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20 July 2016

The Church against neo-paganism

Hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church and representatives of the secular structure of the Holy Synod are paying closer attention to the spread of neo-paganism in Russia

Neo-paganism in the post-Soviet space

Rodnoverie (the Slavic native faith) refers to a characteristic variety of neo-paganism, typical of Russia, aimed at the reconstruction of pre-Christian beliefs of ancient Slavs. Rodnovers reject Christianity which, in their view, was imposed on the ancient Rus’, and worship Slavic gods traceable today only thanks to data provided by historians and archeologists. Despite their small number (several tens of thousands, according to researchers), Rodnovers, who widely celebrate the respective holidays, are firmly established on the religious map of Russia.

Communities of Russian neo-pagans started to emerge from the shadows in the 1990s. The first Rodnover organization officially registered in Russia in February 1994 was the Moscow Slavic pagan community. As a result of concerted efforts by the Moscow and Kaluga communities, the Union of Slavic Communities of the Slavic Native Faith (USC SNF) was established in 1997. Ideological differences led to the exit of the Obninsk and Moscow communities from the Union and the 2002 Bitza Accord completed the process of formation of the Circle of Pagan Tradition (CPT) which left the USC SNF. The Circle of Veles, one of the largest associations of communities, some of which are located on the territory of Ukraine, was established in 1999.

Besides, Ynglings – the Ancient Russian Ynglist Church of the Orthodox Old Believers-Ynglings – began to emerge in the nineties. Negative attitudes towards their rites forced the USC SNF and CPT to issue a joint statement condemning “pseudo-pagan teaching, pseudo-linguistics, pseudo-science and the outright fiction” of Ynglist authors. Representatives of the USC SNF, CPT and the Circle of Veles signed the 2012 Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Priests which defined the criteria of eligibility for those wishing to become priests to Slavic gods. They once again condemned a number of authors and movements including the large organization “Skhoron Ezh Slaven” (which also has a presence in Belarus and Ukraine).

The USC SNF was registered as a non-profit interregional public organization for the support and promotion of Slavic culture in 2014. Today, the Union regularly organizes events and worship services at its own temple in Krasotynka.

The largest Ukrainian neo-pagan organization, the Native Ukrainian National Faith (RUN Vira), was set up by members of the diaspora in the USA in 1966. It arrived on the territory of its historical motherland as late as after the collapse of the USSR and was registered as a religious organization in Ukraine in 1992. The most numerous pagan organizations in Belarus include “Radzimas” – an organization guided by the Balta tradition and “Heritage. The Commonwealth of Rodoviches (Rodnovers)” guided by the Slavic tradition. None of them are officially registered as of today. The absolute majority of pagans operate in a “semi-legal” way, presenting their activities as festivals of folk culture (and sometimes receiving municipal assistance for the organization of which) or else prefer to have nothing to do with the state at all.

The Russian Orthodox Church in the fight against neo-paganism

The Russian Orthodox Church has sufficient reason to fear the spread of neo-pagan beliefs. Major pagan events cannot be reduced to one rite only: games, sports competitions, workshops, fairs are organized during festivities. All of these events are conveniently complemented by a worship service in line with the main aim of Rodnover organizations: promotion of their view of pre-Christian Slavic culture. Having no possibility or need to conduct regular worship services, these communities are far better consolidated than parishioners of Orthodox churches – they do not require that their members perform routine religious practices. Put simply, Rodnoverie is far less likely to bore a person not established in the faith whereas the nature of community life offers active members far greater involvement in rites and the organization of events. Moreover, neo-pagan movements are not considered elements of a new religion originating from abroad and they meet patriotic religious needs. Hence, they have become a serious obstacle to the Orthodox missionary and attempts to attract the youth to the church with whom the Church finds it increasingly difficult to find a common language.

On October 22, 2015, after hearing the report by the Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, the Holy Synod decided to deem concerns about the spread of neo-paganism justified. It noted the need to confront it among devotees, the youth, siloviki and inmates. Shortly before, Father Vsevolod had said he hoped to engage the active laity and the Church in the education of the new generation and the fight against “alcohol-addiction, drug-addiction, neo-Nazism and neo-paganism” during a round table in Solovki.

In early 2016, the issue of spreading neo-paganism was tackled during the International Educational Christmas Readings in Moscow; aside from the report by Hegumen Vitaly (Utkin) on the separatist danger of ethnofuturism of Merya, the topic was also raised during the “military” section. Bishop Anthony Akhtubinsky and Enotaevsky referred to neo-paganism as a dangerous national idea. Archpriest Andrey Khvylya-Olinter fully devoted his report to neo-paganism, presenting it as a serious danger to the spiritual security of the military.

A conference on combating neo-paganism was held in Magnitogorsk at the Magnitogorsk State Technical University in March 2016. Bishop Innokentyi of Magnitogorsk and Vekrhneuralsk labeled modern paganism “a greater threat to the Church than atheism” during the opening of the conference.

Finally, according to Vladimir Legoyda who replaced Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin as the chairman of the Synodal Department, the spread of neo-pagan sentiments among “people bearing arms” constitutes “a direct challenge to the Church”.

