The Changing Political Alliances in Post-Soviet Russian Rodnoverie

Kaarina Aitamurto

Talking about contemporary Russian Slavic Paganism, Rodnoverie, politics and especially nationalism are topics that are difficult to avoid. Indeed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union had enabled contemporary Russian Slavic Paganism to surface again in public, some groups, individuals, and publications claiming to represent it seemed more like political than religious actors[1] (e.g. Shnirel’man 2012). However, both the nature and intensity of political activity within Russian Rodnoverie have significantly fluctuated since the 1990s, reflecting changes both within the movement and in Russian society. Because of the lack of any central institution or authoritative texts, Rodnoverie is an extremely heterogenous movement or phenomenon (Gaidukov 2016), and giving a comprehensive account of its political activity is beyond the scope of this text and would need further research. Therefore, I will discuss here only some general lines of the development as a start for a discussion that will hopefully continue with future research.

When reading Slavic Pagan publications from the 1990s and even the early 2000s, one is startled by the amount of attention devoted to political issues and the spectrum of political imagination they reveal. It was as if the disappearance of the Soviet Union had unleashed an envisioning of the most varying kind of regimes: Even small publications discussed topics such as clan or even caste society, national socialism, and autocracy.

Pictures: Several Pagan newspapers in the 1990s and early 2000s were quite focused on politics and contained flagrant racism and antisemitism.

Paganism also gained popularity within skinheads and neo-Nazis in Russia. This scene was partially separated from the communities that identified themselves more as representing Pagan religiosity. Still, many Pagan communities were known for attracting skinheads. For example, the house of the prominent Pagan author Dobroslav (Aleksei Dobrovol’skii) in Kirov region became a kind of pilgrimage site for many ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis (Shizhensky 2012). Some Russian Pagans also maintained contacts with European far-right organizations ranging from the French Nouvelle Droite and representatives of the far-right in countries, such as, for example, Germany, USA, Spain, and England to various skinhead organizations.

The journal Atenei often covered European far-right organizations and international events of the white ‘supremacists’ attended by Russian Pagans

Naturally, not all political projects within Rodnoverie were that extreme and there were also publications less focused on politics. For example, one of the main sources of inspiration for interest in pre-Christian Slavic spirituality was a forged ancient manuscript, the Book of Veles. Even though this book, which was translated and interpreted by several authors, also lends support to nationalist feelings by its portrayal of the Slavs’ glorious past, it reached considerably larger audiences than the marginal newspapers or Pagan zines in which daily politics was debated.

Nationalism and to a lesser degree conservatism have been the two most consistent strains in the political leanings of Rodnovers. In terms of the division into left and right, there has been more variance and these divisions may be of secondary importance as was demonstrated in 1996, when some rightist Rodnoverie leaders supported the candidate of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov. In the 1990s and early 2000s, some Pagan groups founded parties of their own, though these remained extremely marginal and short-lived. The most successful one was the party Edinenenie (Engl.: union) though it is arguable to what extent the movement behind it, the Mertvaia Voda (Engl.: dead water) or the Kontseptsiia Obshchestvennoi Bezopasnosti (Engl.: public safety concept) can be considered Pagan. Religion or, for example, Pagan deities or rituals were rarely much discussed in the publications of this movement, which was more focused on politics and esoteric teachings connected to conspiracy theories. In the 2000s, the interest in party politics began to gradually decline, even though some leaders were members of political parties. However, it should be noted that Pagans did not participate in nationalist parties only; for example, in 2004, the Circle of Pagan Tradition recommended the party Green Russia to its members.

