When Mari pagan priest Albert Rukovishnikov was a boy, he and his grandmother would sneak down under cover of the night to the sacred groves to make sacrifices. It was a dangerous time — the Soviet Union was known to persecute worshippers. “The police – fervent atheists, communists – would come. They kicked over our cauldrons and chased us away,” he told Geraldine Fagan of Open Democracy Russia.

The attempted suppression of the nature-worshipping Mari has a long and dark history. Ivan the Terrible’s annexation of the territory was accompanied by an attempted overwriting of their religious beliefs with Christian ones. But the Mari have persevered. Photographer Raffaele Petralla captured them recently in his series, “Mari People, A Pagan Beauty.”

Scattered on either side of the Volga are about 500 sacred groves that the Mari people enter to send prayers to their gods. The grove’s air is tinged by the low chanting of Mari priests and the clanging of an ax used in sacrifices. Steam billows out of huge pots suspended in a row by industrial chains and hooks. Inside boils hundreds of pounds of geese, considered the most sacred animal because of their ability to commune with three natural elements: earth, air and water.

Reverence for nature permeates this culture, even dictating how the Mari make a living. Despite lumber being a profitable business in the region, “a Mari can’t do it — his conscience won’t allow him — because a tree contains a soul in a transitional process of evolution. If you have felled a tree, you have destroyed a living being,” priest Vitaly Tanakov told Open Democracy Russia. The Mari could also never sell water, since that would mean selling one of the forms of their god, Osh Kugu Yumo. Therefore, many of the Mari are farmers.

The poverty that sometimes comes with this modest lifestyle has caused Mari youth to migrate to larger cities in search of opportunity, according to Petralla. Whether they return, to perpetuate a culture with several millennia of history, or stay scattered, remains to be seen.

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