Neo-paganism in law enforcement agencies

The sweeping accusations of Rodnovers as regards their support for the ATO put forward by Archpriest Andrey Khvylya-Olinter, are unfounded. Indeed, Yaromir (Segey Boukhreev), a Stavropol pagan and a leader of one of the communities which took part in the March for Peace in Moscow in September 2014, joined the Azov regiment of the National Guard of Ukraine. However, one cannot also ignore the organization of the Svarozhichi battalion of the armed forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic set up by pagans. Even opinions of pagans on the Ukrainian conflict posted in social media are extremely diverse and reflective of the spirit and momentum of this movement.

This suggests that it is becoming increasingly difficult to apply a positive or negative attribute to Russian neo-paganism as an exemplification of nationalism. A multitude of small establishments-communities formed around energetic leaders are not affiliated to large pagan organizations. However, their independence does not imply isolation – they are entirely satisfied with liberties within a wider network. The cumbersome church hierarchy is inevitably stuck in the fight against it because of the failure of the enemy to appear for a duel. At the point when a community member attracts the attention of an external observer, his worldview has already been formed, as a rule. And that which is perceived by the priests as promotion of neo-paganism is part of the internal discourse of communities. Hence, the Church’s missionary confrontation against the established groups is apparently doomed to failure. Whereas the preventive measures – priests’ work with devotees and the Cossacks (considered to be an ideological foothold of the Orthodox Church, which is not always the case), the organization of the Patriarchal Commission for Physical Culture and Sport - are yet to prove their effectiveness. Given the presence of famous sportsmen (an interview with Alexander Povetkin appeared in the latest issue of the “Rodnoverie” journal) in the “arsenal” of pagans, the level of this efficiency may not meet expectations.

Yet another reason for the failure of the Orthodox clergy to effectively counter the spread of neo-paganism in law enforcement agencies is the fact that work by the Church among law enforcement officers should be conducted in the language of masculinity to which it is extremely difficult to adapt the Christian sermon. On the other hand, pagans actively celebrate the image of the Slavic warrior snatching the ideals of patriotism, nationalism and the military spirit from the Church. An active neo-pagan who is successful in reaching the officers’ milieu will inevitably draw attention of his colleagues and friends: “The fact that I am a Rodnover only contributes towards my duties. You begin to more thoroughly relate to the performance of your duties so as not to mar the memory of your ancestors. The attitude of colleagues has not changed. On the contrary, they have shown interest and wondered about the way Rodnover festivities are organized. I acknowledge the growth in popularity of paganism among siloviki since, in my opinion, people who risk their lives every day or are ready to risk their lives seek to compare Christian veneration to the worship of pagan Gods. And they come to the obvious conclusion that, at the genetic level, it is much more appropriate for us to be the descendants of Gods rather than slaves of a God, although it bestows additional obligations upon us to the supreme forces. In paganism, you do not pray for forgiveness or receive absolution like in Christianity. <…> I do not feel antagonism here. After several conversations with a particular department, they now realize that my beliefs are not based on extremist ideology or other negative societal actions” – a soldier nicknamed “Dhruv” said. “The Christian worldview, its mystical practices (like prayers and faith) did not help me in my life. Paganism is quite another thing: it is when you refer not to Christ or saints of the Orthodox Church but to your kinsmen who have gone to a better world. Paganism does “work” whereas the Orthodox faith does not have such strength in comparison. It works for me… No influence is exerted by my colleagues as regards my views in a mystical sense. Perhaps quite on the contrary…” – Sergey Vshivtsev, a sportsman, artist and writer comments. Personal relations between the clergy and pagans are their own business in the first place and they do not always reflect heavy doctrinal battles for the sake of strategic superiority of Orthodox practices, as depicted by speakers at the International Educational Christmas Readings in Moscow. Dhruv says: “I get on well with the local clergy and Christians. The main thing is to always be open to dialogue. And when they have a bone to pick with you as regards your beliefs – you have to explain things calmly, without aggression”.

Some factors which contribute to the spread of Rodnoverie happen to bring about tragic consequences. Teenagers who committed ten murders and planted explosives in Moscow in 2009 called themselves pagans. The shooting of parishioners of the South-Sakhalin Church in 2014 by a follower of Levashov also sparked great public outcry. The joining of the ranks of pagans by mentally disturbed people attracted by the cult of the martial spirit has remained an ineradicable threat despite the fact that extremist ideas have repeatedly been condemned in pagan program documents. Nationalist milieus are also drawn to paganism: even during the last scanty Russian march pagans formed their own column whereas the definition of the native faith by the USC SNF presupposes the genetic alignment of the believer to the Slavic peoples.

Overall political tensions in Russia mean that the state looks upon self-organized – even overtly patriotic - groups disparagingly, just as the Church does. Recent searches of Stavropol Rodnovers’ apartments serve as a case in point. The same goes for the conflict between the communities of the Circle of Veles and municipalities of Ryazan’ and Maloyaroslavets which forced believers to look for a new place to host the Kupala Night festivities.

Therefore, the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church is not at all concerned about the growing number of Rodnovers. Neo-paganism in Russia today offers an alternative version of national and religious identity whereas its followers are politically active and could tip the balance in a possible street confrontation. The spread of “unauthorized” pagan patriotism which pulls the ideological rug from under the feet of a Russia fighting against “the fifth column” is perceived by today’s Church as extremely undesirable and dangerous. 

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