Thursday, March 21, 2019

Sakha – Where Paganism is Supported by the State and Interacts with Orthodox Christianity

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 21 – Sakha, a republic within the Russian Federation that is by itself larger than all the countries of the European Union put together, seldom attracts much attention unless there is a scandal in the diamond industry or there are ethnic conflicts like the one that has broken out in Yakutsk this week between local people and Central Asian immigrants.

            But there are far more intriguing and even compelling reasons to pay attention to that republic and its people, not least of which is the unusual modus vivendi that has emerged between the ancient popular faith which Russians classify as paganism and the Russian Orthodox Church.

            Spektr journalist Vyacheslav Shushurikhhin in a new article explores “why in Sakha, neither the USSR nor the ROC was able to wipe out these dual beliefs and why Orthodoxy even now gets along with pagan traditions” (

            For decades, he writes, “a significant portion of the population of Sakha” lives according to the notion that there are “two worlds and two clergies,” that of the traditional popular animist religion and that of Russian Orthodoxy.  Both have their own institutions and the former is actively supported even financially by the republic government.

            Local officials participate in the ceremonies of both as do the religious leaders, seeing no fundamental contradiction in the two faiths – both after all believe in spirits – or at least being unwilling to suffer the isolation or negative political consequences of coming down on one side or the other.

            As a result, Shushurikhhin says, “today in Sakha the two traditions, Orthodox and pagan, coexistence in the consciousness of a large number of residents.”  They see no contradiction in this and the religious leaders of both groups don’t either. Some Orthodox wish it were otherwise but note that it is often said “’Russia was baptized but it wasn’t enlightened.’”

            Soviet officials had it easier: they opposed both pagans and Orthodox; but today, while the Russian government tilts toward Orthodoxy, the Sakha government goes in the other direction, funding a cultural center which in fact is a major supporter of pagan religious rites and celebrations. 

            An Orthodox leader explains this situation both by the way in which Orthodoxy was originally spread, solely in Russian even if those in its audience knew not a word of that language, and by the way in which Orthodox priests actually behave: they have to show respect to the local people and their faith.

            “’One must not all the time speak with someone in a language other than his native one,’” this leader says. “’If an urban resident is either bilingual or in general a Russian speaker, then one need only go a little outside Yakutsk and every other person will say that it is difficult for him to speak Russian.’”

            “’To offer the fundamentals of faith in a non-native language is completely impermissible,’” this Orthodox activist says. Consequently, even Sakha who become Orthodox remain pagan in large measure because their popular faith penetrates all aspects of life and links people to the nature around them.

            Those who want to attack this head on as some Orthodox radicals might are missing the point. The two faiths in fact have much in common and even, she suggests, something to learn from one another about the world and life itself.

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