Mari Pagans Seek Registration as All-Russian Religious Organization

But Face Major Obstacles

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The Centralized Religious Organization of Mari Traditional Religion is seeking recognition as an all-Russian religious group because so many of its adepts live beyond the borders of the republic, but it faces serious obstacles on that path from some Mari pagans, from republic officials and from Moscow.

Many followers of the Mari traditional faith do not believe that they should have anything to do with the government. Many in the republic government don’t want competition. And many in Moscow fear such recognition will lead both to intensified competition between the forest Maris who are primarily pagan and others who are Russian Orthodox.

There are also concerns that such a group will increase links between the Finno-Ugri Mari nation and the three Finno-Ugric peoples who already have independence – Estonia, Finland, and Hungary – and thus represent a challenge to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.

In the current issue of NG-Religii, Andrey Melnikov, the editor of that publication, reports on the Mari aspirations and also on the opposition that these aspirations currently face.

Aleksandr Biryukov, the head of the Centralized Religious Organization of the Mari Religion, tells him that his body, which already enjoys recognition from the Mari El authorities, wants Moscow to recognize it because today there are so many Maris living beyond the borders of the republic. Without such recognition, it is almost impossible to organize religious groups.

The situation is especially dire, he suggests, in nearby regions and in Moscow and St. Petersburg where there are many Maris but few Mari traditional religious organizations or leaders. Those who follow the traditional faith either have to avoid celebrating it or go great distances and face persecution if they do otherwise.

Roman Lunkin, deputy director of the Moscow Institute of Europe and a leading Russian specialist on religion, points out that the Mari traditional religion is “the most organized and well-preserved pagan movement of an indigenous people of Russia.” But he notes that most Mari pagans live outside the cities while urban ones are converting to Russian Orthodoxy.

Seeking all-Russian recognition is thus a natural step for its adepts but one that others are certain to oppose. “Neither the imperial nor the Soviet authorities could suppress mass prayers in holy places and break the tradition of the pagan priesthood.” It existed despite repression, and it resurfaced with a vengeance after 1990.

According to Melnikov, today there are 230 to 240 active holy sites in Mari El where followers of the traditional faith assemble, and these are grouped in 10 unions, which have combined in most cases to form the Centralized Religious Organization that Biryukov currently heads.

That group’s active pursuit of recognition has already drawn fire from the republic interior ministry which issued a denunciation of such activities in May, arguing that the pagans are playing into the hands of nationalist radicals and thus must be reined in rather than encouraged.

The way in which shamanism in Tyva and elsewhere has challenged Russia’s current officially recognized “traditional” religions is behind such fears because the traditional faiths often reflect a deeper religiosity and greater political commitment than do those which have already been roped in by officialdom.

That of course argues for registering such groups as far as officials are concerned, but it also explains why some officials are afraid to do so and why some followers of the traditional faith are opposed to registration as well.

Paul Goble,
Staunton, July 6

Source: Window on Eurasia

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