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Building the Road to the Temple: Religion and National Revival in the Chuvash Republic

  • Olessia P. Vovina (a1)

In June 1996, the newly reconstructed waterfront in Cheboksary, the capital of the Chuvash Republic, was officially opened with a formal ceremony led by the President of the Republic, Nikolai Fedorov, and attended by the Patriarch of All Russia, Alexei II. “We have built a road to the temple,” the President declared. In a literal sense, he was referring to the construction of an embankment leading to one of the city's oldest Orthodox churches. But his phrase had a symbolic meaning as well. Metaphorically the phrase equated the physical reconstruction of the capital city with the cultural and spiritual revival of the Chuvash nation.

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1. A description of the opening of waterfront can be found in I. D. Timojeev-Vutlan & V. G. Ignat'ev, eds, Sovremennaia Chuvashiia (Cheboksary: Chuvashskoe knizhnoe izd-vo, 1997), p. 37.

2. The construction of the yupa, a wooden column adorned with stylized carvings of faces and the human figure, is an integral part of the rituals of mourning and remembrance in the traditional Chuvash religion. For more information about the yupa, see N. I. Ashmarin, Slovar' chuvashskogo iazyka, vyp. 4 (Cheboksary: Izd-vo Chuvashnarkomprosa, 1929), pp. 346–347; P. V. Denisov, Religioznye verovaniia chuvash (Cheboksary: Chuvashskoe gosudarstvennoe izd-vo, 1959), pp. 149–150; A. A. Trofimov, Chuvashskaia narodnaia kul'tovaia skul'ptura (Cheboksary: Chuvashskoe knizhnoe izd-vo, 1993); E. A. Iagafova, Samarskie chuvashi (istoriko-etnograficheskie ocherki) konets xvii-nachalo xxvv (Samara: Istoriko-cko-kul'turnaia assotsiatsiia “Povolzh'e,” 1998), pp. 231–234.

3. The parishioners of the Holy Trinity Monastery, for example, sent a letter with 362 signatures: “Net ni ”ellina, ni iudcia“—pered bogom vse ravny,” Sovetskaia Chuvashiia, No. 167, 22 August 1995. The parishioners of the Uspensky church in the village of Akulievo, Cheboksarskii raion, sent a letter with 114 signatures: “Mozhno li ikh nazvat' intelligentami?” Sovetskaia Chuvashiia, No. 185, 15 September 1995. See also, B. Mironov, “Dlia chego shum vokrug Stolba?” Sovetskaia Chuvashiia, 29 September 1995; I. Andreev, “V detstvo ne vozvrashchaiutsia K sporam o vozrozhdenii iazychestva,” Sovetskaia Chuvashiia, 5 September 1995, p. 3; Iu. Mikhailov, “Manshan ChNK temsh$ebnske ik$eb khutla iapala pek tuiănch$eb,” Khypar kěneki, No. 16, 20 June, 1995, p. 11.

4. The leader of the Chuvash nature, religion and spirituality group Turas, F. Madurov, published “Ne sotriasaite vozdukh izmyshleniiami,” Sovetskaia Chuvashiia, 29 September 1995. See also T'vash, “Net very bez goneniia?” Sovetskaia Chuvashiia, No. 185, 15 September 1995; and Gennadij Eniseev, “Eshchc raz o kaftane s oborkami,” Sovetskaia Chuvashiia, 11 August 1995.

5. The concept of “national revival” itself has been the object of considerable controversy in recent literature. Sec, for example, A. A Tkachenko, “Tiurkskie narody: vozrozhdenie ili razvitie?” Etnograficheskoe obozrenie, No. 4, 1996, pp. 65–75; I. E. Elaeva, “Buriatskaia intelligentsiia: dominanty etnicheskogo samoopredeleniia,” Etnograficheskoe obozrenie, No. 2, 1998, pp. 126–139; Iu. P. Shabaev, “Ideologiia natsional'nykh dvizhenii finno-ugorskikh narodov Rossii i ee vospriiatie obshchestvennym mneniem,” Etnograficheskoe obozrenie, No. 3, 1998, pp. 119–128. Information on the Chuvash cultural revival movement can be found mainly in local periodicals. See, for example, S. Filatov and A. Shchipkov, “Iazychestvo. Rozhdenie ili vozrozhdenie,” Druzhba narodov. Nos 11–12, 1994; “Narod Chuvashii vybiraet veru,” Sovetskaia Chuvashiia, No. 169, August 1995; V. Avanmart, “Traditsii i religiia (vzgliad iznutri),” Chavash'en, No. 38, 1997, p. 8; “Vozrozhdenie kul'tury—samaia blagorodnaia zadacha,” Chavash'en, No. 42, 17–24 September 1992.

