Baku, March 26 – In Mari El, a Finno-Ugric republic in the Middle Volga region of the Russian Federation, leaders of the most ancient of mankind’s religions have turned to the most modern communications channel as part of their struggle to defend their culture and beliefs against the encroachments of modernity.
The Supreme Kart of the Mari Traditional Religion (MTR), Aleksandr Tanygin, convened last Thursday an annual meeting of the leaders of that pagan faith, one that combines ancestor worship and devotion to nature and that seldom attracts much attention (http://www.mari-el.name/2008/03/24/sobranie_dukhovnykh_liderov.html).
As he and other MTR have regularly insisted, Tanygin stressed that this faith is not directed against any other confession but that it is very much concerned with defending the religious traditions of the Maris and the natural world against threats from economic development.
These two interests have now combined, he said, and consequently, the MTR, which consists of four registered and many unregistered communities outside Ioshkar-Ola but has not yet succeeded in getting an office there – a government representative promised to help –has decided to step up its activities.
Less than a month ago, vandals went into one of the 520 groves that MTR considers holy, cut down trees and carried off the wood, and now the authorities are expanding a cement factory located on one of the holiest places in Mari El, a cemetery venerated by all followers of the MTR.
In order to prevent more such violations of their rights, the MTR meeting decided to take three steps. First, it announced plans to provide a precise description of all 520 locations the MTR consider sacred and then demand that Russian officials prevent anyone from violating them.
Second, it scheduled its next meeting, not a year from now, but next month so that MTR leaders will be in Ioshkar-Ola at the same time as the upcoming Congress of the Mari People takes place, thus allowing MTR members to lobby that body for support against the cement factory.
And third, the session announced plans to use its own website -- http://mtr.mari-el.name -- not only to advance their own agenda but to counter the increasing number of misrepresentations of their views and activities that have appeared in the official Ioshkar-Ola and Moscow media.
This last step may prove the most important because by turning to the Internet in this way, this ancient faith will be able to communicate to and link up with activists and officials in the three independent Finno-Ugric countries – Estonia, Finland, and Hungary – and with supporters of this ancient faith around the world.
To the extent the MTR succeeds, the Russian-dominated government in Mari El may soon find itself confronted with an even more powerful force than the one that it confronted three years ago when Finno-Ugric activists abroad attracted more than 10,000 signatures on an appeal to end Ioshkar-Ola and Moscow’s oppression of the Mari people.
UPDATE for March 27 – Officials in Kirov oblast, which adjoins Mari El, said that the cement plant will develop in such a way that there is no danger that it will threaten the region the TMR is concerned about or make it impossible for TMR followers to venerate their ancestors (http://www.mari-el.name/2008/03/26/pro_cementnyjj_zavod.html).
UPDATE for April 1 -- Despite the TMR’s complaints at the meeting described above, persons or companies unknown continue to cut down trees in Mari El’s holy groves (www.mari-el.name/2008/04/01/svjashhennye_roshhi_vyrubajut.html).
UPDATE for April 3 – The Mari El interior ministry has brought charges against a Moscow company for cutting down trees in groves sacred to MTR (http://www.kasparov.ru/material.php?id=47F36D5C1E0D3).