Non-Slavic Paganism in Russia: Russian Wicca and Asatru

Author: Dmitry Galtsin

In Russia, various religions are practiced, which roughly fit into the umbrella identity of “(Neo)Paganism” or “Heathenism”. While different strands of Slavic Paganism (Rodnoverie (literally “Native Faith”), and others) have been studied by scholars of religion, sociologists, and anthropologists since the 1990s, the less popular Pagan paths adhered to by Russians are mostly neglected in the academia and by the general public alike.

Modern Pagan religions can be understood as a “return, rebuilding and reimagining of religious traditions that were forcibly suppressed” (Strmiska 2005, 10; Michael Strmiska, scholar of Modern Paganism, distinguishes between two major types of religions which self-identify as Pagan/Heathen; ibidem: 18–22): Eclectic and Reconstructionist Paganism. Eclectic Paganism is often rooted in Western Esotericism and tends toward free adaptation of religious material across cultures, while Reconstructionist Paganism adheres to a strictly circumscribed “ethnic” or “local” pre-Christian tradition attempting to revive it in the modern world. While Eclectics often speak of themselves as adherents of “Nature religion”, Reconstructionists claim theirs to be an “ethnic religion”. Wicca is a vivid example of the Eclectic type of Paganism, while Slavic Paganism is clearly a Reconstructionist one.

The diversity of Russian Modern Paganism should be taken into account by scholars of New Religious Movements (or esoteric movements) in this country. In 2014 and 2015, the Pagan Federation International in Russia launched a poll in the social network VKontakte, where, according to (the) PFI national coordinator Gwiddon Harveston, Pagans reported “their tradition or path.” He continued that “(o)ver the past six months [in 2014] 3,049 Pagans participated in the poll, which makes up for about 0.5% of total estimated Pagan population”. Gwiddon quoted the results of the late 2014 as follows:

  • 31.4% Slavic Paganism (Reconstructionist)
  • 25.8% could not identify themselves with any particular path or were newcomers
  • 18.7% Wicca
  • 15% Asatru
  • 3.2% – Neo-Shamans
  • 3% – Other Reconstructionists (Celtic, Hellenic, Khemetic, etc.)
  • 2.2% – Hermetic (Western Occult) Pagans or Thelemites [Ward, 2014]

The poll was closed in 2016 by the group’s administration, after about 6,000 people had participated in it, but the figures remained about the same. In absence of more accurate sociological research of the Russian non-Slavic Pagan/Heathen milieu (while a lot has been done recently to study Slavic Pagans), we can take it as a rough estimate of the mid-2010s Pagan milieu in Russia.

In the poll, two non-Slavic Pagan denominations stand out – Wicca and Asatru. Both religions share a common identification as Pagan/Heathen, in Russian denoted by a common tern Yazychestvo (Paganism), and both originated in the West in the 20th century. Wicca is a “religion of pagan witchcraft” (Hutton 1999), which is mostly practiced as a universalist, non-ethnic “religion of Nature” and puts emphasis on magic and individual spiritual paths. Asatru is a common (and not quite accurate) term for different Germanic Reconstructionist religions (also collectively denoted as Heathen), that seek to revive the spiritual legacy of pre-Christian Scandinavia (especially Iceland) or other Germanic groups on the continent, while stressing community bonds and ethics of honor. Both religions are practiced in small groups or by individuals who never or seldom reach out to their fellow Pagans. Both have profoundly influenced the esoteric subculture and “non-denominational” esoteric book market in Russia.