6. For population data see V. P. Ivanov, Etnicheskaia karta Chuvashii (Cheboksary: Chuvashskii gosudarstvennyi institut gumanitarnyh nauk, 1997), p. 14. The Chuvash, with a total population of 1.8 million in the Russian Federation, are outnumbered only by the Ukrainians, Tatars and Russians.

7. On the christianization of the Chuvash, see P. V. Denisov, Religioznye verovaniia chuvash (Cheboksary: Chuvashskoe gosudarstvennoe izd-vo, 1959); N. V. Nikol'skii, “Khristianstvo sredi chuvash Srednego Povolzh'ia v XVI–XVIII vekakh. Istoricheskii ocherk,” in Izvestiia Obshchestva arkheologii, istorii i etnografii, T. 28, Vyp. 1–3. (Kazan, 1912); L. M. Taimasov, Khristianizatsiia chuvashskogo naroda v pervoi polovine XIX veka (Cheboksary: Izd-vo Chuvashskogo universiteta, 1992).

8. On nineteenth-century missionaries and the “Il'minskii system” for the education of non-Russians, see Robert Geraci, “Window on the East: Ethnography, Orthodoxy, and Russian Nationality in Kazan, 1870–1914,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California at Berkeley, 1995; and Paul Werth, “Subjects for Empire: Orthodox Mission and Imperial Governance in the Volga-Kama Region, 1825–1881,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1996.

9. See E. A. Iagafova, Samarskie chuvashi, pp. 308–313; and Chuvashi Priural'ia: kul'turno-by-tovye protsessy (Cheboksary: Nauchno-issledovatel'skii institut iazyka, literatury, istorii i ekonomiki, 1989), p. 31.

10. Chuvashskaia natsiia (sosial'no-kul'tyrnyi oblik). K chuvashskomy natsional'nomy kongressu (Cheboksary: Chuvashskoe respublikanskoe upravlenie statistiki, 1992); Chăvash nazi kongresě. Chuvashskii natsional'nyi kongress. Sbornik dokumentov i materialov (Shupashkar: “Avan-I” Izd-vo ushkăn$eb, 1994).

11. “Govoriat uchastniki kongressa,” Chavash'en, No. 42(89), 1992, pp. 17–24. “ChNK prizyvaet ob'edinit'sia vokrug idei vozrozhdeniia,” Chavash'en, No. 42(89), 17 October 1992.

12. A. P. Khuzangai, “Gorizonty postimperskoi chuvashskoi kul'tury,” Sovetskaia Chuvashiia, 26 June 1993, pp. 5–7; A. P. Khuzangai, “Tret'e vozrozhdenie chuvashskogo naroda,” Chuvash'en, No. 19(118), 1993, p. 4.

13. On 19 January 1993, the ChNK was accepted as a member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) and took part in the work of the third UNPO general assembly. “Problemy naroda my staraemsia vynesti na mezhdunarodnyi pravovoi uroven'. Beseda A. Khuzangaia s korrespondentom,” Chuvash'en. No. 11, 1994, p. 7. The UNPO was founded in 1991 as an alternative to the United Nations by “representatives of occupied nations, indigenous peoples, minorities, and other disenfranchised peoples who currently struggle to preserve their cultural identities, protect their basic human rights, safeguard the environment or regain their lost countries.” See November 2000). ChNK was one of the organizers of the Assembly of the Peoples of Volga-Urals region (ANPU), the founding congress of which took place on 25–26 February 1994 in Cheboksary.

