The Pagan Heart of Russia

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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.