Before the arrival of Christianity, Russia was home to a diverse range of religious practices broadly described as Slavic Paganism. These were belief systems that had arisen during the country’s tribal past, and like other animistic traditions throughout the world, they’d attributed spiritual significance to animals, geological features, and of course, the celestial bodies.
When Christianity arrived in Russia, pagan heretics faced the usual combination of ostracism and maltreatment, which drove believers underground. And it wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union that Slavic Paganism again resurfaced.
Today, the belief system is known as Slavic Native Faith or more commonly, Rodnovery. And again this present-day iteration of the faith has developed a negative reputation in Russia, with the movement still at odds with the Russian Orthodox Church, who regularly get them framed as right-wing nationalists or degenerates in the country’s state-run media.
This negative reputation caught the eye of Russian documentary photographer Pavel Volkov. Intrigued by what he’d heard, Pavel went along to a Rodnover gathering to take the following photos. We caught up with Pavel find out what he’d learned about the controversial group.
VICE: Was it difficult to gain access to the world of the Rodnovers?
Pavel Volkov: Yeah, it was difficult. Rodnovers don't trust journalists anymore because they say the Russian media has unfairly damaged their reputation. This has led some people to believe that they’re fascists who sacrifice animals or even humans. So it took some time to gain their trust. I had to convince them that I would document the events as honestly as possible. In the end I travelled around Russia with them, taking photos at some specific places in Russia where they usually celebrate their main holidays. Lots of people go there to join celebrations. I travelled to a couple of them.
Tell me about your first day with the Rodnovers?
The photos here are from the first time I visited the Rodnovers in December, during Kolyada, which is an ancient pre-winter festival and one of their main celebrations. They gave me a special badge so I could move around freely and take photos. The scale of events was really surprising. The event had shops where followers sold traditional clothes, homemade food and other cultural items. They were also people playing traditional music and conducting historical lectures. They even had their own magazine that told people about their faith.
Something like 300 people from all over Russia travelled for the celebrations. The celebration lasted for a whole day, although the main part began when it got dark. They made a huge fire and people gathered around in circles and ran around the fire while they recited rituals. It was spectacular. I really got a sense of a unified community.
What are some key Rodnover beliefs and celebrations?
They’re really big on respecting their ancestors and maintaining a deep connection with nature. That’s why Rodnovers' celebrations are connected to seasons. For Rodnovers, it’s a tradition to keep celebrating solar holidays like equinoxes and solstices, even though most of them live in the city and spend little time outdoors. They feel that nature and the whole world around them is imbued with spirits and gods. It is true that Rodnovers practice sacrifice, but the offerings are not blood sacrifices. It’s usually just bread, meat, or some other produce.
You’ve also photographed women in elaborate dresses. Is there some significance to these photos?
Yes, Rodnovers believe women play a very special role because they give birth to new life. In the Rodnovers’ pantheon of gods, goddesses are very important.
You mentioned people coming from all over the place. Where does your average Rodnover come from?
Rodnovers differ from local pagans who live in Siberia or the Volga regions. Most Rodnovers live in big cities, where they work and study. Really, they’re just like other ordinary Russians. I took some photos of a Rodnover near the skyscrapers of Moscow to show that he’s an everyday Russian who still respects his Rodnover beliefs.
Why are people choosing to adopt the Rodnover faith?
The Rodnovers say they want to protect the beliefs and traditions of their ancestors. They think that the adoption of Christianity broke a normal development of the ancient Russian state because it significantly influenced every aspect of Russian life. Rodnovers believe they are preserving a unique part of the Russian identity.
Rodnovers have been linked to far-right organisations in Russia. Did you come across anyone involved in far-right politics while working on the story?
No I didn’t. The community I photographed weren’t involved in politics. They believe it’s more important to respect their own traditions and beliefs. So they have adopted a very apolitical position.
How did this assignment compare to some of your previous work on religion?
A couple of years ago I did story on young Russian Orthodox Christians. So, it was really interesting to compare the two groups. Both groups were shrouded in mystery and misunderstood by Russian society and I wanted to know everything about how they lived, what they felt, and how they acted. I wanted to dig deeper and meet them for myself.