Wicca in Russia

Anecdotal evidence of first Russian-speaking practitioners of Wicca dates back to the 1990s. This decade saw the publication in Russia of the first DIY books on Wiccan magic and lore (by authors such as Scott Cunningham, Silver Ravenwolf, Laurie Cabot, Pauline Campanelli, and Raven Grimassi). The first generation of Wiccans practiced alone (as solitary practitioners) or in tiny, usually informal groups (covens). The kind of Wicca imported into Russia was “eclectic” Wicca – that is, a very loose complex of rituals, beliefs, and ethics rooted in the mid-20th-century British and American Pagan Wicca/witchcraft. With the advent of the Internet, Wiccan materials spread among mostly young audience (in their teens or early twenties) interested in the occult with a leaning towards Paganism. Wicca became a staple subject on esoteric Internet forums and sites, and was mostly presented as the “Old Religion” (in accord with the so-called “Murray thesis”, the claim that modern religion is the continuation of a clandestine pagan cult of witchcraft, which survived the advent of Christianity). Often, it was also mentioned as a “Celtic” religion (a connection not infrequent in English popular literature  at that time).

By the late 2000s, different Wiccan covens and groups started communicating, exchanging experience, and looking for common grounds to practice Wicca together. Special online metaphysical shops for Wiccans started to appear on the Internet. Wiccans began to translate and post online Pagan-related articles by several Western authors and their own musings about Wicca, Paganism, magic, and religion. A number of covens went public, announcing their activity on social media. In 2011, an Izhevsk-based coven Ivovaya Loschina (Willow Glen) applied for state registration as a religious group. At the same time communication between Wiccan groups and individuals from all over Russia resulted in the creation of the first Wiccan network Russian Wiccan Alliance (2011–2014). The network organized three Wiccan festivals on Lammas (a holiday celebrated in early August) and established ties between the Moscow House of Wiccans, the North Capital Wiccans (St. Petersburg), and a number of other groups. The highly eclectic and individual character of Wiccan religion prevented both the institutionalization of any central authority and standardization of ritual or theology. At present, the Russian Wiccan Alliance has given way to the Wiccan Alliance which unites Wiccan activists and groups from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Krasnodar, Novosibirsk, Kaliningrad, Kiev, Simferopol, and Odessa (Wiccan Alliance 2017).

Fig. 1. Emblem of the North Capital Wiccans

The creative and innovative impulse of Wicca has led to an early emergence of home-grown Russian strands of Wiccan religion (“traditions” in Wiccan jargon). Thus, perhaps the most widespread of all unified traditions is the Spirit of the Goddess, united around a charismatic Viktor M, with the covens practicing the tradition in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Simferopol, and some other places. The Spirit of the Goddess leans towards feminist spirituality or Dianic witchcraft; a worship of the universal Goddess is foremost in its liturgy and magic. Sincethe mid-2010s the tradition has shifted its focus to the cult of Hekate as a benevolent universal deity, matron of witchcraft (Spirit of the Goddess).

Fig. 2. Emblem of Russian Wiccan Alliance (2011 – 2015)

A number of traditions (mostly centered around leaders and authors) appeared in Moscow. The Holistic Wicca group headed by Polina ParNada Lopukhina, ex-leader of the Moscow House of Wiccans and the foremost Wiccan Alliance activist brings together Wiccan lore and modern self-help couching psychology (Holistic Wicca 2018). The tradition of Ascetic Wicca is authored by journalist Viktoria Miroshnichenko, who attempts to bring into Wicca a philosophy of self-restraint and contentment, polemicizing against the much-exploited oversexualized image of witches in Russian mass culture (The Basic Principles of Ascetic Wicca 2018). In Novosibirsk, a group of Wiccans (The Circle of an Unnamed Tree, now relabeled as The Keepers of the Flame Coven and centered around Aleksandr Sadovnikov) engendered a tradition of Dynamic Wicca, which relies on a kind of process theology and looks into Zen philosophy for inspiration (Dynamic Wicca 2018). A very specific tradition of worshipping the five gods of the material cosmos (Gaia, Astraios, Helios, Selene and Eos) called the White Star Wicca is practiced in the St. Petersburg ritual club Societas Agaves (White Star Wicca 2019). All these traditions differ considerably from the Eclectic sort of Wicca to be found in mass market publications, but so far, they are spiritual experiments (and often solitary paths), whose development is yet to be seen.