14. A. P. Khuzangai, “Gorizonty postimperskoi chuvashskoi kul'tury,” Sovetskaia Chuvashiia, 26 June 1993, pp. 7–9.

15. Ibid. Prior to the formulations of A. P. Khuzangai, the Volga-Bulgar empire had not been so directly connected with the idea of Chuvash statehood. On the conceptions of early Chuvash nationalists, such as G. F. Aliunov, T. Khuri (Nikolaev), S. Nikolaev, G. Komissarov-Vander and N. V. Nikol'skii, see V. A. Prokhorova and A. A. Trofimov, eds. Problemy natsional'nogo v razvitii chuvashskogo naroda. Sbornik statei (Cheboksary: Chuvashskii gosudarstvennyi institut gumanitarnyh nauk, 1999). Polemics between Chuvash and Tatar scholars over the legacy of the Volga Bulgar state have been ongoing since at least the end of the Second World War. The topic has re-emerged in recent years in connection with questions of “lost” statehood. See Bolgary i Chuvashi (Cheboksary: Nauchno-issledovatel'skii institut iazyka, literatury, istorii i ekonomiki, 1984); V. A. Shnirel'man,“ Who Gets the Past? Competition for Ancestors among Non-Russian Intellectuals in Russia,” (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1997).

16. For example: V. D. Dimitriev, Chuvashskie istoricheskie predaniia. Ocherki istorii chuvashskogo naroda s drevneishikh vremen do serediny XIX veka (Cheboksary: Chuvashskoe knizhnoe izd-vo, 1993); M. N. Iukhma, Drevnie chuvashskie bogi i geroi. Legendy i mify drevnei Chuvashii (Cheboksary: Izd-vo “Chuvashiia”, 1996); idem, Drevnie chuvashi. Istoricheskie ocherki (Cheboksary: Izd-vo “Chuvashiia”, 1998).

17. The functions of ritual as a mechanism of adaptation in times of crisis and social transformation have been repeatedly traced and analyzed in the anthropological literature. See, for example, V. Turner, The Ritual Process (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974); Michael Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980); Laurel Kendall, “Korean Shamans and the Spirits of Capitalism,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 98, No. 3, pp. 512–527; Charles F. Keyes, Laurel Kendall and Helen Hardacre, eds, Asian Visions of Authority: Religion and the Modern States of East and Southeast Asia (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994); Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Terror and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Catherine Wanner, Burden of Dreams: History and Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998).

18. “III s'ezd ChNK v Cheboksarakh,” Chavash'en, No. 45 (346), 1997, p. 2.

19. On 6 June 1992, for example, a “great prayer” (Chuk) was held on the “Leninskaia iskra” collective farm in the ladrin region. Sec I. Andreev, “V detstvo ne vozvrashchaiutsia. K sporam o vozrozhdenii iazychestva,” Sovetskaia Chuvashiia, 5 September 1995, p. 3.

20. One example is Valěm-Khuşa, located in the Tatar Republic, a sacred grove and archeological site dating back to the time of the Volga Bulgars. See V. Avanmart, “Traditsii i religiia (vzgliad iznutri),” Chavash'en, No. 38, 1997.

21. Timer Aktash, “V efire—letnie vstrechi na zemle predkov,” Chavash'en, No. 37, 1994, p. 9.

22. Of course, not all members of the ChNK are active supporters of the return to pre-Christian religious forms. At the same time, the religious affiliation of ChNK members, who include Orthodox Christians and possible even sympathizers with the ideas of Pan-Islamism, does not serve as grounds for confrontation. The movement for the revival of traditional religion itself is notable for its peaceful character and tolerant attitude toward other religions.

23. Members of this group include A. Trofimov, V. Rodionov, N. Naumov, N. Egorov, E. Eragin, A. Kibech, and V. Stan'ial.

24. See, for example, Prohlemy natsional'nogo v razvitii chuvashskogo naroda; A. A. Trofimov, Chuvashskaia narodnaia kul'tovaia skul'ptura; A. K. Salmin, Narodnaia obriadnost' chuvashei (Cheboksary: Chuvashskii gosudarstvennyi institut gumanitarnyh nauk, 1994); M. N. Iukhma, Drevnie chuvashi; I. A. Dmitriev, Etnoteatral'nye formy v chuvashskom obriade (Cheboksary: Chuvashskii gosudarstvennyi institut gumanitarnyh nauk, 1998).

25. V. Petrov, N. Enilin, P. Pupin, F. Madurov, G. Isaev, “Drevnechuvashskaia religiiA&Mdash;Sardash,” Chavash'en, No. 24, 13 June 1992, p. 12; V. P. Stan'ial, “Vokrug natsional'noi religii i verovaniia,” Chavash'en, Nos 43–44, 1997.