In the 2000s, discussions about aggressive nationalism erupted within Russian Rodnoverie when the umbrella organization Circle of Pagan Tradition published a document that condemned national-chauvinism as incompatible with Paganism. Though the dispute ran high for a while, the main umbrella organizations that participated in it were soon able to reconcile and begin cooperation. The nationalist bent of the Rodnoverie movement did indeed shift towards mainstream and assumed more socially acceptable forms. Nevertheless, pseudoscientific theories of race continued to be discussed, though to a lesser degree, even in such journals as Rodnoverie. As a result of such wild pseudo-historical claims, that were regarded by the majority of Rodnovers as discrediting the movement, and new divisions began to emerge: for example, the Church of Inglings, who based their racist arguments on theories according to which different races originated from different planets, was condemned by major organizations, such as the Union of Slavic Communities of Slavic Native Faith, the Circle of Pagan Tradition, and the Circle of Veles.

In fact, the nationalism within Rodnoverie seemed to primarily follow the trend within the Russian nationalist movement. While groups such as Alexander Barkashov’s radical Russian National Unity had remained marginal during the 1990s, in the 2000s initiatives such as the Movement Against Illegal Immigration strived for more socially respectable positions.

Much has been written about the relationship between nationalist movements and the Kremlin. There is some evidence that in the 2000s, the Kremlin sanctioned and even used for its own purposes some ultra-nationalist groupings, but at the end of the decade, the Russian government became concerned about their rising influence as well as about their connection with racist violence (Horvath 2014). The curbing of ultra-nationalist activity had already begun at the beginning of the 2000s with the introduction of the law against extremist activity. But the implementation of the law was very selective at first, at the end of the decade the surveillance of ultra-nationalist groups became more resolute. As a result, an increasing part of the ultra-nationalist movement started to regard the authorities and the Kremlin as their opponents.

Similarly to the nationalist movement in general, there has been great variance in the way the authorities have countered them. In the list of banned extremist material, Pagan publication ranked among the first to be censored. At the same time, the fact that some Pagan ultranationalist figures seemed to escape the authorities’ attention for a long time implies that these may have had some connection or protection in the state apparatus. Throughout the 2000s, but especially in the 2010s, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has gained more power in Russian society and began to be perceived as one of the main partners of the state. Moreover, it has also openly encouraged the authorities to become more active in controlling Pagan religiosity. The tightened control of both nationalist political activity and Pagan religiosity has compelled Rodnovers to revisit their strategies. Until the second half of the 2000s, Rodnoverie publications could publish hostile articles and caricatures of the ROC, the political elite or employ flagrant hate speech against ethnic minorities. Many such publications have been banned since then, even though for a long time small outlets could circumvent the verdicts by setting up new outlets with slightly different names or appearing without information on the publisher. However, many Rodnovers seem to have concluded that the criticism of the political elite and the attacks against the ROC – or what could be conceived as such – may smear their image and incite the authorities to look at the movement less favorably.

The journal Rodnoverie contains nationalist articles but avoids addressing daily politics and instead focuses on topics such as folklore and Slavic spiritual traditions.

In the face of the attacks of the ROC and adjacent negative media coverage, some Pagan groups have begun to present their activities more as an enactment of folklore than as a religion. Another trend is that many groups and publications wish to distance themselves from political activity. However, the attempt of Pagan groups to distinguish themselves from political Paganism or far-right milieus making use of Pagan symbols is a trend that can be noticed throughout Europe in organizations that wish to become acknowledged as a legitimate religion. There are even some Rodnoverie communities in which talking about politics is prohibited, and it seems as if many leaders have become more cautious to attend public political events.

Within the nationalist-oriented groupings self-censorship started already in late 2000s, when in some Internet forums the moderators warned the discussant of making statements that could be considered extremist. As the police and special services often participate in different gatherings either in uniform or in plainclothes, the organizers also try to exercise some kind of control, even though this may be quite difficult, especially in larger open events. The concerns behind this cautiousness are justified: For example, burning a cross by individual participants, may result in the whole festival being jeopardized. The ultra-nationalist groups that are not willing to openly relinquish radical politics try to operate under the radar or have emigrated to Ukraine like, for example, the notorious Wotanjugend that continues to disseminate its propaganda in the Internet.

