“The predisposition to religious belief,” wrote sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, “is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature.” Christians would agree with Mr. Wilson, but it is his fellow atheists, not Christians, who have dominated the religious (though not the truly spiritual) life of this unfortunate century. Like Emile Durkheim, modern barbarians see religious ritual as a means of consecrating the group, the party, the class, or the race, the “core of society” as Wilson put it in On Human Nature, and not as a liturgical mechanism for mediation with the Almighty. The intoxicating mix of myth and ritual serves to subsume the individual in the collective, to bond him together with other adherents of the secular faith, the Party hierarchy (Orwell’s Inner Party) guarding and interpreting the sacred writings of the Prophet (Lenin, Mao, Hitler), the Leader (Duce, Fuehrer, or Vozhd in the case of Joseph Stalin) himself serving as the High Priest, the remote keeper of the keys. Holy relics (Lenin’s mummified corpse comes readily to mind) are put on display and serve as the focus of public rituals. The aura of the mystery of faith is retained.
The 20th century, no less than the time of the Crusades or the turmoil of the Reformation, has been one of religious wars and revolutions. Ideologues of the far left have harnessed humanity’s hunger for transcendence to the yoke of a teleological Marxism, with “History” pinch-hitting for God and a communist future as millennium. The far right, without Marxism’s convenient pseudo-transcendent underpinnings, has had to fall back on an older cache of symbolism and myth to mobilize the faithful. True, national churches can be useful for mobilization, but only the heroic mythology of paganism can free the race from the fetters of Christianity. Fascism’s and Nazism’s heroic vitalism, personified in warrior gods and Aryan heroes, was propagated through politicized revivals of paganism, the premodern mythology of the Volk or the race. Only the cult of the pagan warrior (as opposed to the Christian knight), so the avatars of neopaganism reasoned, could prepare the people for the brutal actions necessary to ensure the survival of the race in the merciless struggle for biological dominance.
The traumatic events of the last decade have left the Russian people shaken and adrift, and some ideologues of the far right have sought to satiate the religious-ideological thirst of the people (particularly young people) with a heady political brew that disconnects the Russian nationalist impulse from Christianity, substituting a bastardized and politicized heroic neopaganism for traditional religion. The neopagan revival itself can be traced back to the 1960’s, when a distinctly different breed of Russian nationalism reared its head, one that was an evolutionary step away from the Stalinist National Bolshevism that had satisfied the religious-tribal imperative within the Russified Soviet Union’s elite and dominant nation up to that time. Neopaganism’s original prophet was one Valery Skurlatov, who played, and continues to play, the role of philosopher-priest in Russian neopagan circles. Skurlatov popularized the pagan mythology of The Book of Vlas, a forgery originally concocted by a Russian emigre, in the Brezhnev-era Soviet press. This chronicle cum epic depicted a Russian Golden Age in the pre-Christian era, complete with fabricated heroes Skoten and Igor the Elder. The Russians, according to the pagan priests who allegedly authored Vlas, were the first Indo-Aryan people, and had spread Aryan culture to Europe. Their enemies the non-Aryans, especially the Jews, had contrived to subjugate the torchbearers of Aryanism, the Russians, since time immemorial. The subtext of Skurlatov’s interpretation of ancient Slavdom’s history was clear enough: only a revival of the pagan culture of the Golden Age could harden the national fiber for the continuing struggle with the forces of darkness.
Little is actually known about pre-Christian paganism in Russia. The heathen Slavs deified the forces of nature (Rerun, the god of thunder and lightning, headed up the pagan pantheon), and animism and ancestor worship appear to have played a part in their hodgepodge of ritual and myth. In any event, only cursory attention is paid by Russia’s neopagans to the old gods; one can find plenty of speculation about the mystical power of crystals and pyramids, the predictions of Nostradamus, or the energy fields that allegedly surround the Aryan Russians in the writings of the neopagans, but little concerning the real mythology of the ancient Slavs. Paganism per se is not the point. Those Russians who dress up as ersatz Slavic warriors, sword in hand, and claim to recreate ancient Slavic rituals are not of the same ilk as the New Age channelers or bogus Druids in the West. Russia’s far right ideologues’ real aim in propagating pseudo-paganism is the same as that of the communists’ anti-religious propaganda: to eradicate real spiritual faith, particularly Christianity, as the first step toward the revolution they plan. “The baton of proletarian internationalism has been picked up by Christian internationalism,” opined one neopagan propagandist. The “total Christianization” of Russian society that he and his ilk fear as a real possibility in the wake of communism’s collapse would impede the purification of the race via the extermination of “the wretched and deformed . . . the alcoholic and the drug addict,” as well as “cretins, degenerates” and others characterized as “genetic baggage,” by weakening the resolve of the people through Christianity’s “false humanism.” Stalin once offered a critique of the repressive practices of his favorite Czar, Ivan the Terrible, by referring to the anti-Christian policies of the Bolshevik regime. God, according to Stalin, “got in Ivan’s way,” preventing him from exterminating all “objective” enemies of his rule. The Christian God would not stand in Stalin’s way, and the neopagans’ anti-Christianism recognizes the danger to their political program that a true spiritual revival would represent. Neopaganism’s promoters remain an influential component of the far right in Russia today.
Hilaire Belloc observed that a post-Christian world would be a darker, more brutish place than the pagan world of antiquity. Indeed, for the most part, antiquity’s Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Germanic pagans come off as innocent barbarians at worst, or civilized philosophers at best, in comparison to the assorted Nazis, fascists, communists, and ideological fanatics of all stripes that our own decaying civilization has to offer. Antiquity’s pagans may well have been the tall-tale tellers described by Chesterton, spinning myths as a poetic expression of the mystery that was behind the veil of the material world, spawning folk epics to transmit to future generations the story of their people, and leaving the hard search for eternal truths to the philosophers while they themselves went about the business of living by the natural law all men have known. They sensed, as Chesterton put it, “something higher than the gods.” Their mythology of gods and heroes, nymphs and fairies was truly noble and humane, if inconclusive. By dignifying modern fanatics’ secular political ideologies disguised as mythology with the appellation “pagan,” we only insult the gods of the hearth and wood and the men who created them.