Mari people, the project carried out by Raffaele Petralla, is focused on a population with Finnish ancestors living in a rural area near Joshkar-ola, in the Republic of Mari-El, Russia. They speak a language belonging to the Ugro-Finnic group and use a modified version of the Cyrillic alphabet. They settled in this area around the fifth century b.C. The current population is about 600,000 people and they live in three different areas: the Mari of the plains, along the left bank of the Volga; the Mari of the hills and mountains on the left bank of the Volga; and the Mari eastern Bashkortostan. The Mari are the last pagan population of the West. They live in symbiotic relationship with nature, which is celebrated as the basis of their existence.
Nature exerts a magical religiosity on people. It is the mother who protects man, beneficial as long as he does not try to destroy it. The cyclical nature of the land merges with the ancient pagan practices. The faith of Mari people worships the gods of the four natural elements. In the sixteenth century, Christianity was imposed them by Ivan the Terrible and their territory was annexed to the Russian Empire. However, the religious subjugation was never fully accepted, they in fact retain their beliefs in a significant amount of pre-Christian elements. In the twentieth century, with the rise of the Soviet Union, it was officially forbidden to celebrate rituals and sacrifices. During the Cold War many prominent personalities of the Red Army, fascinated by their magical power, turned in secret to the Mari spiritual guidance looking for answers on the possible outcomes of their military strategies. In the 90’s the economy of the Mari, which was based on agriculture and livestock, entered a crisis with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Poverty and unemployment led young people to migrate to the big cities in search of a stable future, abandoning their villages and their ancient traditions. In this journey back to the origins of man, in search of languages and cultures not yet disappeared, we came across this peasant ethic not yet affected by time. Among dances and forests, a pagan beauty emerges from this forgotten people.