Suppressing A Pagan Revival in Russia?

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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).