Europe's last pagans

This is how people of many ethnic groups prayed in ancient times. Today this is a sort of worship that can only be found in this Russian region “We were not allowed to worship in Soviet times. People like us who did were put on trial. We hope our open-air prayers will avert floods, earthquakes s.” and manmade disaster Services like these are rooted in ancient history. These words were first spoken nearly a thousand years ago. But the worshippers gathering here now are thought to be Europe’s last pagans Yevgeny Kamenshchikov and his family are about to set out on a journey, one that’s been a thousand years in the making. Many others living in this republic will do the same — just as their ancestors have done over the centuries Yevgeny and his wife Vera live in a small village called Ivan-Sola. It is in the Mari El Republic about eight hundred kilometers east of Moscow The Mari live in Russia and are of Finno-Ugric origin. There are two main groups —lowlanders and highlanders Although both believe they belong to the same ethnic group, they speakdifferent languages and live in different regions of the republic These people spend most of their lives behind desks in the city. Eventually the monotony is too much, and they decide to take a trip to get away from it all. Dozens of like-minded folk find one another through an internet site. Calling themselves The Roamers, they explore their land and study its history This adventure will take the traveling local historians to the most mysterious places in the Mari El Republic Mari historian Eric Yuzykain joins the nomads on the freeway as they leave the city. He has promised to show them the most fascinating routes on the map – “Hello and welcome – Hi! Haven’t seen you for ages – Erik I wonder where you brought this cold from. It was -1 Celsius yesterday and now it’s -18 – Could you please show us our route? – We go here and there, we will stop a few times. Then we have to go off the roads here – You are so extreme, coming here in such cold weather – Now we’re going to try to reach the most interesting places. Our chief destination is the topmost point of Mari El, where we will look for chasms and karst caves. ” The republic’s highest point is Mount Chuksha Only a few people have succeeded in reaching its peak. It is thought that this mountain often leads people astray. During this expedition three vehicles lost their way, the drivers went missing and the walkie-talkies weren’t working People often get lost in this area. They just lose their bearings. There is something odd going on when we can’t establish contact with one another either by phone or walkie-talkie However, all the explorers eventually reunite According to them, Mount Chuksha in Mari El is considered a zone of abnormal activity Local people often see unidentified flying objects here “This topmost point of Mari El is at an altitude of 284 meters above sea level. It is the true apex of the Mari world. It offers a magnificent view of the surrounding landscape.” On the eve of the All-Mari prayer service, Vera and Yevgeny Kamenshchikov visit Yoshkar-Ola, the capital of Mari El. The Kamenshchikovs are musicians. They sing Mari folk songs to

entertain urban residents with their traditional melodies Centuries ago Yoshkar-Ola was a fortress Now it is an old town, but large-scale development has recently begun. A large swamp has been replaced with an embankment. Buildings looking like castles, complete with towers and ramparts sprung up here just a short time ago “This is a kind of renaissance, Mari style This place has incorporated many aspects of Venice. And here we see a northern influence with Danish and Dutch elements.” Similar buildings went up in the Mari El Republic quite a long time ago. One example is a magnificent old castle standing on the banks of the Volga, 200 kilometers from Yoshkar-Ola. It was built amidst a thick forest by Russian aristocrats of the Sheremetyev clan “The castle was built not only by Russian masters but also by foreign ones. They too lent their style to the castle. Here you can see baroque, Byzantine and Roman styles, as well as an old Russian style.” In Soviet times the castle was turned into a holiday resort. But tourists were apprehensive about the building. Local people spoke of ghostly inhabitants who they believed to be the castle’s guardians. Today the castle is as imposing as it ever was. The massive doors leading into hollow rooms still produce a sinister creak “There are ghosts in our castle. We hear the doors creaking as they move from room to room But they don’t bother us — we share common ground and get along with them quite well.” In the village of Ivan-Sola where Yevgeny and Vera Kamenshhikov live, everybody is getting ready for the all-Mari prayer service Yevgeny Kamenshchikov cleans his body in a bathhouse before facing one of the most important events in his life. At daybreak he will take part in one of the most ancient of sacred rites for the Mari people “Tomorrow I’ll take a candle to the sacred grove. The best wicks for such candles are made of tow. Candles bought from shops are no good for this purpose — they should be homemade. The candle symbolizes the link between me and the God. It will take my prayer to Him.” You are as mighty as you are forgiving. A mother blessing her sons. A life-giving God Unlike Christians, who pray in church, these worshipers go to a grove where they seek communion with nature. But before setting out they say a brief player at home Everybody coming to the grove brings domestic waterfowl with them. They serve as food for both the gods and the people. Yevgeny Kamenshchikov has decided to sacrifice the fattest goose in his household. The Mari regard geese and ducks as symbols of harmony between three basic elements. These creatures walk on earth, swim in water and fly through the air “Eight hundred animals were sacrificed here, including a bull-calf and a ram, as well as geese and ducks.” One of the team who has a good knowledge of the area provides a running commentary for them “The prayer services took place near the five sacred trees. Each tree is dedicated to a particular deity.” Everyone carefully follows the guide’s words as they look around with interest “The Ushkoirota grove is on the left-hand side. People pray in this sacred place. As soon as we get to the village of Nursola, we will turn left.” The special day that the Kamenshchikov couple has been looking forward to has arrived

