By Don Hill/Pavel Boutorine
For the last five years, Russia's Orthodox Church has had a useful tool for inhibiting the growth of upstart religious competitors, mostly from the West. That is a religion law that gives special status to "traditional," or long-standing, religious bodies over new ones. RFE/RL correspondents report, however, that in one Russian republic, the 1997 law supports a religious group even more traditional than Orthodoxy -- Marii paganism.
Prague, 22 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Marii El Republic of the Russian Federation lies 800 kilometers east of Moscow just to the west of the Ural Mountains separating Europe from Asia. In addition to its Russian inhabitants, it is the home of a separate ethnic group -- the Maris, who number some 500,000.
While many Maris have embraced Russian Orthodoxy as their religion, others still adhere to an older faith, that of Marii paganism. The movement has 100 or more priests, or "karts," and perhaps 300 remaining sacred groves where traditional pagan rites are performed.
Nikandr Popov is a Marii anthropologist. Speaking from the city of Yoshkar-Ola in the Marii El Republic, he tells RFE/RL that interest in Marii paganism is on the rise: "Young people have a certain interest in this religion, they are now paying more attention. The interest has grown, because it is the roots of our culture, it is the basis of our spirituality, so young people do have more interest in it now. I think in the 21st century there will still be people who will worship their ancient gods."
But to the dismay of the Russian Orthodox Church and at least one Protestant denomination in the Marii El Republic, the Marii pagans now are seeking recognition as a traditional religion in Russia. That legal designation would put them in the ranks of Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism.
Geraldine Fagan is a correspondent in Moscow for the Keston News Service, a British-based group specializing in religious affairs in formerly communist nations. She recently traveled to Marii El to visit the Marii pagans and their sacred groves. She says that Russian Orthodox leaders are being discomfited by provisions of the 1997 religion law they supported, which -- despite not mentioning paganism specifically, supports the rights of so-called "traditional" religions.
"I think it shows the whole slipperiness of attempts to define what is a 'traditional' religion -- [saying] just because something is 'traditional' that [it] is good and positive, and if it has emerged in the last 20 years [it] must be destructive and totalitarian and so on. And, obviously, that is a problem that the Orthodox are facing now, having supported this law."
Interest in paganism around the world has resurged in the last 50 years as a product of the New Age movement of the 1960s, featuring beliefs in communicating with spirits, reincarnation, and nature worship. But the Marii pagans do not fall under the cloak of such neo-paganism. Their tradition dates to prehistory. It's a kind of pantheism, in which they find their deities in objects such as trees and sacred groves.
The Marii pagans went unrecognized and unregistered in Soviet times. Fagan says that's complicating their drive for recognition now. "And if you're a kind of disorganized group where it's not really clear who is leading you, and you don't have any legal documentation -- and the pagans didn't, because they weren't registered during the Soviet period."
That's not all, Fagan says. The fact that Marii El pagans have no traditional houses of worship made it impossible for them to aspire to legal status during the Soviet period.
The Keston correspondent says some local authorities of the Marii El Republic are supporting the splintered, disorganized, and, often, naive pagan leaders in seeking to wend their ways through the labyrinthine Russia registration process. She says local politicians may be motivated in part by political considerations: "And I think that as long as the local authorities are interested in promoting some kind of specific Marii [national] identity, I think they'll continue to include the pagans as a kind of traditional local belief that needs to be, you know, at least tacitly supported."
Anthropologist Popov agrees, adding that Marii pagans have never had a political agenda of their own. "Most probably the rise of paganism is related to the growth of the [Marii] national self-consciousness. No one is talking about a political autonomy here, because the Marii paganism has never put forward any political objectives, just like any other pagan religion."
Popov says the difficulties the Marii pagans have had in registering their religion are largely due to the fact that pagan elders are not familiar with the laws and procedures required. Moreover, he says, most area entrepreneurs and business leaders are either Orthodox Christians or Tatar Muslims, so very few resources are devoted to supporting Marii paganism.
As for popular sentiment, Popov says paganism has not been overly vilified, despite occasional protests from the Orthodox Church. "The Orthodox Church is not concerned [about the spread of paganism]. But talking to the believers, they always say that [paganism] is worshipping of the devil, because it does not recognize Jesus Christ and it goes against the pillars of Christianity."
There are aspects to the Marii pagan beliefs and practices that more conventional religious communities find disconcerting. Rivalries between leaders of different pagan groups have led to the exchange of curses, which may explain an unusually high suicide rate among the pagan worshippers. Traditional Marii pagan practices include animal sacrifices, magic healing, and spell casting.