The Resilient Pagans of Russia BY MASHA GESSEN

A concert of traditional Mari music. Tonshaevo village, 2010.

When 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.”

This is a good example of how religion dictates the boundaries between chaos and order (Imago Mundi). Why do you think the Mari are considered to be “backward” and “enemies of the people”?

  • Think about the sacred and the profane as you post your comment.

One response to “The Resilient Pagans of Russia BY MASHA GESSEN

  1. Based on the reading, the Mari are considered to be “backward” and “enemies of the people” due to the fact that are not conformed to the dominant faith of the overall region. They deem each space to be sacred in which ethnic variations are respected to each land space, such as the mountain and meadow Mari. They are different for not following orthodox ways that were attempted when reformers tried to convert to ultimately being banned. They are seen as “enemies of the people” for not obeying, living a life of the profane. Mari are ‘demons’ on the outer lands with their own ways which they find to be normal, sacred.


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