The pagans are back

The Rodnovery stand once more behind their swastika. They’ve taken up arms to fight the Kiev government.

Giovani ucraini festeggiano Ivan Kupala (Giovanni Battista). Photo REUTERS/CONTRASTO/GLEB GARANICH

Rod appears at the end of the clearing. His wooden moustache and long hair, reminiscent of an image of the Germanic god Odin, sum up the classical iconography of the northern European pagan divinities. Rod, the supreme god of life. The totem is flanked by two other wood carvings. One is of Svarog, the god of light and fire, forger of the solar disk. The other is of Lada, the goddess of love and fertility, also known as the goddess of flowers. These wooden totems are in the Petrovsky district, not far from the combat zone that, despite the current truce, still witness clashes between separatist militias and government army troops.

The fire crackles beneath the copper pot, giving off a pleasant aroma. Irina pours an infusion comprised mainly of willow herb, a medicinal plant with curative properties, into some cups: “They’re herbs and flowers grown in a sacred wood”, says Vitaliy Brednev, the current head of the Donetsk community and a member of the Donetsk Republic Party. “Our general and leader, Alexander Suvorov, made sure that every soldier drank this infusion. It provides energy and cleanses the organism of infection, making it stronger”. 

There are a dozen or so people around the totem. 'Nothing you see here is left to chance. The shamans came to find this place and brought stones fetched from the most distant corners of Russia,' Irina explains. Vitaliy and Irina are part of the Rodnoverje community, the followers of the native Slav faith. The community's children, their heads adorned with flowers, play tag in the fields. Around the totem lies a circle of stones that, seen from above, represents a solar swastika. The swastika is an ancient symbol now identified with Nazism. But in its countless variants, such as the kolovrat or the Lada Cross, it represents the light and the sun. Even the totem of the god Rod is adorned with swastikas and runes. To reach it, you must cross a symbolic wooden bridge placed between this world and the invisible world, the world of the spirit.

Vitaliy, a member of the Donetsk's People's Republic parliament, was born in Donbass but had been living in Moscow for many years, where he worked as a manager in a large firm. He is one of 1200 militants that form the Svarog battalion led by Oleg Orchikov, currently in jail and charged with a number of crimes that range from theft to murder. His former comrades in arms are, for the most part, integrated into the Oplot battalion. The Rodnoverje do not consider themselves pagan in the strict sense of the word and do not view their beliefs as a religion. For them, it is something much deeper that dates back to the dawn of time and is at one with their Slav identity - an ethnic religion, based on mythology rather than sacred texts and on the rekindling of ancient traditions, lost over time. Already in the 19th century, in many other locations in Europe, there were those who sought to find the shared identity of Slav populations and retrace their genesis.

Just as Pan-Germanism at the beginning of the 20th century led the Wandervogel movement to rediscover ancient folk traditions and nature and to bring back to light Germany's pagan and mythical roots, so Pan-Slavism and the Rodnoverje in its wake review the shared history of the Slav people through myth. The book of Veles, for example, which tells of ancient religions and legends stretching from the 7th century B.C. to the 11th century A.D., though in all likelihood a historical fabrication created around 1800, is one of the texts on which they base their beliefs. These beliefs go hand in hand with a view of the history of man which does not begin in Africa but in the Hyperborea, the imaginary deep north, where the white man came to be. Christ actually died on the Bosporus, Rome was founded by Slav peoples, the disappearance of the Mu and Atlantis civilisations, everything is linked together to support their superiority and a vast global conspiracy against them managed by occult forces. The Rodnoverje are not only found in Ukraine, but also in Russia, Belarus, Poland, Bosnia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. So, to defend their 'native land' against a manoeuvre by Western powers, they have taken up arms against the Kiev government.

Anatoliy Shaban, a pastor of the Vifania Evangelical Baptist Church in the Petrovsky district, describes how the Rodnoverje threatened to kill him and took over his church building, transforming it into a military base. 'I've tried to return a few times, but they've told me never to show myself around here, or I'll have to pay the consequences. My people now meet in another church. Other pastors have left, many faithful have fled. I'm not leaving this place.'
In the two separatist republics, a number of protestant churches, considered the long arm of the CIA, have suffered harsh persecutions, so much so that the new regulations currently imposed in the Donetsk Republic authorise only four religions: Judaism, Islam, the Russian Orthodox Church and Catholicism, even though in July 2015 the only Catholic priest, himself of Polish extraction, was recalled to his own country for personal safety reasons.

Thus the paganism of the Rodnoverje fits in perfectly with the local situation where anti-Western sentiments prevail, and the Slav world is considered to be a protector of traditional values, threatened by what are seen as the nefarious influences of issues such as homosexuality and race mixing, a predominant view in political trends with nationalist tendencies. It's not clear how many Rodnoverje were among the block of candidates that supported Aleksandr Zakharchenko at the parliamentary elections held last 2 November. Not much is known about their political activities, except that they helped pass a few laws on services and transportation, consumer rights, education and commemorating the Republic's heroic dead. There is one issue, however, where they do not see eye to eye with President Zakharchenko: they believe the black, blue and red flag of the separatist nation is wrong and will bring misfortune. Black is a dark symbol, representing evil. In Vitaliy's office there is no official flag on the wall, just one of the Soviet Union and a large image of Stalin, a man Vitaliy describes as having 'uncommon powers'. The legacy of the Soviet empire and the superiority of the Slav race thus mingle into one, transforming the Donetsk Republic into a sort of pool of nationalisms.

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