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Dancing And Sacred Groves: What Does It Mean To Be Mari?

The Mari El Republic in central Russia is home to the Mari people, an ethnic minority that proudly preserves its traditions. Sometimes described as "Europe's last pagans," locals speak a Finno-Ugric language and observe pre-Christian rituals, although some also follow the Russian Orthodox faith.

The Mari religion centers on believers' connections to nature, with rituals taking place in sacred forest groves. RFE/RL photographer Sergey Peteryaev asked Mari women to pose in traditional dress and describe their impressions of Mari identity, language, and faith.
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Olga Volkova, 28, choreography teacher. "For me, being a Mari means knowing the language and cuisine. Family is one of the key things in my life. I have special ties with nature. For example, if I felt unwell when I was a child I lay down under a birch tree and fell asleep. It was very peaceful."
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Olga Volkova, 28, choreography teacher. "For me, being a Mari means knowing the language and cuisine. Family is one of the key things in my life. I have special ties with nature. For example, if I felt unwell when I was a child I lay down under a birch tree and fell asleep. It was very peaceful."

Natalya Mochalova, 19, student. "I am 100 percent Mari, but I come from a Russian Orthodox family. However, my grandmother still performs a few traditional rites. I live in Mari El, which is important. I feel ashamed of those Mari people who are embarrassed by their origins and call themselves Russians. Nature is nothing but beauty for me. I just walk in the woods."
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Natalya Mochalova, 19, student. "I am 100 percent Mari, but I come from a Russian Orthodox family. However, my grandmother still performs a few traditional rites. I live in Mari El, which is important. I feel ashamed of those Mari people who are embarrassed by their origins and call themselves Russians. Nature is nothing but beauty for me. I just walk in the woods."

Natalya Solovyova, 24, accountant. "I come from a Mari family. We have always spoken Mari at home, so I can speak it fluently, but I make mistakes in my writing. My parents were Russian Orthodox, but my grandparents used to go to the sacred groves. Holidays, especially family holidays, are the moments when I most clearly feel that I am Mari. There's singing and dancing, and it’s not just a performance but real Mari tradition."
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Natalya Solovyova, 24, accountant. "I come from a Mari family. We have always spoken Mari at home, so I can speak it fluently, but I make mistakes in my writing. My parents were Russian Orthodox, but my grandparents used to go to the sacred groves. Holidays, especially family holidays, are the moments when I most clearly feel that I am Mari. There's singing and dancing, and it’s not just a performance but real Mari tradition."

Yekaterina Ivaikova, 22, dancer. "My father is Mari and my mother is [ethnic] Russian. The family is Russian Orthodox, which is usual in Mari El. I don’t feel that I am Mari because I don’t speak the language. I think you can find a real Mari only in a village. But I do feel a connection with nature. Sometimes I feel the urge to go and meditate in the forest. When I go to sleep in the city, I put on a recording of sounds of the forest."
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Yekaterina Ivaikova, 22, dancer. "My father is Mari and my mother is [ethnic] Russian. The family is Russian Orthodox, which is usual in Mari El. I don’t feel that I am Mari because I don’t speak the language. I think you can find a real Mari only in a village. But I do feel a connection with nature. Sometimes I feel the urge to go and meditate in the forest. When I go to sleep in the city, I put on a recording of sounds of the forest."

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