The clang of knife on axe blade grates through the sacred village of Pine Grove. Woodsmoke wafts from a low flame amid offerings of boiled eggs, cheesecake, steamed buckwheat and buttered pancakes. Before this altar, eight karts, or priests, chant invocations to Agavairem, the god of sowing, in rhythmic, guttural Mari. Dressed in densely embroidered black and blood red smocks, they lift their felt hats at the close of each prayer, in deference to a cluster of pine trees. Men in suits and women in festive floral headscarves bow in unison behind a huddle of worshippers. An almond-eyed gusli player provides languid accompaniment.
A traditional Mari celebration
East of Moscow, in their forest republic on the banks of the Volga, the Mari people have preserved an unbroken tradition of paganism, perhaps uniquely in Europe. No one knows since when. “Our souls call us to come together and pray to the forces of nature,” says Zinaida, one worshipper. “It was always like that”. At 7517 years old, corrects kart Albert Rukovishnikov, “ours is the world’s oldest religion”.
Whatever the case, memories of Soviet persecution set the Mari traditional faith – as adherents know it - apart from more recent neo-pagan arrivals. As a boy, Rukovishnikov would creep into the forest with his grandmother to perform sacrificial rites by night. “The police – fervent atheists, communists – would come”, he recalls. “They kicked over our cauldrons and chased us away”. Along with churches and mosques across the Soviet Union, many of Mari El Republic’s sacred groves were razed during anti-religious campaigns. That said, Stalin knew to co-opt the karts’ spiritual powers when pushing back the Nazi invasion of 1941.
Like other faiths, Mari paganism has known resurgence since the wane of Soviet power. Today’s police stand idly by at the Pine Grove gathering, even when popular revelry sees eggs gleefully hurled over treetops. Devised as a revolutionary alternative in 1920, Peledysh Pairem (“Flower Festival”) is still held in Yoshkar-Ola (“Red Town”), the Mari capital. While a largely benign affair, a column striding onto Lenin Square beneath the fluttering blue flags of Putin’s United Russia Party lends a spookily retro air.
Yoshkar-Ola, "Red Town", capital of the El Mari Republic
On the summer solstice, away from the glum high-rises and sputtering chimney stacks of Yoshkar-Ola, more Mari prefer to mark the end of the sowing season in Pine Grove and hundreds of equivalent villages. A plentiful harvest, they pray, will come from Agavairem, a manifestation of the Great God Yumo, who unites both good and evil. “A completely good person would be mentally ill,” another kart, Vitaly Tanakov, explains. “A balanced person experiences both love and fear.” As Supreme Being, Yumo has the ultimate harmonious personality, he reasons. “And how could God be a personality if He were completely good?” At some Mari festivals, Yumo is placated with a sacrificial sheep or cockerel, its blood smeared onto bast strips tied around the most sacred tree trunks.
But the Mari are more than just an ethnographic curiosity. Ethnically kin to the Finns and Hungarians, their profoundly ecological religious worldview challenges Russian-led designs on their republic’s natural resources.
There are practically no Mari businessmen, points out Tanakov, as the main local business is felling timber. “A Mari can’t do this - his conscience won’t allow him - because a tree contains a soul in a transitional process of evolution. If you have felled a tree, you have destroyed a living being.” Selling spring water is also out. “Water is one of the hypostases of Yumo, so that means selling God.” Should traditional values such as these be promoted among the Mari, he muses, the state authorities would lose their ability to control the populace. “Wealth would no longer be an instrument of power.”
Mari El’s government is taking no chances. 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.”
In Medvedev and Putin’s Russia, religious and other “extremism” cases such as Tanakov’s increasingly recall the Soviet approach to dealing with dissent. This month’s prosecution of Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeev for curating an anti-religious Moscow art exhibition is simply the most scandalous example of this. In the wake of Russia’s 2002 anti-extremism law, its targets soon moved from borderline to more benign Muslims, including at least one Islamic theological work advocating tolerance. Now it is the turn of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, dozens of whose publications were banned as extremist across Russia last December, including for critiquing internal debate in the Anglican Church and quoting Leo Tolstoy. In the months since, hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been detained, searched or had their homes and prayer halls raided, in scenes some last saw under Khrushchev. As the Kremlin fails to intervene, their last hope for justice is the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Tanakov is also ready to put his case to the European Court. For the kart, the whole of existence is at stake: “They say we need to increase consumption to get out of the economic crisis - but if we all start to consume on the level of England or America, we’ll destroy the earth within a decade.” Instead, he believes, everyone must embrace Mari traditional values. “Our women don’t even pour dirty washtub water back into the river. If you had the same awareness in England, your water would be so clean.”
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.”