26. The word Sardash is apparently derived from the Chuvash sar$an meaning yellow (a Turkic borrowing from the Iranian language group). Sar, sarat is an epithet for the sun and spring. The name symbolized the connection between the Chuvash religion and Zoroastrianism, in which fire and sun worship occupied a prominent place. “Sardon” is the name of a Chuvash kiremet and “Sardavan” is the place in which it is located. See N. E. Ashmarin, Slovar' chuvashskogo iazyka, Vyp. 11 (Cheboksary: Izd-vo Chuvashnarkomprosa, 1936), pp. 74–75.

27. Dmitriev suggests a doctrine close to the Christian Trinity: the god Tură, the divine primordial mother Ama, and the bread god (God the Son, Christ, is one of the human incarnations of the bread god). Tură, God the creator, Dmitriev teaches, is one for all religion, but he has various prophets and national forms of worship. S. Filatov and A. Shchipkov, “Iazychestvo. Rozhdenie ili vozrozhdenie?” Lik Chuvashii, Nos 1–2, 1996, pp. 210–223. See also “Chuvashskaia provintsiia v kontekste evropeiskoi kul'tury: razgovor za kruglym stolom,” Lik Chuvashii, No. 2, 1995, pp. 89–95; Iu. Iakovlev, “Ch$anvash těně puşs$anrişem valli mar val …,” Khypar, 29 January 1999. In a recent conversation (personal interview with Iosef Dmitriev, Cheboksary, August 1999), Dmitriev emphasized that he does not participate in public prayers and the dedication of sacred sites and is opposed to “expensive rituals” and attempts to “predict the behavior of society.”

28. V. Stan'ial, “Karavan pribavit shagu,” Sovetskaia Chuvashiia, 5 November 1992, p. 2.

29. Much of this information eventually found its way into a high school textbook that Stan'ial published in the Chuvash language in 1993. See V. P. Nikitin (Stan'ial), “Tabuirovannyi panteon chuvashskoi religii,” in Problemy natsional'nogo v razvitii chuvashskogo naroda (Cheboksary: Chuvashskii gosudarstvennyi institut gumanitarnyh nauk, 1999), pp. 248–259; V. P. Stan'ial, “Edinstvo diaspory: kul'turno-territorial'nye avtonomii natsii,” Chavash'en, Nos 43–44, 1997.

30. Ideas associated with ecology are found in various forms in practically all “neopagan” movements in the former Soviet Union. See V. A. Shnirel'man, Neoiazychestvo i natsionalizm: Vostochno-evropeiskii areal (Moscow: Institut etnologii i antropologii RAN, 1998).

31. A. Izorkin, V. Prokhorova, “Zoroastrizm, dar drevnego vostoka i staraia chuvashskaia vera,” Chuvash'en. No. 3, 1993, p. 11.

32. Ibid.

33. For example in the “Zavolzh'e” nature reserve, established in 1995 by order of the Chuvash President, a well-known kiremet (Amaksarskaia) has become a site of pilgrimage both for the Chuvash and for the neighboring peoples, the Marii and the Udmurts. See D. Madurov, “Unikal'nyi kompleks kul'tovogo znacheniia XIII veka,” Chavash'en, No. 5, 27 February 1995.

34. B. G. Matveev, “Ob etnichnosti i etnicheskikh tsennostiakh material'noi, dukhovnoi i sotsionormativnoi kul'tury,” Problemy natsional'nogo v razvitii chuvashskogo naroda, pp. 168–169; A. K. Salmin, “Fol'k-religiia chuvashei,” p. 243. Salmin article is in volume Problemy natsional'nogo v razvitii chuvashskogo naroda.

35. Leonid Braslavskii, “Davai pogovorim o vere bez ibid, fanatizma,” Sovetskaia Chuvashiia, 25 November 1995, p. 2; Filatov and Shchipkov, “Iazychestvo. Rozhedenie ili vozrozhdenie,” p. 182.

36. Sovremennaia Chuvashiia (Cheboksary: Chuvashskoe Knizhnoe izd-vo, 1997), p. 41.

37. On the activities of Islamic missionaries in Chuvashiia, see “V Chuvashiiu Vakhkhabitov ne dopustili,” Sovetskaia Chuvashiia, No. 214, 5 November 1999.

The research and writing of this article were funded by IREX and the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research. Earlier versions were presented at the annual meetings of the Association for the Study of Nationalities (1999) and the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (1999). I have benefited from the advice and editorial assistance of Laurel Kendall, Alexia Bloch, Marta Kebalo, and Nathaniel Knight.

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