It is safe to say that the majority of even those Rodnovers who consider themselves to be apolitical nonetheless regard themselves as nationalists or at least as patriots. However, their loyalty may lie more in the country or the people than to the state or the political elite (Shizhenskii & Aitamurto, 2017). This question gained new urgency by the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine. These events divided the Russian nationalist opposition (Kolstø  2016) and also caused disunity among Rodnovers.  The justifications of both the annexation and the war were heatedly debated in several online platforms. Although there is no reliable information on the numbers, several accounts testify that many Pagans volunteered for the troops in Eastern Ukraine. In fact, numerous newspaper articles and blog posts have confirmed that Pagans, guided by their patriotic conviction, have been actively participating in the combats on both sides. At the same time, especially in cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, many Pagans have been more critical of the war on grounds varying from concerns about the Slavic unity to the grudges held by the nationalist opposition against the Kremlin. However, it is also possible to see a similar disillusionment with the political power, its alliance with the ROC, and the repression of the opposition.

As a part of its heterogeneity, Russian Slavic Paganism has from the outset encompassed groups and individuals with the most varying political convictions, from hardcore Stalinists to monarchists and from supporters of white supremacy to visionaries of global equality. The changes in political activity within Russian Rodnoverie reflect the political maturation process after the collapse of the Soviet Union as well as the larger trend toward distancing Pagan religion from a politics employing (or exploiting) Pagan symbolism. However, the intensified control of political activism has also deeply impacted the movement, enforcing its apolitization.

Notes:

[1] It must be noted that there are universally agreed-upon definitions of “religion,” although many scholars speak out against the possibility of defining religion, for it is always situational and subjective. Moreover, it has been pointed out that drawing lines between the “religious” and the “political” often entails normative aspects and can therefore be seen as a form of political activity.

References:

Aitamurto, Kaarina. “The Rise of Paganism and the Far Right in Europe.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedias: Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. Accessed March 24, 2021 https://oxfordre.com/religion/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.001.0001/acrefore-9780199340378-e-681

{Gaidukov} Гайдуков, A. В. “Новое язычество, неоязычество, родноверие: проблема терминологии [The New Paganism, Neopaganism, and Rodnoverie: the Problem of Terminology].” In Язычество в современной России: опыт междисциплинарного исследования, ed. by Роман В. Шиженский, 24–46. Нижний Новгород: Мининский университет, 2016.

Horvath, Robert. “Russkii Obraz and the politics of “managed nationalism”. Nationalities Papers 42, no. 3 (2014): 469–488.

Kolstø, Pål. “Crimea vs. Donbas: How Putin Won Russian Nationalist Support – and Lost it Again.” Slavic Review 75, no. 3 (2016), 702–725.

Shizhenskii, Roman, and Kaarina Aitamurto. “Multiple Nationalisms and Patriotisms Among Russian Rodnovers.” In: Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, and Modern Paganism, ed. by Kathryn Rountree, 109–132. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

{Shizhenskii} Шиженский, Роман В. “Философия доброй силы: жизнь и творчество Доброслава (A. A. Добровольского) [The Philosophy of Good Power: the Life and Work of Dobroslav (A. A. Dobrovol’skii)].” Пенза: Социосфера, 2012.

{Shnirel’man} Шнирельман, Виктор А. Русское роноверие. Неоязычество и национализм в современном мире [Russian Rosnoverie. Neopaganism and Nationalism in the Modern World]. Москва: ББИ, 2012.

Cite this article as: Kaarina Aitamurto, “The Changing Political Alliances in Post-Soviet Russian Rodnoverie”, in New Age in Russia, 25/03/2021, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/5703


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1 Response

  1. Joseph Kellner says:

    Very interesting! Would be curious to read on the era preceding the 1990s, and the milieus from which the pagans emerged. Were they mingling with spiritualists, or more with nationalists?

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