Archives For Mari Traditional Religion

Two articles from the Reuters newswire yesterday struck me as highlighting the difference in perceptions between religious groups who hold power, and those that don’t. First, Pope Benedict XVI, in a message for the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Peace, took time to place special emphasis on the “hostility and prejudice” towards Christians in Europe.

“… he reserved his strongest words for Europe, where the Church says it is under assault by some national governments and European institutions over issues such as gay marriage, abortion and the use of Christian religious symbols in public places. [...] The Pope put what the Vatican has termed “aggressive secularism”, such as gay marriage and restrictions on religious symbols such as crucifixes, nativity scenes and other traditions, on the same level as religious fanaticism. [...] “It should be clear that religious fundamentalism and secularism are alike in that both represent extreme forms of a rejection of legitimate pluralism and the principle of secularity.”

That Benedict would put gay marriage on the same plane as terrorism says a lot about how much a post-Christian Europe, specifically a post-Catholic Europe, scares him. Confusing a slip from utter social dominance with persecution and prejudice. Meanwhile, in Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church, in alliance with the government, is using laws against “extremism” to target religious minorities.

When armed Russian security officers forced their way into Alexander Kalistratov’s home, he hardly imagined they were after his books. The local leader of a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Siberia now faces up to two years in prison if found guilty this week of inciting religious hatred for distributing literature about his beliefs. [...] In the case against Kalistratov, activists say local authorities are really aiming at cracking down on groups that are frowned upon by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Nor are Jehovah’s Witnesses the only group to feel the sting of this deepening collusion between church and state, Pagan groups in Russia, including the Mari Traditional Faith, are increasingly finding themselves accused of extremism for even mild criticisms of Christianity.

In response to an appeal by the local state prosecutor, Yoshkar-Ola Municipal Court found Vitaly Tanakov guilty of religious and ethnic hatred in 2006, sentencing him to 120 hours’ forced labour. In 2009, Mari El Supreme Court ruled that his leaflet – “A Priest Speaks” – contained religious and other extremism. It is now banned throughout Russia.

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.”

One can only wonder what Benedict thinks of his Orthodox counterparts in Russia, does he envy them their power? Does he wish he could “suggest” raids on “secularists” and religious minorities that displease him? Does he long for a time when heads of state hung on his words and depended on the Church for social control? It seems obvious to those who are religious minorities that his attack on secularism is really an attack on the freedoms of non-Christians to live without the shadow of the Catholic Church hanging over every aspect of their lives. Why else would he care about crosses in the public square, or if gay couple were allowed to marry? “Christianophobia” is about control, the kind of control the Russian Orthodox Church seems to be enjoying once again in post-Soviet Russia.

Global Voices points to an Open Democracy report from last month on how Mari Traditional Faith (the indigenous belief system of the Mari people in the Republic of Mari El) is facing a renewed form of “anti-religion” in Russia.

In response to an appeal by the local state prosecutor, Yoshkar-Ola Municipal Court found Vitaly Tanakov guilty of religious and ethnic hatred in 2006, sentencing him to 120 hours’ forced labour. In 2009, Mari El Supreme Court ruled that his leaflet – “A Priest Speaks” – contained religious and other extremism. It is now banned throughout Russia.

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.”

There are growing claims that Russia’s controversial anti-extremism law is being used to persecute and suppress religious minorities in the formerly communist nation (with even more restrictive anti-religious passages being proposed). Some fear that a Russian government and Russian Orthodox alliance is partially to blame for growing tensions and hostilities towards resurgent forms of Paganism in Russia. A Mari text mildly critical of Christianity and Islam being labeled as “extremist”, along with several other incidents, paints a grim picture. Some have even considered seeking asylum in the West.

Vitaly Tanakov, the controversial author of “A Priest Speaks” labeled “extremist” for writing lines like: “you have felled a tree, you have destroyed a living being”, is now looking outside of Russia for help to fight these persecutions, and wants to reach out to other Pagan and indigenous faith traditions.

A first step, proposes Tanakov, would be an international symposium of peoples true to the Old Religion. He would certainly invite the Native Americans, and is somewhat impressed by the Druids’ ceremonies at Stonehenge, “although they don’t yet know what they’re doing, it’s just improvisation.” Mari El’s most notorious kart squints knowingly: “With our unbroken traditions, we have something to tell them.”