Over the 2017–2020 period, Russian Wiccans published books devoted to the theory and practice of their religion (Sargsyan 2017; Sargsyan 2018; Nea 2017; Narrenturm 2017; Pervozvannaya 2019; Pervozvannaya 2020). Some of the authors represent certain traditions (for instance, Nea is the founder of the White Star Wicca) and some are leaders of local Wiccan communities (Aitvaras Narrenturm was a priest in the North Capital Wiccans and is now regent of the Societas Agaves). There is a very little number of Russian initiates into the forms of Traditional Witchcraft, such as Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca. One of them, the Gardnerian priest Gwiddon Harveston is at present national coordinator of the Pagan Federation International in Russia.

Fig. 3. Wiccan priests Nea and Aitvaras Narrenturm at the altar © Ekaterina Perfil’eva

Besides the regular eight sabbaths (seasonal festivals) of the so-called Wheel of the Year and esbats (smaller full or new-moon rituals), generic for Wicca all over the world, Russian Wiccans established a Wiccan Diversity Day on April 8th, which celebrates the variety of Wiccan spiritual experience and promotes peace and cooperation between Wiccans, following different paths. Among the rites of passage celebrated by Russian Wiccans the most popular are allegedly handfasting (marriage ceremony) and Wiccaning (the dedication of a child to the gods).

Asatru in Russia

As attested by personal memories of Russian Asatruers, the practices of Heathen Norse/Germanic religion first started in the 1990s within the movement of medieval reenactment. Informal groups of people who engaged in seasonal rituals in honor of Norse gods appeared throughout Russia, later engendering a more organized Asatru movement. In Moscow, the influential journal Myths and Magic of the Indo-Europeans edited by Anton Platov and a circulation of up to 3,500 issues, popularized Heathen and occult lore, related to Germanic Paganism (Gavrilov, 2019, 64–69). From 2001 to 2003, the first regular groups of Germanic Reconstructionist Heathens appeared in Moscow and Podolsk. These groups were characterized by their former adherents as being of “mixed” type, as they freely combined motives of Norse religious lore with Slavic Paganism. The Podolsk Community of Scandinavian Pre-Christian Belief” was a member of the Pagan umbrella network The Circle of Pagan Tradition, dominated by Rodnovers. In 2004, the Norse community Ragnar was established in St. Petersburg, which became an important gravity point for Heathens throughout Russia. The Ragnar possessed its own kapishche (a ritual ground) and was the initiator of a large Thorrablot (a winter Asatru festival) in 2006, attended by representatives of Norse groups from other regions of the country. In August 2007, the first all-Russian Althing (formal assembly of communities) gathered at an ancient pre-Christian sacred site in Leningrad oblast’ with Asatru group members coming from Moscow, Minsk, Voronezh, Khabarovsk and St. Petersburg. Between 2007 and 2019, nine Russian Althings were held, which settled disputes and addressed issues of the Heathen representation in society. In 2010, Logretta (a council of religious leaders) was established to coordinate the inter-community life and settle the standards of the faith, defining what can be legitimately considered a reconstruction of Germanic Heathenry and what should be discarded as “inacceptable” innovation.

Dozens of Germanic Heathen groups (which name themselves communities, godords, clans or circles) are functioning in Russia and adhere to various currents of Germanic Reconstructionism – Asatru (with an emphasis on the cult of Aesir, the gods of power and knowledge), Vanatru (centered around the worship of the nature gods Vanir, most notably Freyr and Freya), Rökkatru (a cult of Jotunar, giants, the dark deities) or Lokianism (a cult of the Norse god-trickster Loki). New traditions of Germanic Reconstructionism have also emerged in Russia, such as Aldiweg (from Proto-Germanic *aldiwegas, “the Old Way”), which aims at practicing the reconstructed religion of the Proto-Germanic tribes.