at last Vera and Yevgeny have reached the sacred grove situated a hundred kilometers from Yoshkar-Ola They brought waterfowl along for sacrifice, birds have also been brought by Mari from all over the republic, coming to offer prayers to their gods At first the grove resonates with goose honks Soon after there are only the echoes of priestly prayers These pagan priests know how to communicate with the gods. People praying in a grove lost amidst pines and birches have strong beliefs in the forces of nature. They insist their faith is the world’s oldest “People come with what we call sacrificial waterfowl, bring their anxieties and grievances along too. They discuss their problems with the priest and communicate by means of this tree. We pass their requests and wishes on at this table.” Enormous pots are suspended over bonfires that are lit side-by-side with the altars They are used to make porridge and a ceremonial meat broth “Take a look, the ducks and geese are boiling here. They break up the bread into chunks and toss the pieces into the fire. The bread, pancakes and cheese have been brought by worshippers.” This is how people in Russia worshipped before the arrival of Christianity. The Mari have prayed the same way to their gods for several millennia “All these people are offering prayers to many gods. Five spots have been set aside for bonfires in this grove, for example. They pray to ask for God’s grace in childbirth and happiness.” The skins, bones and organs of the birds are cremated in the bonfires. It is forbidden to take any leftovers from the sacrificial offerings from the grove Gornomariysky District, in the south-west of Mari El, is full of historic sites and rich in legends. But the shortest road there ends on the shore of the Volga — the great Russian river. From here a ferry is needed Local pigeons have even memorized the boat’s schedule; there is a flock that regularly hitches a ride from one shore of the Volga to the other People here take pride in the fact that nearly all local women learn to play the gusli from a young age. It’s a very ancient and traditional musical instrument. In the old days its strings were made from animal entrails or horsehair Locals insist that gusli music reveals the full character of the Mari people “The art of gusli-playing has been handed down from generation to generation. There are very many music players here. We call this place Gusli Land.” Aktushevo is a well-known village in Mari El. The road that ran right through the village used to be called the Shackle Road. It was the route where convicts clapped in irons were taken on to Siberia. As a result, it was also named the Siberian Route “This road formed a link between Russia’s capital and its Siberian part. Thus it connected the country’s western and eastern regions Russian poet Alexander Pushkin once traveled along it. It was used by stage-coaches.” Leonid Kubekov has been at the head of the Gornomariisk District for several years. During this time he has been able to restore a dozen historical landmarks “We Mari from the western bank of the Volga are not great in number. There are only 50

