Paganism, Traditionalism, Nationalism

Narratives of Russian Rodnoverie

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Kaarina Aitamurto
Studies in Contemporary Russia
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , May
     2016.
     222 pages.
     $149.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781472460271.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The common impression that contemporary Westerners have of modern Paganism is that it is a pacifistic, liberal-minded, and egalitarian movement indebted largely to the hippy counter-culture of the 1960s. While manifestations of Paganism resembling this stereotype certainly exist, they do not tell us the whole story. Across many regions—particularly in Central and Eastern Europe—forms of modern Paganism exist which are highly conservative and even reactionary in their social views. Such groups see the revived worship of pre-Christian deities as part of the reassertion of ethnic and national identity in an increasingly globalized world. Today, there are few places where this variant of Paganism is as prominent as in the Russian Federation.

During the final decades of the Soviet Union, a few ultra-nationalist dissenters promoted romanticist conceptions of pre-Christian religion as a means of rejecting what they regarded as the Jewish origins of Christianity. Following the Soviet collapse, organized groups sprung up seeking to revive—what they understood to be—the ancient belief system of the Russian nation. This new religious movement gained traction to the extent that there are now tens of thousands of practicing Rodnovers—adherents of modern Slavic Paganism—in that country. As this religion has aged, it has largely moved away from the rabidly racialist ultra-nationalism of its early years, although the politics of national identity still underpins most Rodnover understandings of themselves and their religion.

There are few scholars so well acquainted with this movement as Kaarina Aitamurto, currently a senior researcher at Helsinki’s Aleksanteri Institute. A sociologist of religion, Aitamurto completed her doctoral thesis on Rodnoverie in 2011, as part of which she explored the movement both through its published literature and through participant-observation conducted largely in the St. Petersburg area.

Sharing its title with Aitamurto’s earlier Ph.D. thesis, Paganism, Traditionalism, Nationalism is the first academic monograph on modern Russian Paganism to be published in the English language. Prior to this, Anglophone scholars have had to rely on various articles and anthology chapters, most of them written by either Aitamurto herself or Victor Shnirelman. This factor alone makes this work an important contribution to the study of modern Pagan religion. It also has value as part of a growing corpus of academic literature on Eastern European Paganisms, nicely complementing recent works like Mariya Lesiv’s The Return of Ancestral Gods: Modern Ukrainian Paganism as an Alternative Vision for a Nation (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013) and Aitamurto and Scott Simpson’s edited volume on Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe (Acumen, 2013).

According to Aitamurto, the “aim of this study is to analyse how Rodnovers explain the popularity of their religion in the contemporary Russia [sic] and to reflect these explanations in the framework of sociological discussion of late modern religiosity” (4). In keeping with this sociological focus, Aitamurto’s main interest is not in particular beliefs or ritualized practices, but in the values and perceptions that characterize typical Rodnover world-views. Following the book’s introduction, the second chapter provides a historical overview of the Rodnover movement, while the third—briefly—summarises the religion’s central features. The fourth chapter delves into Rodnoverie’s close relationship with Russian nationalism and in doing so, discusses a variety of sub-topics which Rodnovers interpret through the prism of national identity: among them questions of sexuality and gender, (pseudo)history, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

The fifth chapter explores Rodnover criticism of “mono-ideologies” like Christianity and Marxism, and outlines some of the ways in which Rodnovers construct their religion as an alternative to these movements. Proceeding to the sixth chapter, the book discusses certain values and attitudes that permeate the Rodnover community, among them a positive attitude toward environmentalism and healthy lifestyles, an emphasis on the importance of community, and an anti-consumerist agenda. Concluding the study, Aitamurto foregrounds what she characterises as the three recurring “narrative themes” among Rodnovers: they present their movement “as a revival of the native Slavic religion, as pluralistic nature spirituality and as a tradition that can return meaning to modern, confused people” (188). In these themes there are very clear parallels with Pagan religions elsewhere in Europe.

Aitamurto has produced a strong monograph and there is little here for me to criticize. A few parts could have done with firmer copy-editing and the quality of the photographs would have been greatly enhanced had they been printed in color. Additionally, the book may have been strengthened had it drawn greater comparisons with ethnic-nationalist Paganisms elsewhere in Europe and North America; in doing so it could have explored what is unique about Rodnoverie, and the Pagan milieu in Russia. On a similar note, it would be interesting to learn what relationship Rodnovers have with both the polytheistic traditions of Russia’s indigenous communities like the Mari, and with other new religions that must also navigate around the growing hegemony of the Russian Orthodox Church. Another useful discussion might have examined the place of Rodnoverie among the sizeable ethnic Russian minorities living in countries like Ukraine and Estonia; how do their attitudes toward national identity compare with those of Rodnovers inside the Russian Federation? Hopefully these are issues that Aitamurto and other scholars of Rodnoverie can pursue in future.

Routledge published Aitamurto’s book as the first in their new series on “Studies in Contemporary Russia.” This suggests that they are marketing it primarily at a Russian Studies readership, although it is undoubtedly of great interest to many scholars of religion, particularly those studying modern Paganism, esotericism, and post-Soviet religiosity. At present, it is only available as a (prohibitively expensive) hardback or as an e-book, but hopefully a paperback edition will be forthcoming, thus enabling Aitamurto’s work to reach the wider readership that it patently deserves.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ethan Doyle White is a Ph.D. student at University College, London.

Date of Review: 
May 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kaarina Aitamurto is a post-doctoral scholar at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki and a fellow in the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Russian Studies - Choices of Russian Modernisation. She began her fieldwork within Russian Pagans in 2005. Aitamurto co-edited the anthology Modern Pagan and Native Faiths in Central and Eastern Europe and has published numerous articles on the topic.

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