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The Magic of Others: Mari Witchcraft Reputations and Interethnic Relations in the Volga Region

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Starting from the portrayal of a Mari-speaking soothsayer in the recent Russian television series “Ivan Groznyi”, this essay asks what the Maris’ longstanding reputation for witchcraft tells us about interethnic relations in European Russia, and about the place of magic in Russia’s popular imaginaries. A Finno-Ugric-speaking group that served as a buffer between Muscovy and the Khanate of Kazan’ until it was brought under Moscow’s rule in the sixteenth century, the Mari have had a reputation for sorcery from early travelers’ accounts up until the twenty-first century. Such a reputation is shared by numerically small and militarily powerless subject populations around the world, and is often interpreted as a mechanism of exclusion. Looking at accounts from non-Mari residents of the Volga region of how they encountered and interacted with Mari magical powers during the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, I argue that at least in recent times, the reputation for sorcery does not constitute grounds for ostracism. Rather, it provides Maris with a niche in a local system of ethnic interdependence, and occasionally, with recognition at a national scale. In a situation where the definition of officially sanctioned religion is fluid and open to contestation, labeling the assumed powers of not-fully-Christianized people as “magic” helps incorporate them into a larger imaginary of spiritual agency, where boundaries between religious systems are less important than the movement between complementary ways of enlisting superhuman help. Representations of Mari witchcraft at a national and regional scale emphasize familiarity, not insurmountable strangeness, and thereby construct a narrative of Russian national strength as rooted in the state’s ability to incorporate and bridge multiple ways of knowing and being.

Affiliations: 1: Simon Fraser University,


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