In the Russian Far East there remains a great mixture of Christianity and paganism. Orthodox priests in the countryside indulge in shamanic practices. Pagan folklore seen as a spectacle of “popular culture.” Orthodox clergy and shamans “ally” against Covid.
Moscow (AsiaNews) – An investigation by the website Sibir.Realii has revealed the great mixture still evident between Christianity and paganism in Siberia. The Asian territory was conquered by Russia 400 years ago, in 1581, when the Cossack Ermak, sent by Ivan the Terrible, defeated the army of Khan Kuchuma. The territory then extended in the following centuries from the Urals to the Pacific Ocean, even touching the North American coast.
The native Siberian peoples have long opposed the Russian conquerors, in an epic that recalls the Indians of the Far West or the Indians of Latin America. Yet, until the establishment of Soviet atheism, the Russians had not sought to stifle the pagan religions of the locals, indeed showing a certain benevolence towards shamanism as the “road to heaven”. While in northern European Russia monks had succeeded in evangelizing the Komi and other peoples, a spirit of interfaith tolerance always remained in Siberia.
Russians moved to Siberia in ways that were anything but quick and numerous, indeed often as exile and punishment. Those who arrived there were forced to adapt to extreme conditions, due to the climate and the hostile cultural and ethnic environment. The most effective mechanism of this adaptation has always been the exchange of experiences between the older generations, which led Russians to merge their working skills – and religious beliefs – with those of the locals.
In the freezing Siberian nights, lost in the borderless taiga, “one becomes a pagan even without wanting to,” as Sergej, an inhabitant of the Tomsk region, says: “Not everyone is ready to observe the virginity of principles, when it comes to life or death.” Faced with the unpredictability of tomorrow, the help of local shamans seemed to many the only way out, with their propitiatory and soothing rituals.
Many representatives of Russian Orthodoxy, from the famous schismatic priest Avvakum in the seventeenth century to the monk Rasputin before the revolution, were fascinated by the noisy pagan rites, in which shamans shouted in unknown languages beating on huge drums and waving magic symbols, compared to the endless litanies of the Slavic-Byzantine liturgy. Many Russians became shamans themselves, as attested by a Petersburg list of the early 1700s, in which among the 30 best-known Siberian shamans, at least four had Russian names.
Orthodox country priests not infrequently indulged in shamanic practices, and this phenomenon is still observed today. Floral and plant decorations, processions in winter festivals (Russian Carnival lasts from December to February), use of pagan bells and drums – all this emerges even in parishes and monasteries in the most isolated areas. Some priests make agreements with shamans, coordinating sacred and magical ceremonies and then dividing the proceeds of the offerings of the faithful.
Not even the civil authorities disdain, also in Soviet years, the use of shamanic healings, considering the pagan folklore as a show of “popular culture” to be sponsored and protected. In Siberia, a particular version of the “dvoeverie”, the “double faith” typical of the ancient Rus’ of Kiev, developed, with the variants of “orthodox paganism” and “pagan communism”, until the religious revival of the last decades, in which syncretism expresses the tendency of these territories.
Pandemic emergencies also encourage religious mixing. The recently appointed Bishop of Jakutsk Roman (Lunkin) told the Izvestija correspondent that he was welcomed by local shamans, who proposed an alliance against the Covid, recommending that their followers attend local Orthodox churches.