congress of Orthodox youth, as reported by Interfax, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin declared, “Let’s say that three things – Wahhabism, Nazism and aggressive neo-paganism – should be removed from the country’s life at the level of the law. Let’s not try to be friends with any of that.”
We spoke to Gwiddon Harvester, the national coordinator of the Pagan Federation International Russia. He provided some context for this statement for Western readers.
The Wild Hunt: Is Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin credible enough that his suggestions might be considered by the authorities?
Gwiddon Harvester: Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin is the Chairman of the “Department of External Relations of Church and Society” in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). He is also a member of the National Civic Chamber, a hand-picked counsel of 126 persons, who are supposed to be advising the Kremlin on issues important to the Russian people. He is a member of the “President’s Committee on Liasons with Religious Organizations.” He serves as a parish priest in Moscow. Unofficially, he is regarded by many as a “Church spokesperson.”
Whether he is considered credible enough by the authorities or not is a very open question. Russian internal politics are extremely opaque … Despite a formal separation of Church and State in the Russian Constitution, we have seen a general trend over the past twenty years of gradual merging of the Church into the fabric of Kremlin’s power system. It is not a great stretch to claim that as far as everyone is concerned the ROC is the Kremlin’s “Department of Spiritual Ideology.”
ROC receives significant state funding and forced “shotgun donations” from businesses; holds monopoly licenses on certain sectors of the economy, [and] receives vast grants of land and buildings. The State conveniently allows the ROC to maintain non-transparent accounting and hushes up any scandals related to money-laundering, corruption or pedophilia in the ROC. The Kremlin in turn uses the Church influence on the common folks to translate certain ideas and messages.
I do not believe that everything Chaplin says is sanctioned by the Kremlin. It is not quite as simple as that. There have been times in the past, when Church rhetoric provoked significant public backlash, and Chaplin was forced to backpedal or refuse ownership of his words.
Considering that this particular speech was presented at the “International Forum of Orthodox Youth” in Moscow, this could be an unsanctioned, personal or a ROC-sanctioned only attempt to tie-in religious extremism of various kinds (except for the Orthodox extremists, whom Chaplin conveniently omits) with political risks … Whether or not the Kremlin makes a fuss over it, we do not know yet.
Considering how often Chaplin says outrageous things, I doubt that much will come out of this particular speech. Then again, as the Kremlin becomes increasingly unpredictable, anything is possible.
TWH: On what basis does he lump together these three concepts? What do you think he means by “aggressive neo-paganism?”
GH: I am unable to do any sort of analysis on how he lumps up these concepts. The only clear description is that of Wahhabism, which Chaplin calls, incorrectly, “pseudo-Islamic.” He also talks about Nazis, but whether he means the Russian nationalists or actual followers of Nazi ideology, I cannot wager a guess.
I do not know precisely what he means by “aggressive neo-paganism,” as this turn of phrase is new to me. I have not seen this [term] being used by anyone in the past. However, if I were to speculate, the main theme may be an extremist ideology … and the potential for using violence. Chaplin says that these extreme groups are more likely to cause a revolution than the liberal democrats, which the Kremlin fears the most at the moment. Therefore, he proposes to pass a law banning the extreme ideology.
By the way, extremism is already a criminal offence in Russia, meaning that anyone publicly calling for extermination of certain members of society or claiming their own superiority gets jail time … Chaplin’s suggestion to ban the ideology is redundant, as extremism is already a criminal offence.
[In] another article, dated Feb. 2014, as a response to the shooting in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Chaplin says that there is a danger from “pseudo-islamic extremists, Neo-Nazi and Neo-Pagan groups.” It means that he was working on developing ties between these three categories for some time. In that article, Chaplin also refers to the Church Counsel of 1994, where a resolution was adopted regarding danger of Neo-Pagan cults, because these cults, in the opinion of the Counsel “aggressively destroy the Russian traditional values and attack the position of the Russian Orthodox Church.”TWH: Are there extremist Pagan elements in Russia? Alternatively, do people perceive this as the truth, whether or not it is?
GH: This really depends on our definition of Paganism. There are several Russians who identify themselves as Pagans and at the same time espouse a philosophy of hatred towards the society at large, members of other ethnic backgrounds, or homosexuals, or women, perhaps. Their numbers are very small .. but I cannot simply say that they do not exist.
As a national coordinator for Pagan Federation International Russia, I use the following rule of thumb. Iff someone hates others and calls for violence against others, then they are violating the second principle of PFI, and as far as I am concerned, they are not really Pagan, but rather psychopaths, abusing Pagan symbols…
Over the years, we had several incidents, involving such individuals.