One wonders if there’s a Mari representative at the ongoing World Congress of Ethnic Religions in Italy? Can indigenous traditions and revived Paganisms truly gather in a global symposium outside the purview and sponsorship of large events like the Parliament of the World’s Religions? Can cultural and theological differences be overcome in order to work on a shared political agenda? These remain open questions, but I’ve seen a new and fragile openness from all sides towards dialog on areas of mutual interest, hopefully it can bear fruit for all sides.

For more on the Mari people and their traditional religion, check out the MariUver blog (particularly this post).

Summer seasonal celebrations by Pagan and pre-Christian faiths isn’t merely relegated to places like Britain or North America, various Pagan groups in Russia celebrated the arrival of Summer, and their numbers are growing to the point where the international press is taking notice. Sergei Ponomarev, writing for the Associated Press, talks to some modern Russian Pagans celebrating a fertility rite known as Ivan Kupala.

Priests pelt grain on the crowd, and young women with braided hair serve loaves of unleavened bread and kvas, a nonalcoholic drink made of rye. As darkness falls, they jump over bonfires, roll burning wooden wheels symbolizing the Sun chariot and float burning candles in a nearby river to attract good luck. Dmitri Pankratov, who goes by Ragnar among his friends, says Slavic paganism is the only true religion for Russians. Other religious “are branches grafted to a tree,” Pankratov says on the morning after the festivity. “None of them are a root of the people.”

Ponomarev also briefly touches on nationalistic impulses within Slavic Paganism that has led some to join violent extremist movements that target the Orthodox Church and non-Slavic immigrants. Some of these themes were touched on in Speaking of Faith’s “Pagans Ancient and Modern” show, which interviewed Adrian J. Ivakhiv, an academic whose parents are Ukranian.

“Paganism in Eastern Europe tends to be on the right end of the spectrum. But yeah, I mean, there’s nationalism and there’s nationalism. There’s a kind of civic nationalism that is inclusive and just wants to get things moving in the right direction in a given country. And then there’s the kind that really claims that one group of people, one ethnic group, or one nationality has the rightful claim to a particular piece of land and others don’t. And you do find some of that among people of this religious persuasion. You find it among others as well, but it’s definitely a fairly strong tendency.”

But modern Paganism in Russia isn’t simply assorted pseudo-nationalists, and anti-Russian Orthodoxy rebels (though Russian Christians aren’t exactly friendly to Russian Pagans), it also has surviving remnants of pre-Christian religion through the Finnic-derived Mari Traditional Religion (though they reject the term “pagan” as a descriptor).

“The Mari, a Finnic people of roughly half a million whose language sounds a bit like a strange mixture of Finnish and Turkish, are said to be Europe’s last pagans. Yet their priests, called kart in Mari, reject that notion. “We are not pagans. We call our faith the Mari Traditional Religion, and we are registered officially in the republic,” said Vyacheslav Mamayev, who oversaw the ceremony as the chief kart of the local Sernur district. He went on to explain that for the Mari, God has nine substances, or hypostases, ranging from the life-giving Ilyan Yumo to the birth goddess Shochinava. Asked about the theological foundation of his faith, Mamayev smiled and said, “Everything works through nature.” Indeed, like most animist religions, the Mari faith traditionally knows no written scriptures and no sacred edifices. Prayers are chiefly held in sacred groves, where some feasts include the ritual slaughter of animals as sacrifice.”

It’s hard for an outsider to get a truly clear picture of what modern Paganism is really like in Russia, most journalistic accounts that reach us either focus on nationalistic thugs or anthropological-style reports on folk-survivals. There is, no doubt, any number of Pagans there who reject violent nationalism and have much in common with Pagans in Britain, Australia, and America, but I doubt we’ll hear much from them in the press any time soon. However, the AP article does note one commonality between Paganisms in Russia and the West.

“The fractured pagan groups constantly argue about the authenticity of rituals, the hierarchy of priests or the pantheon of gods.”

Sounds like they’d fit right in around here.