Yoshkar-Ola: Pre- Christian Russia in Christian Russia

Anna Ivanova

Did you think that fitting a square peg into a round hole isn’t possible? It is, when we consider Yoshkar-Ola, a town in which pre-Christian paganism is still practiced, and which at the same time tries hard to be Christian. Yoshkar-Ola is the capital of Mari El Republic, the only republic in Russia where paganism is practiced (yes, with sacrifices!).



Mari Paganism is now better preserved in more authentic forms here than pre-Christian beliefs of other European Nations, including the Finno-Ugric peoples (Estonians, Finns, Hungarians).

Mari pagans perform various kinds of spiritual rituals (including sacrifices). This is usually done in the woods. Praying begins with preparations of a sacrificial meal. Then Mari people start a huge bonfire around a sacred tree. The slumgullion and other dishes for prayers are cooked there in cauldrons. In the beginning, sacrificed animals are boiled. Then Mari separate meat and bones. The bones go straight to the fire, and the meat goes back to the cauldron. Then bread and cereals are added. Mari people form meatballs and add some of the blood of the animals. Horses, goats, sheep, ducks, and geese are usually offered as sacrifices.

The priests set up a stand in the grove, and everyone can get something delicious. Women play musical instruments and create a pleasant atmosphere of anticipation. Everything in the grove becomes silent suddenly. This means that people around the first bonfire begin to pray. Each family puts candles in a heap of pancakes and lights them. Then everyone sings the Mari song to address their Gods.

The town was founded in 1584 under the name of Tsarevokokshaisk (Tzar Town). In the XIX century, Tsarevokokshaisk became one of the centers of political exile.

Leaving behind the dark Soviet times, in the ‘Noughties’, a new mayor took office – Leonid Markelov – entered office. He was known to be a fan of the Renaissance, and most of all, Flemish and Italian architecture.

Consequently, the town center looks like a European fairy tale. The river embankment of Malaya Kokshaga is an unusual architectural ensemble. This place is called Naberezhnaya Brugge. This is a row of 20 gingerbread-like houses built in Flemish style. They are painted pastel red, silver, blue or yellow and with large bay windows looking on to the river, copied exactly from a town in Belgium. There are various government institutions in these buildings such as departments and ministries and it has become a very popular and exclusive residential area.

Yoshkar-Ola is a true post-modernist Russian town. It has a juxtaposition of all sorts of cultures. Apart from paganism, Flemish architecture, the town also portrays aspects of Catholicism. There is the Tower Clock of the National Art Gallery, which is located right in the center of the city. Hundreds of people gather together to watch a religious story performed every day: a donkey and the icon of the Mother of God. This breathtaking action takes place every three hours. The plot is based on the story of the rescue of the icon. The weight of the donkey with the icon is 600 kg, and the weight of the icon itself is 120 kg. The donkey is estimated to cover the distance of 91 km ev every year. A special computer controls music and bells ringing.

There is also the ‘Twelve Apostles’ complex on the Patriarch’s Square, on the left bank of the river. It looks like a fairy-tale palace from the outside. Every 3 hours, from 9.00 to 21.00, there is a performance ‘Entrance into Jerusalem’. To the sound of music, the figures of the twelve apostles and Christ appear on one of the balconies. They pass in front of the public only to hide away on the other side of the building.

 Never far from the surface in Yoshkar-Ola are pre-Christian effigies and symbols. ‘Yoshkin cat’ is the most well-known monument in Yoshkar-Ola. The composition consists of a garden bench and a cat sitting on it with a charming smile. The sculpture is located next to Mari State University and flanked on the other side by the Tower Clock of the National Art Gallery. The cat immediately became a traditional symbol of luck for students during exams. Students and tourists alike swing by this attraction to rub the cat’s paw and head for good luck and a cherished mark.

The central part of the city is full of cafes where you can have a taste of traditional Mary cuisine. The most common dishes are komanmelna (layered pancakes), podkogylio (a dish similar to dumplings with rabbit meat, fresh-water fish, beef, mushrooms and other fillings), kinde (pancakes), ir pine shilan nareinge (roaster wild boar) and naccha saska dene need stake (pike fillet with apples, onions, egg and cheese). Finger licking good!

How to get to this amazing place?

Feel like visiting Yoshkar-Ola? You can take a direct overnight train from Moscow. This is a great opportunity to enjoy the breathtakingly picturesque nature of Mari El! There are also options to take a flight to Kazan or Cheboksary (2h flight) and then a bus or a taxi (1.5h).

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