They're not huge in numbers but they're highly active politically
Editor's note: This is a very well researched and thorough scholarly article explaining the phenomenon of neo-paganism in Russia.
Though they number only in the few tens of thousands, they are active in political movements - mostly in nationalist and far-right groups, but also, ironically, in the Communist Party, and in ParNas, the opposition liberal party of former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov.
Some are also supportive of the neo-nazi elements in the Ukraine, where paganism is also prominent.
Pagans marching at a political demonstration in Moscow. The sign says: "For the Motherland, and the native Slavic Religion!", followed by a popular pagan symbol.
Russian neopaganism or Rodnovery (worship of ‘native gods’) – is a comparatively new religion for Russia, which emerged at the turn of the 1980s, though it positions itself as a rebirth of the beliefs of pre-Christian Rus’. Since that time neopaganism has experienced a growing number of adherents while remaining still a marginal phenomenon.
What is Russian neo-paganism numerically? According to sociologists from the Russian National Academy of Economy and Public Service, whose data the author of this article had an opportunity to learn in 2015, only 0,01% of the respondents in cities with over one million dwellers classed themselves as adherents of neo-paganism, with those who traditionally confess paganism, such as peoples of Volga Region, the Urals, Siberia and North Caucasus, included in this number. Therefore, the number of Rodnovers (as Russian neo-pagans call themselves) amounts, in 140 million-strong Russia, to tens of thousands at the most.
Neo-pagans at a political rally in St. Petersburg
This is confirmed by the data concerning the attendance of ritual festivals held by major neo-pagan associations.
According to the Circle of Veles association, in 2015 at its Kupala festival at the temple (a neo-pagan ritual compound with idols) near Maloyaroslavets (town in the Kaluga region close Moscow thus easily reachable for its dwellers to come for rituals there) there were about 1400 people, while in the Ruza district, Moscow region, there were only 800. Such festivals were held simultaneously in several other regions in Russia, primarily central and southern, and attracted the most active Rodnovers.
At the same time, Rodnovery prevails in a number of local social groups of Russians.
Russian pagans celebrating a summer solstice ritual
“One can say that at present most of Russian nationalists with religious views refer to themselves as Rodnovers and try to attend rituals celebrated by volkhvs (‘wisemen’)” says Vladimir Laktyushin, chairman of the Rodina Party’s council for the youth policy, who earlier was a member of several major nationalistic associations.
Pagans marching in Moscow
In the 1990s, it was Alexander Barkashov’s Russian National Union (RNE) that prevailed in the nationalist milieu. In its official papers it states its affiliation to Christianity in its forms traditional for Russia. Barkashov himself even became a monk later, in the non-canonical “catacomb Church” though, while some other leaders of the union founded Orthodox organizations (such as Russian Renewal) oriented to the canonical Russian Orthodox Church).
Vadim Kazakov, (left) the head of a pagan political movement, and a leading proponent of paganism in Russia
After the disintegration of RNE in 2000, the lead in the nationalistic milieu went to the sub-cultures of the right-wing skinheads and soccer fans who by the mid-aughts had come to accept Rodnovery as one of their ideological factors. At that time, the subject of “native gods” was addressed by many music bands popular in this milieu, and Volkhv Dobroslav from the Kirovsk region, one of the founders of Rodnovery in the 90s, read lectures in Moscow. At the same time, it became popular to attend festivals held by volkhvs, who immediately made a breakthrough in the attendance number from tens to hundreds.
Neo-pagan worship, despite its archaic appearance, is largely invented in modern times, as no concrete records exist of pre-Christian Slavic worship. Each cult makes up their own traditions loosley based on history.
Nationalists were attracted by the military component propagated by many neo-pagan groups who willingly drew them in providing protection for their events. There was also another, parallel process – the politicizing of neo-pagan groups whose members sympathized with nationalists earlier.
Thus, the neo-pagan community in Krasnodar (regional center in southern Russian) set up in 2006 a branch of the nationalist Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), banned later for extremism. Leader of the Krasnodar DPNI Miroslav Valkovich is still the organizer of “Russian marches” (annual nationalist processions held on November 4) in the city and this year he has become the head of the regional pre-election staff of oppositionist Alexey Navalny.
Far-right demonstrators in Moscow. Note pagan symbol on black banner at top
In 2009, a branch of the popular nationalistic association “Russian Image” was established in Kaluga (regional center near Moscow) with its base at one of the local neo-pagan communities. Celebrant of rituals in this community Volkhv Temnozor (Constantine Sapozhnikov) also came at the head of the Kaluga branch of “Russian Image” which explicitly used neo-pagan runic letters styled as Slavic runes and symbols and organized the reading of lectures for leaders of major Rudnovery associations Vadim Kazakov of the Union of Slavic Communities of Slavic Native Faith (SSO SRV) and Volkhv Veleslav (Ilya Cherkasov) of the Circle of Veles.
Pagans marching in Moscow
Another example, the leader of the branch of the National-Democratic Party founded in 2012 in Novosibirsk (regional center in Siberia) Andrey Afanasyev also act as a sacrificer at the local neo-pagan community “The Land of Dazhdbog”. In 2014, when leaving for Donbas to fight there as a volunteer he took part in the creation of a “Radnovery Company” in the Ghost brigade of the Lugansk People’s Republic.
From a certain moment the Radnovers began to take an active part en mass in nationalists’ actions, using their own symbols.
