Despite being accorded “respect” by Russia’s 1997 law on religion, paganism in the republic of Mari-El (approximately 500 miles or 800 kilometres east of Moscow) is struggling to acquire legal status.
Keston News Service – 12 July 2002 – The main reason for this, admits Mari anthropologist Nikandr Popov, is the weak organisational skills of the pagans themselves. The 1997 law favours those with long-established religious structures and resources, he indicated to Keston News Service in an interview in the Mari capital, Ioshkar-Ola, on 31 May. “There are no official obstructions to registration, but it has to be within the law, and that makes things hard.” Specifically, he explained, it is difficult for the elders of the pagan community – the karts or priests – to get to grips with the complex registration process, since “they aren’t used to legal questions.” While the karts all lived in the countryside, for example, Popov pointed out that constant liaison with the authorities regarding their registration application meant the burden of frequent travel to Ioshkar-Ola.
Another problem, according to Popov, is posed by the splintered nature of the pagan movement after decades of Soviet persecution. “Mari pagans weren’t officially registered anywhere until 1991, so there were no documents of any kind.” Until perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, he told Keston, the organisers of prayer meetings could end up in prison: “Those who took care of any left-over donations for sacrificial animals between prayer meetings were accused of theft.” During the 1970s, moreover,“increased effort was put into destroying sacred groves – directors of collective farms were ordered by Communist Party bosses to destroy them.” Keston was shown one such grove just outside Ioshkar-Ola, the trees of half of which had been felled and a small electricity installation put in their place to prevent further use of the site.
Popov pointed out to Keston that, in accordance with Soviet law, religious rites were permitted only in worship buildings, and, since Mari pagans did not possess any worship buildings, they were unable to register. Today, he complained, this vicious circle works in reverse: since Mari pagans are nowhere registered, they do not have legal status and so cannot have their sacred groves formally returned to them. With the pagans’ loss of legal status following the 1997 law, said Popov, the legal document giving them a major site near Ioshkar-Ola, Oak Grove, became void.
The Mari pagan community did register as an organisation – “Oshmari-Chimari” – in 1991, according to Popov, but this was done in Moscow. Re-registration under the 1997 law presupposes that the Mari pagan community would submit its application to the Mari-El regional authority as a local religious organisation – since the Mari pagans are not resident in Moscow, they could not simply re-register their organisation there.
By 1997, however, Popov told Keston, a conflict had in any case arisen between one of the original leaders of Oshmari-Chimari, Aleksei Yakimov, and another claimant to the title of head kart, Aleksandr Tanygin: “They argued for so long they didn’t give in material [for re-registration].” Speaking to Keston on 31 May, Yakimov maintained that, under a slightly different title, he intended to register Oshmari-Chimari anew, since “it doesn’t look good if the national religion is sidelined.” However, he said, “according to the law it is very difficult for small religions to make their way.”
According to Popov, there are currently no obstructions from the state to pagan worship, “but it will be more difficult for karts to carry out their work without registration.” For example, he said, Orthodox culture could well be introduced as a subject into state schools, “in which case there will be parents wanting the traditional faith to be taught, but we would need to register at the very least in order to sign a contract with the local education ministry“.
Mari-El’s official dealing with religious affairs, Valentina Kutasova, insisted that, although the sacred groves had not been returned to believers, they were protected as “monuments of the natural landscape” in a general catalogue of historical and cultural monuments maintained by the republic’s Ministry of Culture. “You are not allowed to uproot anything there,” she told Keston on 31 May. Yakimov mentioned to Keston his desire to build a temple for winter pagan worship in Ioshkar-Ola itself, but Kutasova said there would not be state support for this project. Notwithstanding the pagans’ lack of organisational ability, she said, “people still need to put their work and effort into a place of worship – if the state builds a church or temple, who will go there?“