Russia’s unorthodox worshippers

Alexandre Billette pays a visit to forest worshippers of the remote Mari El republic on the Volga, who have maintained their religious traditions despite pressure from the Tsars, the Soviet regime and the Orthodox church.

On a poor road across the Mari El Republic, the village of Mari-Turek is barely distinguishable from thousands of others in rural Russia that time has forgotten. With no industry, it dozes peacefully away from the main thoroughfares of the Volga federal district.

But hidden on these remote plains are hundreds of places of worship that few travellers ever notice. In the traditional religion of the Mari people there are no churches. They prefer to gather in küsoto, isolated groves; the republic has about 400 sacred küsoto, some tiny, others the size of small forests.

We visited Mari-Turek on a Saturday before a major religious ceremony. At the end of a track, Albert Roukavishnikov, 60, put the final touches to his preparations. Bearded, with a woven hat and enormous boots, he looked like a wood elf. He is a karta, a priest. With a dozen other men he cleared a large space, arranging big pots and cutting branches. He chanted a short prayer in the Finno-Ugric Mari language, “to beg the Gods to protect tomorrow’s ceremony from the bad weather”.

There are several dozen divinities in the Mari ­religion, all related to nature. The Mari people number only about 700,000, of whom just under half live in the Mari El republic, but they have maintained their religious traditions despite pressure from the Tsars, the Soviet regime and the Orthodox church. According to Mari cultural organisations, about half the community still practices traditional worship, sometimes in parallel with the Orthodox religion borrowed from their Russian neighbours.

On Sunday several hundred people converged on the forest at first light. They came from far and wide. Some made a two-day journey from Khanty-Mansiysk republic, about 1,500km to the north-east. The faithful entered the clearing through an improvised gateway, covered in white cloth. Most families were dragging sacks containing geese to be sacrificed to the gods. A believer said: “The soul of the sacrificed animals will fly off, then after the meal we shall have to burn any remaining meat so that the animals can be reborn in heaven.” A bullock and a sheep were also sacrificed.

Three karta presided over the ceremony. At the moment of sacrifice, punctuated by incantations, they ensured that the animals’ souls had truly ­departed. Then the men cut up the meat to be stewed in clear stock. The women cooked stacks of fatty pancakes. A fourth karta was seated in the centre of the clearing. He served kvas, a drink made with ­fermented grain, and blessed the faithful in exchange for donations towards the cost of the animals.

Several hours elapsed before the ceremony really began. Near midday a karta improvised rhythmic psalms, surrounded by kneeling worshippers. ­Another prayed, followed by another. Finally everyone gathered round the tables to eat the soup, accom­panied by bread and pancakes.

“The Mari live in harmony with nature. These rites are our way of thanking the gods for that harmony,” said Mikhail Aiglov, who, in his 40s, was too young to rank as a karta but was “worthy of ­respect”, and helped organise the ceremony. “The tiniest molecule on Earth is part of nature and every­thing in nature is divine. When we gather in large numbers like today, it generates powerful cosmic ­energy,” said Aiglov, who works as a security guard.

The Orthodox church, supported by the local ­authorities, resents the Mari religion, as Vitali Tanakov, a karta, discovered when he tried to publish a book on his religion in 2006. Publication was refused on the grounds that it was “extremist literature”. He was harassed by the Federal Security Service.

In the city of Yoshkar-Ola, the Orthodox administrative centre, Father Vladimir works on liturgical texts translated into the Mari language 100 years ago, which the church wants to rewrite in a contemporary style. “They are just old world beliefs that have almost completely disappeared,” he said. “Over three-quarters of the republic’s population are ­ Orthodox.” And the others? “They are Tatars, Muslims and such.”

Source: Guardian Weekly

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