The popular pagan symbol Kolovrat, believed to represent the sun, bares a strong resemblance to a swastika
In 2006 in the neighbouring Stavropol region, neo-pagans with their banners visibly prevailed in Russian Marches. That same year, participating in the nationalist march in St. Petersburg was leader of the neo-pagan association “Skhoron ezh Slaven” Bogumil Golyak (Vladimir Golyakov) clad as a sacrificer and his supporters. Bogumil regularly attended nationalist actions later as well, giving spiritual nourishment to the St. Petersburg branch of the now-banned nationalist Slavic Union.
The summer solstice festival
In 2013, during the Russian March in Moscow, a separate column of Radnovers was formed (140-150 people), carrying their own symbols. It was led by the new leader of the Union of Slavic Communities of Slavic Native Faith, Volkhv Beloyar (Vladimir Ionov) and one of the leaders of the Circle of Veles Dmitry Melash, who often positioned himself as volkhv, too. Standing at an idol, Ionov even recorded a video appeal to the Rodnovers to join the nationalists’ march. A similar column appeared at the Russian March in 2016, led by Ivan Beletsky from the Circle of Veles (in one of his video messages he said that he “has a priestly experience), while the organizers tried their best to involve representatives of diverse neo-pagan communities.
Far-right demonstrators with pagan symbols
As far as representation of the Rodnovery followers in politics is concerned, it is worth mentioning first of all the name of the secretary of the district committee of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) in the Kirovsky district of Saratov (major regional center in the Volga region) Vladimir Maslov. This politician performs rituals for his followers as a volkhv clad in pseudo-Slavic clothes and actively lobbies through local authorities the legalization of a neo-pagan community and installment of its worship objects.
Neo-pagans worshiping. Note the bovine skull on the left. Cattle are associated with the Slavic god Veles.
Paradoxically, it is under the wing of the Russian communist party that many open neo-pagans have found shelter. Moreover, in 2012 a social movement called “Russian Mode” was created under the KPRF, with a whole number of its regional branches maintaining close ties with neo-pagans who popularize their views through social work.
Neo-pagans were seen in the Russian Mode column at the communist marches on May 1 and November 7 in Moscow and thanks to the KPRF leaders’ assistance even held concerts on guided-missile cruisers of the Russian Navy in Sevastopol. In the KPRF website report on the creation of Russian Mode, the adoption of Christianity by Rus’ was compared to severe enemy invasions like that of Napoleon or Genghis Khan (this view is popular among the neo-pagans).
Pagans marching in Moscow
In the above-mentioned statement made by the KPRF, the adoption of Christianity by Rus’ in 988 was also compared to “colonial liberalism imposed on Russia”, that is, to the power system in force, which the communist opposition intends to defeat with the help of nationalists.
Similarly, in 2012 a column of unregistered Russian Right-Wing Party participated in the liberal opposition marches to Bolotnaya Square carrying banners with neo-pagan symbols. The party was created by eminent propagandist of neopaganism Vladimir Istarkhov (author of the much-talked-about book entitled “A Blow of Russian Gods”) with the participation of representatives of several neo-pagan communities.
Neo-pagans burning a Kolovrat sign in their worship.
In 2016, Mikhail Kasyanov’s liberal Party of the People’s Freedom (ParNas) maintained active cooperation with neo-pagans during the State Duma elections. Above-mentioned Melash, Beletsky and some of their associates in the Circle of Veles were engaged in the distribution of ParNas’s agitation materials in several districts in Moscow and managed to involve in it a considerable number of nationalists both from the capital city and neighbouring regions. They saw it as an opportunity to make their way to big-time policy and assert themselves.
The idea that before the adoption of Christianity, Rus’ was a union of freely governed communities (the state that is proposed to return in place the present clear vertical of power in Russia) helps the neo-pagans to gain the sympathy of some Russian liberals
St.Vladimir, (holding the cross),who converted Russia to Christianity. He is toppling the pagan idol of Perun as a woman prepares her child for baptism.
In 2014, Melash openly expressed sympathy towards the Ukrainian battalion (later regiment) “Azov”, calling its fighters to tough actions against Orthodox volunteers in Donbas. In January, this representative of the Circle of Veles was fined by a Russian court for a public demonstration of the Azov emblems banned in Russia. In 2014, several Russians, who had participated in neo-Nazi actions in Moscow together with Melash, joined this unit.
In this connection it is noteworthy that Azov also has a genetic link to neopaganism. Among the founders of the battalion was Yaroslav Babish, the leader of the new-pagan community “The Host of Perun”. At that time, money for arming the regiment was collected by representative of Zaporozhe-based neo-pagan community whose rituals then and now are attended by Azov representatives.
In January 2015, the Azov ranks were joined by the former “Supreme Volkhv of the North Caucasus land” of the Union of Slavic Communities of Slavic Native Faith, Yaromir (Sergey Bukreyev) who continues to participate in neo-pagan rituals in Ukraine, too, while maintaining ties with his Russian associates.
Ukrainian Neo-pagans worshiping - note the flags.
In 2016, a large wooden idol of Perun was installed at the regiment’s base near Mariupol, which is visited by volkhvs on a regular basis. Leader of Azov’s social wing in Kiev Sergey Filimonov, who calls himself “a son of Perun”, visits the local temple together with his associates.
In 2014, several neo-pagans entered the ranks of Aidar volunteer battalion. They are not only members of the Kiev-based “White Hammer”, who officially demonstrate their commitment to both Nazism and Neopaganism, just as, for instance, Russian nationalist from the Stavropol region Yulia Tolopa.
Pagans marching. The sign says "Slavs are invincible when they are united"
All these developments have disturbed law-enforcement bodies, which was manifested in the 2016 ban on the holding of major neo-pagan festivals in the Moscow region and, a year earlier, in the searches and subsequent ban on the activity of the Children of Perun community functioning in the Stavropol region.
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