- The largest one was over the “Ancient Russian Inglian Church of Orthodox Old Believers-Inglings” – a group, registered in Omsk in 1992 by Alexander Khinevich, [who] published several books and formed a brain-washing cult, which mixed elements from Scandinavian Sagas, Hindu mythology, Slavic folktales, science fiction (aliens), Mormonism, with rituals from Orthodox sects of Old-Believers (starovery) … Every other Pagan group in Russia considers Khinevich a charlatan, a fraud and someone who abuses the very name of Paganism.
- In 2009 there was a much-publicized murder of Daniil Sysoev, a parish priest of ROC in Moscow. Sysoev was famous for hateful and extremist rhetoric, as well as dubious efforts of converting Muslims, protestants and Neo-Pagans “back to the flock.” He was shot to death in his own church by an unknown gunman. Interfax widely distributed news, that an unidentified informer told the police that Sysoev was murdered by Pagans … The police currently consider that Sysoev was most likely murdered for converting Muslims to Christianity.
- In February of 2014 there was a shooting in a church in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. An armed security guard, Stepan Komarov, killed a beggar and a nun, as well as wounded six worshippers, while shouting for everyone to get out of the church. He was detained by police and is currently awaiting trial … [Komarov] had a nazi swastika and a pseudo-Pagan symbol of the sun tattooed on his torso and back … ROC Bishop of Sakhalin Tikhon claimed that this was an attempt to scare people away from the Church and shared that he believes Komarov is a Neo-Pagan.
From time to time, the police detain certain individuals and ban published materials of small Pagan groups for violating the law on extremist literature, usually due to anti-Semitism or anti-government rhetoric. However, in all cases that I am aware of, these individuals were also members of right-wing nationalist groups, so their arrests were not connected to Paganism, per se.
Based on the facts of the matter, I cannot find any aggressive Neo-Pagans out there, who Chaplin alleges are so dangerous, that they can start up a revolution. If there were, we certainly would have knowledge about them in one way or another … The majority of Pagans seem to be happy where they are and don’t feel the need to insult others, or insist on their own superiority. They are doing their own thing and often don’t really know much or care about what others are doing. A growing minority also wants to create ties with Pagans from other countries and recognize common European Pagan heritage. These are the sort of people, who are willing to work with PFI, the more open-minded kind.
TWH: If ROC does has so much influence, why is ROC specifically so concerned?
GH: The reason why ROC is so concerned about Neo-Paganism, and why it thinks Neo-Pagans are aggressive, may be due to the fact that over the past twenty years or so, the ROC is working on monopolizing Russian religious thought. Since 2009, the Church repeatedly stated that Christian Orthodoxy is the only faith for ethnic Russians, in fact, they credit Christianity with the creation of the Russian nation. Therefore, Russian Neo-Pagans are a threat to their monopoly.
How can you be an ethnic Russian and suddenly not an Orthodox Christian? To ROC this is a very dangerous idea. A young and head-strong ideological rival threatens ROC access to State funding and support. This is a question of survival for ROC, as the State may just as easily decide to ditch its support for archaic and poorly-attended ROC, and switch to supporting the young and growing Russian Pagan movement. In the early 1990s the State ditched the communist ideology to support the ROC, so, who is to say that the same thing will not happen again.
Now, the irony of this whole situation is that every Pagan I talked to really dreads any sort of State support or involvement in Pagan affairs, including State funding. The idea of having a national Pagan religion as part of the State ideology will be a disaster for us. Our strength is in being true to our own vision of spirituality, growing organically … What Pagans need is for the State to provide a level playing field, and not to play favorites.
The reference to 1994 Church Counsel in Chaplin’s Feb. 2014 article is revealing, in that Chaplin appears to refer to a very specific Neo-Pagan “aggression” in his speech. Namely, the critical or humorous references to ROC in writings and internet messages posted by some Pagans. Now, Pagans all over the world like to poke a bit of fun at Christianity’s expense now and again, and I personally find it quite in poor taste to do so, as I know quite a few devoted Christians, who are very sincere and actually help others.
[But] ROC is a bit thin-skinned about any sort of criticism, I think in a way, because they are not at all sure of themselves, of how stable they are. Some humor is just too close to the truth for their comfort. ROC would like to position this criticism and humor as sacrilege and aggression. However, I can hardly envision the public buying that idea.
TWH: What is the general public attitude toward Pagans in Russia?
GH: [The Public] is largely unaware of the Neo-Pagan movement altogether. Most Russians are not religious at all, although many are superstitious. Hardly anyone ever goes to Church. The only well-attended Church celebration is Easter, and even then people go to Church just to get the eggs and the bread blessed and leave immediately after…
According to the National Census in 2012, 41% of Russians identified themselves as Orthodox Christians. Fewer than 4% of all Orthodox Christians regularly attend mandatory Church services and fewer than 5% belong to a parish. Fewer than 8% have ever read the Bible and fewer than 1% believe that following a different religion is a sin.
