The deep forests located between Moscow and the Urals were home to the finno-ugric Mari people for centuries. However, the Empire Russia’s expansion, Sovietization and westernization of Russia along with rural population decline made major changes to the belief and lifestyle of the Mari while their forests were partly turned into fields. Yet, despite that the majority of the Mari were Christianized over centuries, many of them kept dual faith and their pagan traditions even during the Soviet era. Consequently, practice of pagan rituals and even secret witchcraft has survived until now among the Mari people, especially in the villages. However, there is, over all, lack of interest in reviving their traditions and language among generally Russianized younger generations, which is casting shadow on the future of the Mari’s old belief and traditions.
I photographed the Mari El Republic in Russia over the course of the year, visiting villages and spending time with locals there. In fact, the villages don’t look so different from other Russian villages at a glance. Yet, being in the villages, from time to time, some elusive and bizarre feelings come to me, especially when I observe some pagan rituals, walk around in the sacred places and hear about locals’ peculiar stories on witchcraft and paranormal phenomena. Or, being in the forest alone, I hear the wind blowing out of silence and saw the birches swaying, and it make me a little anxious and reminds me of a local’s stories about the forests, making me wonder if that is the source of their belief and traditions that have survived for centuries.
In the project “Mariy Chodyra,” meaning “the Mari’s forest” in the Mari language, the series of photographs reflect on my vision of this region, where my perception was a little hazed by anxiety from some bizarre and unknown things hidden in the forests, local stories and rituals.