or 60 thousand of us in the world. That is why we seek to stick together in order to safeguard our language, culture and, of course, the land where we live The Pepkinsk burial site is the only one of its kind in the Gornomariisk Region. Cattle-breeders of an Indo-Iranian tribe were buried here in the second millennium BC — the time when the Egyptian pyramids were built. When excavation work was over, scientists restored the burial place to its original appearance “Twenty-eight men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five are buried here. There is also a woman and a man who was 45-50 years old when he was buried. We think he was a blacksmith. Those men had died in battle Arrow-heads have been found in some of the skeletons. The skulls of other men were fractured with an axe.” The convoy suddenly stops at the edge of a swamp. It is too dangerous to drive any further The travelers spend a good deal of time walking around the frozen silt. When they manage to measure the swamp’s depth, everybody realizes that attempting to cross the swamp is out of the question “We can’t go any further here. We will have to look for another route. The ice over the Yurovka River is too thin, and there is one and a half meters of water underneath it.” However, another road makes up for their misfortune It leads to what for centuries has been known locally as the fortress mountain. The Mari people who lived here a long time ago used it as a hideout against intruders. Legend has it that the Mari people were terrified of being caught by the Ovd, forest creatures covered with hair who had chosen to settle in the mountain’s caves “The Ovd were black-haired women with enormous breasts. If they felt their breasts were a hindrance when they were on the move, they slung them over their shoulders. They had little contact with the people. Everybody was afraid of them.” “This happened a long, long time ago. There were large forests with tall trees where we live now…” Legends about the Gornomariisk Region have been handed down over the centuries by word of mouth Tamara Petrova knows a great many ancient stories relating to the Mari people One of them tells the story of an old oak-tree Several generations of Mari highlanders have paused in its shade for a rest “The local people regard this tree as sacred It is around 1,000 years old. Old healers living in this village say the oak tree used to help make women fertile and restore the male libido.” This giant of a tree is seven meters thick and more than thirty meters tall. Some scientists believe the Mari El oak-tree is Russia’s oldest A medieval Mari city is found several kilometers away from the ancient oak In the Middle Ages, the Mari sought protection from invaders by building their settlements in out-of-the-way places. One of them is on the high bank of a river in the Gornomariisk District. Natural obstacles provided protection for the inhabitants of these fortifications In 1813, Mari people came to this grove from all over the region to pray for a Russian victory over Napoleon. People in the surrounding villages still tell the story of the Mari who sacrificed twenty-six horses to the gods Now it’s time for Yevgeny and Vera Kamenshchikov to join other worshipers at the All-Mari prayer in appealing to the gods. They do so to the singing of an axe that has touched sacrificial animals. This is followed with a meal shared by all those taking part in the ritual. Giving

out food from enormous pots serves to bring the Mari people together. According to their beliefs, all these people get closer to the gods by eating in this way “Mari people from all over have come here Even those living in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Sochi, everywhere in Russia try to be here for this prayer service.” Before nightfall the Roamers finally find what they set out to do at the start of the expedition — the Pumor karst depression Upon seeing an enormous pit in the very center of a field, they halt their vehicles at a safe distance from it “People living in this village used to plow this field and grow crops on it. But one night they were awakened by a loud noise. When they came here they were surprised to see a large crater in the middle of the field with some water at the bottom.” Scientists have found a subterranean stream beneath the depression. When it erodes the top layer of the soil, the ground sinks “The slope is very slippery and very steep I get scared at times. I might be buried by sliding rocks, a prospect I don’t particularly relish. Ok, I’m almost there now. There is no water here.” Local people prefer not to descend into the depression because this kind of cataclysm might happen at anytime “There is much to be learned from such expeditions People think that such things are only found in faraway lands, but they are much closer to home.” Yevgeny Kamenshchikov was pleasantly surprised just as he and his wife Vera were about to head back home after the service. The priest’s white cap was ceremonially placed on his head as a token of great respect “Now I’m not able to keep a low profile or stand on the sidelines. I will have to be directly involved in the prayers. Ordinary people cherish hope. They will look to me with hope and heed my words as I express their sentiments in front of the sacred tree.” – “I wish you good health and happiness.” The Kamenshchikov couple has taken a plunge into the ancient faith of their people By coming here they have truly experienced the joy of communion. They hope it will stay with them for the whole year — until the next prayer service that will bring the Mari people together