Worshippers standing opposite a spruce where men were conducting prayers in a sacred grove near the village of Marisola in the Marii-El republic.
The congregation kneeled while the men under the spruce, dressed in suits, white felt hats and linen towels cast over their shoulders, said prayers in a low, monotone murmur.
They prayed to Osh Kughu Yumo -- Mari for "Great White God" -- who was being revered that day as Agavairem, which means both deity of creative energy and the feast marking the end of spring labor.
The women lined up in the grass in front of piles of thick homemade pancakes, white cheese, dumplings and brown kvas, the fermented rye drink. Pots and kitchenware were adorned with burning candles, as was a makeshift table in front of the spruce.
The extraordinary ceremony testified to the little-known fact that an animist faith has survived centuries of Christian and Muslim hegemony in this obscure region 800 kilometers east of Moscow.
The Mari, a Finnic people of roughly half a million whose language sounds a bit like a strange mixture of Finnish and Turkish, are said to be Europe's last pagans. Yet their priests, called kart in Mari, reject that notion.
"We are not pagans. We call our faith the Mari Traditional Religion, and we are registered officially in the republic," said Vyacheslav Mamayev, who oversaw the ceremony as the chief kart of the local Sernur district.
Pokrovka Church's Father Sergy
He went on to explain that for the Mari, God has nine substances, or hypostases, ranging from the life-giving Ilyan Yumo to the birth goddess Shochinava.
Asked about the theological foundation of his faith, Mamayev smiled and said, "Everything works through nature."
Indeed, like most animist religions, the Mari faith traditionally knows no written scriptures and no sacred edifices. Prayers are chiefly held in sacred groves, where some feasts include the ritual slaughter of animals as sacrifice.
"Nature is our temple," said Zoya Dudina as she walked with worshippers on a winding path through high grass after the ceremony in the grove had ended.
Dudina, a poet and intellectual from the republican capital, Ioshkar-Ola, expressed pride that her people had regained the possibility to practice their traditional faith.
In Soviet times, she said, villagers would sneak out to the sacred groves after midnight, hoping that nobody would report their forbidden prayers.
Indeed, unnoticed by much of the outside world, the Mari faith has made a remarkable recovery since the end of Soviet Union.
In Marii-El, the Mari Traditional Religion, dubbed MTR, is recognized as one of three traditional faiths, along with Christianity and Islam.
The Mari High Kart Alexander Tanygin regularly attends official ceremonies alongside local Christian and Muslim leaders.
About 15 percent of the people of Marii-El consider themselves adherents of MTR, according to a survey conducted in 2004 by Sociologists of the Mari Institute for Language, Literature and History. Because Maris make up just 45 percent of a population of 700,000, this figure means that probably more than a third of them follow the old religion.
Karts Vitaly Gusyev, left, and Pyotr Vasilyev speaking during the ceremony.
Even local Orthodox clergy acknowledge the traditional faith's dominance in the republic's northern rural districts.
"This is certainly the weakest parish in all of Marii-El," said Father Sergy of Marisola's Pokrovka Church.
Of the local population of 2,500, only 10 to 15 believers attend his services regularly, he said, standing outside his small 19th-century church.
In the local district center of Sernur, the Eparchy of Marii-El is building a new church, but construction, which began in 2003, has stalled because of a lack of funds.
Yet Father Sergy, a gaunt man with a scrubby beard and a kind voice, made it clear that he bore no grudge against the pagans. "We have friendly relations. We are not foes," he said.
He noted that about 1,500 locals were baptized, although he added that he considered practicing traditionalists to be lost souls. "They have no hope of being saved -- that can only happen to believers," he said.
The Mari faith is no isolated phenomenon and has been described as syncretic, combining elements from various religions.
Many Mari villagers have icons in their homes, and drivers stick miniature images of saints on their dashboards, just like anywhere else in Russia.
An altar for ritual sacrifices at another sacred grove near Marisola village.
On their way out of the grove at Marisola, women turned around and crossed themselves, just as Orthodox believers do when leaving church. When one of the karts saw them, he mildly told them to stop.
"You should not put too much significance in this," Dudina explained. "Our people have lived with the Russian church for generations, but our faith is older."
Christianity, she said, had not entered Mari rites, but rather the rites had entered Christianity. "There are so many pagan traditions in Christianity. Look at the Christmas tree," she said.
Other Mari classify themselves in groups with varying degrees of Russian-Orthodox influence, including "Rush Vera" followers, who might even go to church at times; followers of "Marla Vera" who are baptized; and the nonbaptized "Chi Mari."
Mamayev, the Sernur district kart, said the various groups should be allowed to coexist. "Many who come to our prayers are baptized. We will not exclude them. Everyone should be allowed to pursue his own form of worship," he said over a traditional meal of pancakes and kvas held in the Marisola village after prayers.
Juha VКliaho, a Finnish Lutheran missionary who worked in Marii-El for 10 years before moving to Bashkortostan, estimated that 60 percent of the Mari are baptized into the Orthodox Church. "But in their hearts, they are all pagans," he said in an interview in the Finnish Lutheran Church in the outskirts of Ioshkar-Ola, the capital.
The city of 280,000 displays few signs of animist traditions. More striking here is the Orthodox Church's construction activities, which can be seen at numerous churches and religious schools.
VКliaho said that while traditions are strong in the villages, pagan structures are weak in the city.
"It is a totally rural phenomenon. You don't really hold on to these beliefs in a city," he said.
Asked about the local success of missionaries, he said the Lutheran parish in the capital had more than 150 members. Despite the low numbers, he mused that Protestants might be more successful in proselytizing here than the Orthodox. "Many Mari do not want to go the Orthodox church because it is perceived as quintessentially Russian. We, however, can offer worship in their own language," he said.
Even Father Sergy, the Orthodox priest in Marisola, suggested that he did not see much sense in his church winning over the traditionalists. Asked about the future of the Orthodox faith in Marii-El, he said he did not worry so much about paganism but rather about people with no faith at all.
"Look at the youth in our villages," he said. "They have little hope of finding work. They either start drinking or move away to the cities, where they find all sorts of bad things but no religion."