The issue of religious affiliation and identity is one of the most acute in the patriotic movement, understood in the broadest sense.
In the framework of our speech, we will examine in more detail the problem of the relationship “Orthodoxy vs. paganism” (Case of Russian patriotic movement), expressing it in a series of theses and possible solution scenarios.
1) Regardless of positive or negative assessments of the Soviet period, after the collapse of the USSR, Russians were deprived of their “great identity.” The new Russia disregarded any ideological component and was unable to propose any greater agenda, instead betting on the formation of “civil society” and a “Russian (rossiiskoi) nation”, i.e., simulacra. In these circumstances, Russians began seeking the roots of their identity in different ideologies – such as nostalgic communism, Orthodox monarchism, various kinds of nationalism, liberal Westernism – and finally a portion of the population has turned towards the archaic layers of Russian history – to the pagan tradition as a form of religious identity.
2) The birth of this movement de facto began in the late Soviet period. Speculations alleging a “KGB project” are naive conspiracies which in the 1990’s and 2000’s transformed into allegations of a “CIA project.”(1) The roots of this delusion lie in the fact that the KGB, as befits this organization, kept its finger on the pulse of social movements and had its own network of agents. But this does not constitute any grounds for arguing that paganism in Russia is a “desk creature.” Here one could recall the situation with “Sergianism” and put forward the counter thesis that the whole history of the Church from the 20th century to this day is that of an NKVD/KGB project which is devoid of grace and pure apostolic succession. But this discussion would be a priori counterproductive. In fact, for Orthodoxy, the very fact that paganism is attractive to Russians is painful, hence the attempts to demonize it and write it off as foreign evil will.
3) According to the statistics of the research service Sreda, 1.2% of the population of Russia identifies with “paganism.” This is approximately 1,734,000 people out of the total population of Russia of 144,500,000. According to other sources, the number of pagans is even higher, especially in major cities. The problem is that there are no impartial or objective religious statistics in Russia. Any figures can always be called into question. According to Sreda, no more than 41% of Russians belong to the Orthodox Church, which is two times lower than the figures proclaimed by the Russian Orthodox Church. Pagans are represented in almost all spheres of society – among youth, students, teachers, doctors, civil servants, the army, education, the cultural sphere, labor, business, etc.
4) In addition to those Russians who choose paganism as their religious identity, there are numerous peoples in Russia whose own authentic (pagan) traditions are established and are their only ones. This is the case with Udmurtia, Karelia, the Caucasus (the Ossetians), the peoples of Siberia (shamanism in the Altai, Tuva, and Buryatia), and the peoples of the North and Far East. The question of paganism affects them as well, insofar as the foundation of their identity and uniqueness is pagan. Here we are dealing with a plurality of cultures, Logoi, and “flourishing complexity” with regards to the many ethno-religious communities who resided on the territory of Russia before the Russians arrived and have been in neighboring proximity to them since. The question of complicity with, preservation and defense of their traditions should not run according to the colonial formula of “first baptism, then talks.”
5) More broadly, the matter at hand is that Orthodox believers and the Church must now, in all seriousness, face the question of the Other and of relations with the Others – in the sociological, political, cultural, and societal dimensions of this question.
6) The principal enemy today is globalization, the spread of the West on a planetary scale, and the increasing foothold of Post-Modernity. In opposing this enemy, paganism, as a set of traditions tied to the ethnos, place-development, and culture (locality vs. globality) is a natural ally and source of aid. Opposition to globalization, progress, and Post-Modernity is a potential common platform for cooperation. In his book The Fourth Way: An Introduction to the Fourth Political Theory, Alexander Dugin recognizes the legitimacy of turning to pre-Christian traditions in search of identity and resources to oppose globalism and liberalism.
Christians have posed a number of questions to pagans, some of which are valid, but the majority of which are purely our own internal problems and the subject of intra-traditional discussions.
