Wen the Bolsheviks went about counting and cataloguing the ethnicities they had inherited from the Russian Empire, they identified not one but two Mari nations: the Mountain Mari, numbering about fifty thousand, and the Meadow Mari, a hundred and fifty thousand strong. Both were related to the Finns, spoke Finno-Ugric languages, and had received a modified Cyrillic written language from Russian missionaries in the nineteenth century. Other missionaries, a couple of centuries earlier, had converted the pagan Mari to Christianity, and now the Bolsheviks came to banish religion altogether. The early Bolsheviks thought themselves internationalist and anti-imperialist, and in their new country each ethnic group that had its own language qualified for its own district. The Mari got two, because the meadow and mountain languages resisted attempts to merge them into one. The Bolsheviks classified the Mari as “backward,” which qualified them for affirmative action and a brand new Latin alphabet. But in the early nineteen-thirties the internationalist project was scrapped, along with the alphabet and affirmative action. Over the next four decades more than twenty per cent of the Mari would become victims of state terror, some because they were deemed too rich—which is to say, they had property—and others because they were simply “enemies of the people.”
In the quarter century since the Soviet Union collapsed, the Mari have reclaimed their pagan and Christian traditions in roughly equal measure. Their northern region, Mari El, has for fifteen years been governed by a Moscow appointee, an ethnic Russian who has been mired in accusations of corruption and worse. Ten years ago, the European Parliament criticized Mari El for ethnically discriminatory and politically repressive policies, singling out the tiny republic in Russia’s otherwise dismal landscape. For the Mari, in other words, the experience of being Russian imperial subjects has been remarkably consistent through the centuries. The Italian photographer Raffaele Petralla’s series shows just that: pre-revolutionary houses, Soviet interiors, traditional Mari clothes, pagan rituals, and a desolate Russian landscape that stretches for centuries.
Source: The New Yorker