Whenever I speak with non-Pagans about Paganism, they mostly think this is a role-playing club or an Eastern religious cult of some sort, something like the Society of Krishna. However the vast majority simply have no idea what it is, or vaguely remember something from school about Christianization of Rus in the tenth century CE and find it surprising. I have never heard any members of the public, other than ROC officials, refer to Neo-Pagans as aggressive or dangerous.
TWH: Was PFI familiar with Chaplin’s recent statements? Do they come as a surprise?
GH: PFI was aware of this talk by Chaplin, as it was mentioned on national news. We decided not to pursue this matter, as there appears to be no specific harm done, and the matter is not new.
TWH: Can you briefly characterize the types of Pagan religion practiced in Russia?
GH: The National Census in 2012 identified that 1.2% of all Russians adhere to Pagan faiths. About half of them belong to native non-Russian ethnic groups … It is estimated that Russian modern Pagans number around 600,000 people in total. PFI commenced an ongoing poll in 2014 held at vk.com, where Pagans may report their tradition or path. Over the past six months 3,049 Pagans participated in the poll, which makes up for about 0.5% of total estimated Pagan population. This percentage is significant enough for statistical purposes to draw an estimate of relative numbers of Pagans in each path.
- 31.4% Slavic Paganism (reconstruction)
- 25.8% could not identify themselves with any particular path or were newcomers
- 18.7% Wicca
- 15% Asatru
- 3.2% – Neo-Shamans
- 3% – Other Reconstructionists (Celtic, Hellenic, Khemetic, etc.)
- 2.2% – Hermetic (Western Occult) Pagans or Thelemites
This data needs to be adjusted for the fact that not all Pagans are on the internet or have accounts at VK and that many chose not to participate. At present, we have not determined a multiplier robust enough to present credible figures.
I estimate that at least half of all Pagans, or 300,000 people, follow a Slavic path in some way, shape or form. They are inspired by written accounts of old Slavic practices, ethnography, folk traditions, fairy tales, modern Pagan books, as well as their own insight … There are several large associations of Slavic Pagans at present, and many individual groups in various Russian cities.
Many Pagans do not want to be confined to a specific tradition or path, and are happy to pursue their own thing, gathering information and experimenting with various concepts and ideas, including Hindu religions, Tao, Tantra, Dzen-Buddhism, the left-hand path, new age concepts. There are also those who would research the ways of old Russian vedma.
Most Wiccans in Russia are solitary eclectic witches, learning from books and the internet. There are open groups available in Moscow and St Petersburg that we know of. Many Wiccans are university students or young adults.
Asatru and other Norse path practitioners have been practicing for some time in Russia, although I do not know when or where the first groups started. There are groups of Asatru in several cities now, the; the largest ones are in Moscow and St Petersburg.
Other traditions and paths include Neo-Shamanic practices, both Siberian and Castaneda, reconstructions of various ethnic Pagan traditions, Celtic being most popular, followed by Khemetic and Hellenic or Roman. Some reconstruct the Germanic traditions … There are Hermetic groups in Moscow and St Petersburg, mostly of French Masonic or Rosicrucian background. There is an O.T.O. camp and quite a few followers of Thelema.
TWH: What is the climate for those practicing minority Pagan faiths in your country?
GH: The climate, generally speaking, is quite neutral. I cannot in all honesty claim that Pagans are being persecuted at the moment in Russia. We are free to set up any internet presence we want. We are free to report the creation of local Pagan groups to the Municipal government, and nobody makes a fuss. We cannot register religious organizations at the moment, unless a religious group has been in continuous practice for 15 years. But these rules are the same for all newer religions, not just Pagans. The public is generally not aware that we exist, however, both Slavic Pagans and Wiccans participated in TV documentaries on National TV over the last few years, and we heard hardly any feedback from the community.
We generally gather in public parks in Moscow or at private dwellings, and I have not heard of any trouble. I personally lead a Wiccan ritual in robes in the middle of a busy lawn in Gorkiy Park after work and not a single passerby even stopped for a gawk. Slavic groups set up permanent altars and open-air temples with statues of Gods in public parks from time to time around Moscow. Occasionally these statues get vandalized, usually by fanatical extreme Orthodox youth groups, or perhaps just deranged individuals, one may never know.
Overall, we try to go by the rule of “live and let live,” not to be too much “in your face” of the establishment, and at the same time not hiding from anyone.