Pagans in the Russian Federation: ‘you are selling God!’

Source: Wikimedia commons

An ancient pagan religion, claimed to extend back over 7,500 years, is facing new and unwelcome attention from the Russian authorities, according to TOL.

The Mari people have been worshipping in sacred groves of the forests along the Volga and Kama rivers for a very long time indeed and although persecuted during the communist era, Stalin is known to have consulted with their karts, or priests, during the period of the Second World War. The Mari people are divided into the Meadow, Mountain and Eastern Maris and number a total of 604,000, according to the Russian 2002 census. The majority live in the Mari El Republic and speak one of the small group of Finno-Ugric languages, distantly related to Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian. Aater the collapse of communism in Russia, a number of small Christian groups from Finland and Estonia have begun working among the Mari, many of whom have been nominally Christian since the sixteenth century. Efforts to resist this focussed around the establishment in the 1870s of new Kuga Sorta groups (that deliberately combined Christianity with traditional pagan beliefs, venerating Jesus Christ as the greatest prophet). The Mari regard nature as sacred and holy. They worship a pantheon of gods, chief of whom is the Great White God, Osh Kugu Yumo.

During the communist era in Russia, the Mari groves were targetted in much the same way that churches, mosques and synagogues were treated by the authorities. Rituals were disrupted, sacred groves desecrated, and leaders persecuted. Since the political changes of the early 1990s the Mari have known a period of relative freedom and are seeing a resurgence of their religious practices. TOL reports, however, that their understanding of living in harmony with nature has brought them into conflict with the Russian authorities who view the forests as a commercial rather than a natural resource. The Mari see spring water as an incarnation of Osh Kugu Yumo (selling water would be selling God)  and the trees as living beings with souls in a state of transition. In advancing their ancient and moral claims over the forest, the Mari’s karts are generating opposition. State prosecutors have used religious and ethnic hatred laws to silence them and ban their publications. ‘A Priest speaks’, written by Mari kart Vitaly Tanakov, claims that ‘Morality has gone to seed, there is no pity, charity, [or] mutual aid.’ Continuing that Christians and Muslims ‘have lost harmony between the individual and the people.’ This  allegation, apparently stirring up religious hatred, led to 120 hours of hard labour for its author. Their protests, grounded in their religious convictions,  have a political dimension that seeks tp underline their ethnic and historic distinctiveness. It remains to be seen whether the vision of a multi-religious Russia, espoused by both Putin and Medvedev, is evidenced by the responses of the authorities to the Mari claims.

It also raises significant questions for Christian mission and ministry within and among the Mari, at a time of rising ethnic and religious distinctiveness. Longer term Christian work in these areas may have to take greater account of the use of the Finno-Ugric languages spoken among the Mari, the particularities of Mari culture, will need to acknowledge the importance of the claims to the proper care of natural resources, and also respond wisely to allegations that Christians are guilty of a loss of harmony between individual and people.



Explore posts in the same categories: europe, mission, pagan, Russia

4 Comments on “Pagans in the Russian Federation: ‘you are selling God!’”

  1. steve hollinghurst Says:

    good post – and an issue with an interesting dimension in that we are talking not about a revival of Pagan religion but a persistance of pre-Christian religion. i am reminded of input by Mark Nelson at KEK meeting in Pullach last summer on mission in fino ugaric to people like the mari. clearly the need here as elswhere is for an idigenous christian faith that like the early missions to western europe forms a new expression of christianity from the mari culture – the challenging aspect of this in it’s context will be that it will not look either like the Orthodox Church or the newer western protestant churches in Russia. such an indigenous Christian church will need wise support


  2. Steve, I was interested to read one of the Mari karts referring to druidic movements centred around Stonehenge as having much to learn from the Mari!! Seemed to regard them as ‘pagans with L-plates’. Keep well. May see you at Greenbelt?

  3. Vit Says:

    mari live not in russia but in russian federation. its another race, culture and lang. pls change the headline. its offensive to call them russian


  4. Dear Vit,
    Thanks for your post. We apologise for having caused offence by the title of our post. I am sure you will agree that from the article itself that it is clear that we ascribe to the Mari their own ethnicity, language, culture and religious tradition – we do not confuse them with Russians.
    However, you make an important point about the distinction between the ‘Russian Federation’ and ‘Russia’, although reporting in the West typically uses ‘Russia’ as s shorthand for ‘Russian Federation’. We’re grateful when readers of our blogs take time to reflect an important non-Western perspective.


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