Alongside private rituals (frequently oriented towards practice of the runic magic art of galdr and an ecstatic magic of seidr), Russian German Reconstructionists practice seasonal Blotar (major festivals with offerings to the gods) and some rites of passage such as name-giving (Asatruers adopt Germanic names as sacred alongside their mundane names), marriage. Initiation of priests was introduced as formal gothar (priests) and gidyar (priestesses) began to lead the Asatru communities. Notable rituals are conducted outdoors, in special ritual sites, some of the groups aim at constructing their permanent hofs (ritual compounds with wooden temple structures).

Germanic Paganism became visible in the interdenominational Pagan dialogue in Russia. From 2011 to 2013, the Russian branch of the Pagan Federation International was headed by a godhi of Moscow community Skidbladnir Sigurd (Andrei Solovоv). As of 2015, the coordination between Asatru groups gradually came to a halt as stable self-governing local communities developed, which see themselves independent from any central authority. Several crises broke out now and then among Asatru leaders, culminating in public scandals in 2017 and 2018, when the Ragnar leader Sigwald (Evgeny Saltykov, the former head of Logretta) filed a legal suit against an Asatru in Barnaul, Natalia Telegina for “kindling religious enmity” (a highly controversial Russian Criminal Code article 282 used to persecute political opponents of those in power). The case which ended in an acquittal led to the almost total obstruction of Sigwald and his group by the Asatru community.

Some Asatru groups – such as Skidbladnir and the Voronezh-based Svartland) applied for state registration as religious groups (The Development of Russian Asatru 2019, 70–89).

Fig. 4. Runestone erected by Svartland Asatru group

Legitimizing Non-Slavic Paganism

While (neo-)Paganism in Russia has sometimes been described as a religious form of Russian nationalism (Shnirel’man 2012), the imported versions of Paganism rely on other means of self-representation and legitimation. Followers of Asatru often rely on the notion of specific Norse gods as real individuals “out there”, with whom devotees can form relationships. Not surprisingly, the works by Galina Krasskova, an American author on Norse mysteries, who is one of the foremost proponents of this theology of “devotional polytheism”, are avidly read and reposted online by Russian Asatruers. As the religion proliferated and developed in the milieu of historical reenactment, it actualized the warrior ethics ascribed to the Vikings and the Old Norse societies with honor and loyalty being regarded the highest virtues.

Wiccans who often tend towards less rigid theological views (“soft polytheism” or “archetypalism” which doesn’t necessarily see mythological gods literally) refer to “Nature” or “the Cosmos” as the ultimate reality and seek to establish balance with it in their lives. The book The Star of Infinity (2017) by Aitvaras Narrenturm reflects a Neo-Platonic view of the world, which is seen as interconnected and hierarchical, emanating from the “Ineffable One” through universal God and Goddess and the plethora of lesser gods and spirits towards physical reality. The Wiccan ethics of “An (=if) it harms none, do as thou wilt” (the so-called Wiccan Rede) is mostly seen as an ecological maxim, aimed at minimizing damage in one’s relations with the environment and fellow humans.

After about two decades of their development on Russian soil, both Wicca and Asatru demonstrate features which distinguish them from how these religions are practiced in the West. In case of Wicca, its eclecticism has gone even further than the mass market books, giving birth to yet new Wiccan traditions. Althouth, similar to its Western counterparts, Wicca in Russia claims to focus on female membership and leadership, it has some prominent male leaders and is not connected with any feminist political activism. Paradoxically at the same time Wicca in Russia positions itself openly as an LGBT+-friendly religion. In case of Asatru, attempts at creating a central religious authority to represent all Heathens clashed with the impulse of local communities to regulate themselves and practice as they see fit. Both Russian Wicca and Asatru are movements which have just begun, but it is likely that they will continue to be practiced religions in Russia in the decades to come.

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Cite this article as: Dmitry Galtsin, “Non-Slavic Paganism in Russia: Russian Wicca and Asatru”, in New Age in Russia, 25/09/2020, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/4897


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