1) The problem of continuity and the transmission of tradition is a question which has long since been closed in the pagan community. Christianization has nowhere and never meant instantaneous baptism and wholesale change of faith. The process of this new religion’s penetration into the popular masses, and its radical restructuring of thinking on the basis of a different ontology and axiology, takes many centuries. In numerous cases, tradition has been passed down to our very day in the underground, in folklore, and in the form of dual-faith (dvoeverie), or in the likes of so-called “folk Orthodoxy.” As the Traditionalist and disciple of René Guénon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, noted in his essay “Primitive Mentality”: “So long as the material of folklore is transmitted, so long is the ground available on which the superstructure of full initiatory understanding can be built.” In the form of philosophical dual-faith, pagan wisdom has been incorporated into the whole body of Christianity since its dogmatic formulation at the Ecumenical Councils, and pagan structures of thinking were passed down through history in the legacy of Platonism/Neo-Platonism. Appealing to paganism and myths has been a universally established part of culture in Europe and Russia. Revivals of paganism were undertaken in the Renaissance (Gemistus Plethon), can be found in Romanticism and in the German völkisch movement (with certain stipulations). In Russian culture, a significant part of the poetry (Kliuev, Yesenin, Khlebnikov) and philosophy (Ivanov, Merezhkovsky) of the Silver Age was saturated with folk(-pagan) motives. Based on the philosophy of Traditionalism expounded by Julius Evola, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Mircea Eliade, Alain de Benoist, and Collin Cleary, an adequate rebirth of paganism has all the chances and prospects for succeeding today. This has de facto already been happening in front of our very eyes over the last decades.
2) There are also a number of moments in the history of the Orthodox Church which call into doubt the full continuity and presence of an initiatic dimension (grace). Between the Church schism between Nikonians and Old Believers in the 17th century, the Synodal period of 1700-1917, the crushing of the Church following the Revolution and under atheism, the Sergian Church, and the rebirth of the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1990’s – the integrity, consistency, and lines of transmission of the Church across these periods is questionable. All of this leads to the issue that the question of transmission and organizational authenticity is a dead-end and unproductive question which is only of value to facultative historiographical dialogue.
3) Orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Christianity has its own system of dogma, corpus of sacred scriptures and traditions, its own canon. Deviations from it lead to marginals inner-Church currents and sects, and in extreme cases to heresies and the formation of dissenting sects. Christianity expresses the idea of centralized orthodoxy and the striving towards unification and universality. Paganism expresses heterodoxy. This or that pagan tradition might not always have a concrete “Bible”, but always has its own myths, cultural heritage, etc. Within one tradition, there can be different cults to different Gods or spiritual practices which are to varying extents offshoots. This leads us to the point that the criticisms frequently raised against paganism in the form of the arguments “show us your sacred books” or “where is your unified church structure” are illegitimate by virtue of the very differing natures of the organizational structure of our religions themselves. The heterodox structure of pagan traditions is neither better nor worse, nor is it “backwards” or “less progressive” compared to the Christian model – it is simply Other. We immediately evoke the Doxa, and heterodoxy does not mean indiscriminate syncretism, the legitimacy of New Age simulacra, pseudo-pagan speculations, or creatures in the spirit of the spaghetti monster. If in the Abrahamic religions the boundaries of the canon and orthodoxy are rigidly marked, then in paganism they may be more mobile and wider overall, but they still exist. The problem of clearly distinguishing between paganism and pseudo-paganism (science freaks, pseudo-scientific speculations on chronology, history, linguistics, mythology, etc.) can be solved by relying on Pagan Traditionalism. A number of analytical works have already been dedicated to this, and the pagan community itself is working on cleansing its ranks of false teachers and their followers.(2) The necessity of distinguishing between (neo-)paganism and pseudo-paganism is recognized by scholars of religion as well behind the scenes. Ideas of establishing a “pagan church”, i.e., a centralized, unified, official organization of the pagan community have been continuously voiced for a long time, but so far do not seem to be necessary projects.
4) The influence of Modernity and Post-Modernity on society, religious doctrines and communities is a common problem for everyone, as Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Pagans (including both Russians and indigenous peoples) all find themselves in the same adverse conditions. Each one is to decide its own internal problems.
5) In my discussion with Abbot Father Vladimir Tsvetkov of the Sofronieva Pustyn in summer 2018, we touched upon the problematic topic of how the Orthodox can commemorate and pray for their ancestors and loved ones at divine services, when they once were or are now pagans (or more broadly, other-worshippers, inoslavny). The position “do not commemorate those who are not in Christ” as such cuts up our own kind – and by extension the history of Russia – and therefore should be a priori unacceptable. Nevertheless, the question is open. Among ordinary pagans, the most ordinary folk, the potential for religious tolerance is high.
