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Dancing And Sacred Groves: What Does It Mean To Be Mari?

The Mari El Republic in central Russia is home to the Mari people, an ethnic minority that proudly preserves its traditions. Sometimes described as "Europe's last pagans," locals speak a Finno-Ugric language and observe pre-Christian rituals, although some also follow the Russian Orthodox faith. The Mari religion centers on believers' connections to nature, with rituals taking place in sacred forest groves. RFE/RL photographer Sergey Peteryaev asked Mari women to pose in traditional dress and describe their impressions of Mari identity, language, and faith.


Olga Volkova, 28, choreography teacher. "For me, being a Mari means knowing the language and cuisine. Family is one of the key things in my life. I have special ties with nature. For example, if I felt unwell when I was a child I lay down under a birch tree and fell asleep. It was very peaceful."
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Olga Volkova, 28, choreography teacher. "For me, being a Mari means knowing the language and cuisine. Family is one of the key things in my life. I have special ties with nature. For example, if I felt unwell when I was a child I lay down under a birch tree and fell asleep. It was very peaceful."

Natalya Mochalova, 19, student. "I am 100 percent Mari, but I come from a Russian Orthodox family. However, my grandmother still performs a few traditional rites. I live in Mari El, which is important. I feel ashamed of those Mari people who are embarrassed by their origins and call themselves Russians. Nature is nothing but beauty for me. I just walk in the woods."
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Natalya Mochalova, 19, student. "I am 100 percent Mari, but I come from a Russian Orthodox family. However, my grandmother still performs a few traditional rites. I live in Mari El, which is important. I feel ashamed of those Mari people who are embarrassed by their origins and call themselves Russians. Nature is nothing but beauty for me. I just walk in the woods."

Natalya Solovyova, 24, accountant. "I come from a Mari family. We have always spoken Mari at home, so I can speak it fluently, but I make mistakes in my writing. My parents were Russian Orthodox, but my grandparents used to go to the sacred groves. Holidays, especially family holidays, are the moments when I most clearly feel that I am Mari. There's singing and dancing, and it’s not just a performance but real Mari tradition."
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Natalya Solovyova, 24, accountant. "I come from a Mari family. We have always spoken Mari at home, so I can speak it fluently, but I make mistakes in my writing. My parents were Russian Orthodox, but my grandparents used to go to the sacred groves. Holidays, especially family holidays, are the moments when I most clearly feel that I am Mari. There's singing and dancing, and it’s not just a performance but real Mari tradition."

Yekaterina Ivaikova, 22, dancer. "My father is Mari and my mother is [ethnic] Russian. The family is Russian Orthodox, which is usual in Mari El. I don’t feel that I am Mari because I don’t speak the language. I think you can find a real Mari only in a village. But I do feel a connection with nature. Sometimes I feel the urge to go and meditate in the forest. When I go to sleep in the city, I put on a recording of sounds of the forest."
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Yekaterina Ivaikova, 22, dancer. "My father is Mari and my mother is [ethnic] Russian. The family is Russian Orthodox, which is usual in Mari El. I don’t feel that I am Mari because I don’t speak the language. I think you can find a real Mari only in a village. But I do feel a connection with nature. Sometimes I feel the urge to go and meditate in the forest. When I go to sleep in the city, I put on a recording of sounds of the forest."

Svetlana Davydova, 24, student and ballet dancer. "My mother is Mari, so I understand the language, but I can barely speak it. I currently don’t go to the sacred groves but I have been there a few times. I don’t have time for it, although I feel close to nature. When I am in Chuvashia [neighboring Mari El] I tell everyone that I am Mari, and when I am in Mari El, it’s vice versa. However, I feel that I'm more of a Mari because of the history of the people. When I come to the forest, I want to touch the trees, especially if I expect something important to happen."
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Svetlana Davydova, 24, student and ballet dancer. "My mother is Mari, so I understand the language, but I can barely speak it. I currently don’t go to the sacred groves but I have been there a few times. I don’t have time for it, although I feel close to nature. When I am in Chuvashia [neighboring Mari El] I tell everyone that I am Mari, and when I am in Mari El, it’s vice versa. However, I feel that I'm more of a Mari because of the history of the people. When I come to the forest, I want to touch the trees, especially if I expect something important to happen."

Anastasia Galiyeva, 19, student. "I'm fluent in Mari because my mother teaches it. We used to live in Tatarstan near a Mari village where they study the language. I have never attended a traditional rite. When you live outside the Mari culture, you start forgetting the rites. When I was a child, I was embarrassed to speak Mari. Now it’s different. I speak it all the time. I don’t think about our connection with nature too often, but I feel calmer in the forest than in the city."
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Anastasia Galiyeva, 19, student. "I'm fluent in Mari because my mother teaches it. We used to live in Tatarstan near a Mari village where they study the language. I have never attended a traditional rite. When you live outside the Mari culture, you start forgetting the rites. When I was a child, I was embarrassed to speak Mari. Now it’s different. I speak it all the time. I don’t think about our connection with nature too often, but I feel calmer in the forest than in the city."

Tatyana Kudyashova, 19, student. "I speak Mari, but I don’t feel any particular connection to nature or the Mari people. I haven’t given much thought to being Mari. Maybe I will in the future." 
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Tatyana Kudyashova, 19, student. "I speak Mari, but I don’t feel any particular connection to nature or the Mari people. I haven’t given much thought to being Mari. Maybe I will in the future." 

Olesya Starikova, 33, ballet dancer. "My mother is pure Mari and my father is half Mari. What does it mean to be a Mari? It affects everything! Language, rituals, family. All those things make up the nation. Language plays a key role in understanding the Mari people’s connection with nature. It helps you express feelings that are difficult to speak about. Being a Mari means understanding the past and realizing who you are. My grandfather was very influential for me in this regard. He would give all his food to his children, leaving just scraps for himself. That's what I understand as the meaning of being Mari. My husband and I bought a house so that our children would have a real home and feel attached to it. Living in an apartment is a totally different thing."
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Olesya Starikova, 33, ballet dancer. "My mother is pure Mari and my father is half Mari. What does it mean to be a Mari? It affects everything! Language, rituals, family. All those things make up the nation. Language plays a key role in understanding the Mari people’s connection with nature. It helps you express feelings that are difficult to speak about. Being a Mari means understanding the past and realizing who you are. My grandfather was very influential for me in this regard. He would give all his food to his children, leaving just scraps for himself. That's what I understand as the meaning of being Mari. My husband and I bought a house so that our children would have a real home and feel attached to it. Living in an apartment is a totally different thing."

Vera Nikolayeva, 31, music teacher. "I visit the sacred groves, but not often, as I currently live in the city. I am proud to be Mari and can even call myself a bit of a nationalist. I don’t like it when people don’t even try to learn the Mari language, especially now that it’s stopped being unfashionable, as it was in the 1990s. When I go out in the woods, I don’t even have to say anything: it’s all so pure and clear."
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Vera Nikolayeva, 31, music teacher. "I visit the sacred groves, but not often, as I currently live in the city. I am proud to be Mari and can even call myself a bit of a nationalist. I don’t like it when people don’t even try to learn the Mari language, especially now that it’s stopped being unfashionable, as it was in the 1990s. When I go out in the woods, I don’t even have to say anything: it’s all so pure and clear."

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