RUSSIA Orthodoxy and shamanism in Siberia

In the Russian Far East there remains a great mixture of Christianity and paganism. Orthodox priests in the countryside engage in shamanic practices. Pagan folklore seen as a spectacle of “popular culture”. Orthodox clergy and shamans “combined” against the Covid.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – A survey of the site Sibir Realii 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 expanded over the following centuries from the Urals to the Pacific Ocean, even touching the North American coast.

The indigenous Siberian peoples have long opposed the Russian conquerors, in an epic reminiscent of the Indians of the Wild West or the Indians of Latin America. However, until the establishment of Soviet atheism, the Russians had not sought to stifle the pagan religions of the locals, showing indeed a certain benevolence towards shamanism as a “way to heaven”. While in northern European Russia monks had successfully evangelized the Komi and other peoples, a spirit of interfaith tolerance still remained in Siberia.

The Russians moved into Siberia anything but quickly and in large numbers, in fact often in the form of exile and punishment. Those who arrived there had to adapt to extreme conditions, due to the climate and the hostile cultural and ethnic environment. The most effective mechanism for this adaptation has always been the exchange of experiences between older generations, which has led Russians to merge their professional skills – and their religious beliefs – with those of the locals.

In the freezing Siberian nights, lost in the borderless taiga, “one becomes pagan even without wanting to”, as Sergej, a resident of the Tomsk region, says: “Not everyone is ready to observe the virginity of principles, when it comes to life and 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 17th century to the monk Rasputin before the revolution, were fascinated by the loud 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 evidenced by a Petersburg list from the early 1700s, in which of the 30 best-known Siberian shamans, at least four had Russian names.

It is not uncommon for Orthodox country priests to engage in shamanic practices, and this phenomenon is still observed today. Floral and vegetable decorations, processions in winter holidays (the Russian carnival lasts from December to February), the use of pagan bells and drums – all this is emerging even in parishes and monasteries in the most isolated areas. Some priests make agreements with shamans, coordinate sacred and magical ceremonies and then share the proceeds of the offerings of the faithful.

Even the civil authorities did not disdain, even in the Soviet years, the use of shamanic healings, considering pagan folklore as a spectacle of “popular culture” to be sponsored and protected. In Siberia, a particular version of “dvoeverie”, the “double faith” typical of the old Rus’ of Kiev, developed, with the variants of “orthodox paganism” and “pagan communism”, until the religious revival of the last decades, where syncretism expresses the tendency of these territories.

Pandemic emergencies also encourage religious mixing. The newly appointed Bishop of Jakutsk Roman (Lunkin) told the Izvestija correspondent that he was welcomed by local shamans, who offered an alliance against Covid, recommending their followers to attend local Orthodox churches.