Russian neopagans move their faith from the fringes

The burning of a ritual dummy on the Kupalo holiday. It symbolizes the death and rebirth of the sun. (Pavel Volkov)For centuries, Russia’s pagans practiced their faith on the fringes. But lately, the community of rodnovers, or neopagans, is growing — and finding a home in the country’s biggest cities.

Russia’s first pagans were largely wiped out by the Russian Christian church 1,000 years ago. But a modern iteration of the movement was reborn during the collapse of the Soviet Union. “The collapse of the communist system in Eastern Europe enabled the few small Pagan movements in the region to surface in the public sphere,” political scientist Kaarina Aitamurto wrote in the journal E-International Relations. “At the beginning of the 1990s, they gained momentum in virtually all ex-socialist countries.”

Followers say their polytheistic faith honors Russia’s Slavic roots and allows them to maintain a distinct national identity. Today, there are thousands of self-described rodnovers in Siberia, Volga, Moscow and St. Petersburg. The group defines its faith loosely, pulling traditions and beliefs from ancient Slavic tribes. Though customs vary from place to place, many rodnovers celebrate the “solar holidays” that mark the change of the season by dressing in costume and performing short plays. At some ceremonies, there are sacrifices, dances and communal meals. Rodnovers often worship in Slavic-style temples that feature images of the gods.

A girl during the Yarilo holiday celebrations. (Pavel Volkov) At the beginning of the celebration on Kupalo, people make a circle in the pagan temple. (Pavel Volkov) A man prepares for a pagan wedding. (Pavel Volkov) A pagan temple in a field surrounded by a fence decorated with animal bones. (Pavel Volkov) A girl collects herbs and flowers to make a wreath. A Kupalo wreath is used to predict the future. Pagans believe that the herbs collected during Kupalo night have special powers and can heal people. (Pavel Volkov) An idol standing in the forest in the pagan temple. (Pavel Volkov) After a pagan wedding ceremony, the newlyweds make treats for the guests. (Pavel Volkov) A bear suit used by the okruta members during their performance. Okruta is an ancient tradition of ritual dressing in special costumes. (Pavel Volkov) An okruta member in costume prepares for the celebration. Okruta members dress as mystic creations and animals before the evening Kolyada celebrations. (Pavel Volkov) A dance around a big fire on Kupalo. (Pavel Volkov) The evening celebration starts with a ritual burning. (Pavel Volkov)