YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Russian Pagans Find Roots in the Forest : Religion: Marxism, Leninism left spiritual emptiness, which leader of loose, growing sect wants to fill with gods of nature.


VASENYOVO, Russia — Every morning when he awakes and looks out the frosted window of his wooden cabin, Alexei Dobrovolsky intones: "Glory to the sun! Glory to the clan! Glory to the spirits!"

The curtains of his home are embroidered with eight-armed swastikas to guard against evil spirits. Around his neck hangs a small pouch bearing soil from the burial plots of his relatives. And on Dec. 25, he will celebrate not Christmas but a far more ancient holiday, marking the rebirth of the sun after the winter solstice.

Dobrovolsky is a Russian pagan. He considers himself a mystical ideologist, one of the leaders of a loose, growing sect of hundreds or possibly thousands of Russians who want to return to their roots as "children of the forest."

"Every Russian is a pagan in his soul," said Dobrovolsky, who is 54 years old and the veteran of 13 years in labor camps. "You ask people who were raised as atheists, 'Do you love nature?' and they say, 'Yes.' Then you're a pagan! Do you love to meet the sunrise and feel something bright and beautiful dawn inside? Yes? Then you're a pagan.

"Paganism is being reborn now," he said. "Thinking people are drawn to it because the spiritual emptiness left by Marxism and Leninism remains, but the old religions don't satisfy."

Millions of Russians are also being drawn back to the Russian Orthodox Church after seven decades of state atheism. But Dobrovolsky contends that Christianity ruined the Slavs by distancing them from nature and that the church compromised itself under communism by cooperating with security police.

"The church was always a sell-out," he said. "It always served the strong."

Dobrovolsky lives what he preaches. Three years ago he left the urban suffocation of Moscow and moved to Vasenyovo, a tiny deserted village in central Russia, about 15 miles of rutted mud from the town of Shabalino and the nearest paved road. He has taken the made-up, mythical-sounding name of "Dobroslav," and his wife calls herself "Liubomudra." They keep a cow and a horse and a mean German shepherd, and they bring in a bit of money selling the berries and mushrooms they gather.

"We aren't doing research on paganism; we're living it," said Dobrovolsky's 22-year-old son, Sasha.

The former dissident needs the quiet of the countryside to plumb the "genetic memory" that will tell him the secrets of the ancient Slavic pagans, he said. Otherwise, he must depend mainly on his own studies of world religion and church sources that he believes deliberately distorted pagan practices.

Monotheism, born in the barren deserts of the Middle East, never fit the Slavs, who were surrounded by the myriad gods of the woods, Dobrovolsky believes. Even the Russian word for God-- bog-- is not of Slavic origin. For three years now, he has been developing rituals in keeping with what little is known of his ancestors' practices before Prince Vladimir brought Christianity to Russia in 988.

To religion scholars in Moscow, Dobrovolsky and those like him are intellectual dabblers trying to artificially resurrect a practice that has already died a natural death.

Unlike various ethnic groups in Siberia and Russia's remote north who remained pagans all along, with centuries of shamans passing on wisdom in an unbroken line, Dobrovolsky is trying to turn back history, they say.

Superstitions left over from the pagan past still pervade Russian life: spitting over the left shoulder to ward off the evil eye, for example, or painting eggs for Easter.

But "to try to fully restore something like paganism is just funny," said Irina Denisova, an expert on religion at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "The return of paganism today is just nonsense."

In practice, Dobrovolsky's paganism smacks of current New Age explorations in the West--the search for some new spiritual harmony bolstered by awareness of the planet's ecological plight. And his rituals, although largely new-minted, also seem somehow familiar and potent.

Late on June 25 this year, Dobrovolsky recalled, he and a dozen followers gathered at a nearby lake for Midsummer's Night, a campfire vigil that celebrates the peak of nature's activity.

Church documents describe Midsummer's Night as something of a Bacchanalian orgy, and Dobrovolsky said that couples are indeed encouraged to make love on the shortest night of the year because, it is believed, that is when great heroes are conceived.

But in his new-old ritual this time, the focus was not on sex but on a simple celebration of the sun's power.

Liubomudra baked a karavay , a round, bundt-type cake that symbolizes the sun. The participants joined hands and sang around the fire and, toward morning, jumped barefoot through the flames in a cleansing ritual and ran into the nearby lake.

Dobrovolsky also performed a ceremony on new members to "unbaptize" them, removing what he called the "blasphemy of Christianity" by washing away the holy water of baptism with pure lake water and intoning magic words.

Los Angeles Times Articles