There is a population with Finnish ancestry living in a rural area near Joshkar-ola, in the Republic of Mari El, Russia. Settled in this area around the fifth century, they speak a language belonging to the Urallic family and use a modified version of the Cyrillic alphabet. They are called the Mari, the last pagan population of the West, which currently amounts to around 600,000 people organized in small villages.
Within these communities, everyday life is marked by profound spirituality: inhabitants live in a symbiotic relationship with nature, which exerts a magical religiosity on them and is celebrated as the basis of their existence. She is conceived and revered as a mother who protects her sons, beneficial as long as they do not try to destroy her. It’s in this way that in Mari El the cyclicity of the seasons merges with ancient pagan practices and faith and worship center around the gods of the four natural elements.
In the sixteenth century, this territory was annexed to the Russian Empire and Ivan the Terrible imposed Christianity. However, religious subjugation was never fully accepted. In fact, Mari people retain a significant amount of pre-Christian elements in their beliefs. In the twentieth century, with the rise of the Soviet Union, celebrating rituals and sacrifices was officially forbidden. During the Cold War many prominent personalities of the Red Army turned in secret to the Maris’ spiritual guidance, fascinated by their magical power, looking for answers to the possible outcomes of their military strategies. In the 90’s, right after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Mari’s economy – mainly based on agriculture and livestock – entered a period of severe crisis. Poverty and unemployment led young people to migrate to big cities in search of a stable future, abandoning their villages and their ancient traditions. However, in response to changing times, the community survives continuing to preserve spirituality as a collective essential resource.
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