6) Pagans by their very essence emphasize their kind, family, place of residence/Homeland, culture, the sacred and myth, and are inclined towards conservatism, anti-globalism, and anti-urbanism. Liberal tendencies such as so-called “cultural Marxism” are gross and obvious infiltrations of Post-Modernity in pagan communities which result in their decomposition. A detailed analysis of this phenomenon is given in my two-volume work Polemos: Pagan Traditionalism.(3) In addition, a summer 2018 survey, which asked pagan parents about their raising of children according to tradition amidst the conditions of modernity, revealed that more than half of pagan parents are extremely negatively predisposed towards the influence of mass Western pop culture, gadgets, and the internet on raising children. Here we once again confront the problem of the influence of Western left-liberal culture on society and religions. It is well known that representatives of the LGBT community already serve as pastors in Protestant parishes, but this is no reason to say that Christianity is an LGBT religion. The situation is similar with contemporary paganism, in which certain organizations treacherously go against direct taboos established in myths and enshrined in culture and history – these types do not express the position and doctrine of all of paganism, but are simply renegades.
7) Moreover, the leading ideologies and major networks of the pagan revival in the West are also increasingly basing themselves on the Traditionalism of Julius Evola and maintaining contacts with the New Right (Alain de Benoist, GRECE), Alt-Right milieus, identitarians, and conservatives, i.e., conscious anti-globalists, anti-modernists and potential allies.
8) Since the very first days of 2014, numerous pagans of different stripes have participated or are participating in the events in Crimea and South-East Ukraine. People have fought, worked, gathered donations, and died, and people have accepted the idea of the Russian World and gone to fight for it, being pagans. These people have contributed in their own blood, but in Russia they are demonized and written off for their religion. People of the most different confessions are fighting on both sides of the conflict in South-East Ukraine, so it cannot be argued that the religious factor is leading in this conflict. This position of selective glorification exposes hypocrisy and is also a problem.
9) In my many conversations with believers and priests, many responded to the question “What is more dangerous for Russia: radical Islamism or paganism?” With the answer “paganism.” Here it should be noted that there is no “international pagan terrorism” in existence, unlike the Islamic State (which is banned in the Russian Federation).
10) The subject of Russian values is also not alien to paganism. Honoring parents, elders, ancestors, proper care and upbringing of children, larger families and, more generally, the cult of one’s kind are all fundamental parts of Slavic-Russian paganism which have been inherited down and manifested themselves throughout the history and culture of Russia. Pagans have also interpreted the Immortal Regiment rallies to be a modern manifestation of the cult of the ancestors, and have therefore participated in them. Returning to the survey on child raising, we see that pagan parents responded that the most dangerous and harmful factors threatening parenting and education are the influence of Western pop culture, gadgets, and the internet, i.e., those very things and phenomenon which are rightly criticized by conservatives of the most diverse ideological shades.
11) The optimum program for contemporary Russian paganism (and on this matter we think we have the right to insist on behalf of indigenous peoples as well) is the freedom to live and profess our tradition, to constructively participate in the life of society, social projects, and the patriotic movement. Recognizing paganism as one of many traditions professed in Russia (by both Russians and indigenous peoples) to have rights, rehabilitation, and legalization is a de facto pledge and guarantee of greater social stability. The abolition of social-penal pressure will bring potential marginals out of the shade and eliminate the conditions for possible crimes.
The first move towards this could be the initiation of public discussions, the holding of round tables, and in general the facilitation of open dialogue without “preconditions.” Like it or not, Orthodox and pagans live together in one country. To force 1.7 million people outside of the legal field and to systematically demonize them is to lay a time bomb beneath society.(4) These are all difficult and long processes which require great effort from all sides. We must be ready, for in this dialogue and life as a whole there will be no sheer coincidences of 1:1 nor agreement on all points. This must be understood, we must be prepared for this and accept it. In the meanwhile, only rare voices and occasional constructive conversations are being heard.
Evgeny Nechkasov (Askr Svarte)
Translated by Jafe Arnold
(1) Over ten years of activism, work, and study within Russian paganism, we know of no facts of the direct financing of pagan organizations by the governments of other countries.
(2) Askr Svarte, Polemos: the Dawn of Pagan Traditionalism (coming summer 2020 by PRAV Publishing); Alain de Benoist, On Being a Pagan; Collin Cleary, Summoning the Gods.
(3) Askr Svarte, “Identichnost’ iazychnika v XXI veke” (“Pagan Identity in the 21st Century”) in the journal Warha 5 (2018), which describes the three foremost tendencies in modern paganism in the West (relevant for the Russian Federation as well: universalism/post-modernism, folkish/ethnocentrism and conservatism, and tribalism/small ethnicism.
(4) A vivid example of unpunished hate speech falling under existing Russian criminal articles on extremism is demonstrated by Protoiereus Dmitry Smirnov.