Every morning when he awakes and looks out the frosted window of his wooden cabin, Alexei Dobrovolsky intones: "Glory to the sun! Glory to the clan! Glory to the spirits!"
The curtains of his home are embroidered with eight-armed swastikas to guard against evil spirits. Around his neck hangs a small pouch bearing soil from the burial plots of his relatives. And on Dec. 25, he will celebrate not Christmas but a far more ancient holiday, marking the rebirth of the sun after the winter solstice.
Dobrovolsky is a Russian pagan. He considers himself a mystical ideologist, one of the leaders of a loose, growing sect of hundreds or possibly thousands of Russians who want to return to their roots as "children of the forest."
"Every Russian is a pagan in his soul," said Dobrovolsky, who is 54 years old and the veteran of 13 years in labor camps. "You ask people who were raised as atheists, 'Do you love nature?' and they say, 'Yes.' Then you're a pagan! Do you love to meet the sunrise and feel something bright and beautiful dawn inside? Yes? Then you're a pagan.
"Paganism is being reborn now," he said. "Thinking people are drawn to it because the spiritual emptiness left by Marxism and Leninism remains, but the old religions don't satisfy."
Millions of Russians are also being drawn back to the Russian Orthodox Church after seven decades of state atheism. But Dobrovolsky contends that Christianity ruined the Slavs by distancing them from nature and that the church compromised itself under communism by cooperating with security police.
"The church was always a sell-out," he said. "It always served the strong."
Dobrovolsky lives what he preaches. Three years ago he left the urban suffocation of Moscow and moved to Vasenyovo, a tiny deserted village in central Russia, about 15 miles of rutted mud from the town of Shabalino and the nearest paved road. He has taken the made-up, mythical-sounding name of "Dobroslav," and his wife calls herself "Liubomudra." They keep a cow and a horse and a mean German shepherd, and they bring in a bit of money selling the berries and mushrooms they gather.
"We aren't doing research on paganism; we're living it," said Dobrovolsky's 22-year-old son, Sasha.
The former dissident needs the quiet of the countryside to plumb the "genetic memory" that will tell him the secrets of the ancient Slavic pagans, he said. Otherwise, he must depend mainly on his own studies of world religion and church sources that he believes deliberately distorted pagan practices.
Monotheism, born in the barren deserts of the Middle East, never fit the Slavs, who were surrounded by the myriad gods of the woods, Dobrovolsky believes. Even the Russian word for God-- bog-- is not of Slavic origin. For three years now, he has been developing rituals in keeping with what little is known of his ancestors' practices before Prince Vladimir brought Christianity to Russia in 988.
To religion scholars in Moscow, Dobrovolsky and those like him are intellectual dabblers trying to artificially resurrect a practice that has already died a natural death.
Unlike various ethnic groups in Siberia and Russia's remote north who remained pagans all along, with centuries of shamans passing on wisdom in an unbroken line, Dobrovolsky is trying to turn back history, they say.
Superstitions left over from the pagan past still pervade Russian life: spitting over the left shoulder to ward off the evil eye, for example, or painting eggs for Easter.
But "to try to fully restore something like paganism is just funny," said Irina Denisova, an expert on religion at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "The return of paganism today is just nonsense."
In practice, Dobrovolsky's paganism smacks of current New Age explorations in the West--the search for some new spiritual harmony bolstered by awareness of the planet's ecological plight. And his rituals, although largely new-minted, also seem somehow familiar and potent.
Late on June 25 this year, Dobrovolsky recalled, he and a dozen followers gathered at a nearby lake for Midsummer's Night, a campfire vigil that celebrates the peak of nature's activity.
Church documents describe Midsummer's Night as something of a Bacchanalian orgy, and Dobrovolsky said that couples are indeed encouraged to make love on the shortest night of the year because, it is believed, that is when great heroes are conceived.
But in his new-old ritual this time, the focus was not on sex but on a simple celebration of the sun's power.
Liubomudra baked a karavay , a round, bundt-type cake that symbolizes the sun. The participants joined hands and sang around the fire and, toward morning, jumped barefoot through the flames in a cleansing ritual and ran into the nearby lake.
Dobrovolsky also performed a ceremony on new members to "unbaptize" them, removing what he called the "blasphemy of Christianity" by washing away the holy water of baptism with pure lake water and intoning magic words.
After unbaptizing them, Dobrovolsky placed a large wooden ring on the head of each new member to guard against evil spirits. He then cut off small locks of hair, symbolizing clan or lineage, and threw them into the fire--a special fire that had been lit not by matches but by concentrating the sun's rays through glass. Each member was then given a new, Old Slavic name.
Now that he has worked out much of the ritual, Dobrovolsky plans to invite more people this year; hundreds came to the first Midsummer's Night festival he held in 1990, but rain, mosquitoes and lack of shelter made most of them less than eager to repeat the experience, he said.
Similarly, several pagan families initially moved to Vasenyovo with the Dobrovolsky clan, but after tasting Russian winter out in the wilds, they decided to limit their pagan lifestyle to summertimes.
Dobrovolsky estimates that he corresponds with thousands of fellow pagans.
He lectures frequently, maintaining friendly contact with several other pagan ideologists and a hostile distance from the likes of Alexander Belov, a wrestling champion who claims to be a pagan sorcerer.
Paganism penetrates Dobrovolsky's extreme political views as well.
He and other prominent pagans are often accused of espousing neo-nationalism along the lines of the infamous reactionary group known as Pamyat.
Certainly, no enthusiastic reformer would name the goat's skull hanging on his house frame "Boris Nikolayevich," after Russia's President Yeltsin. Dobrovolsky goes even further than most rightists, saying he would like to see Yeltsin and former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev tied to a "pole of shame" and paraded through Russian towns, so people could spit and throw rocks at them. Yeltsin, he said, should be shot in Red Square "as a traitor to the people."
As a non-Christian, Dobrovolsky preaches "action, not tolerance," calling on people to "wake up like the Russian bear and bring down this band of criminals." He complains that "cosmopolitan" Jews run Russian television, and he awaits the rise of a "new Stenka Razin," the 17th-Century leader of peasant revolts.
Such intolerance sounds strange coming from a man who suffered so long for his anti-Communist views under the old regime. Dobrovolsky was first imprisoned at age 19 after trying to organize a coup, and he later spent years in the camps as an "enemy of the people."
For all his angry talk, though, Dobrovolsky is not planning to leave his two-room wooden house to wage battle any time soon.
He spends most of his time working out the esoteric theories of pagan culture in pamphlets and books.
Drawing on teachings as varied as Shintoism and modern physics, biology, witchcraft, yoga and Henry David Thoreau, he also sounds as if he's on comfortable terms with the local spirits that he believes inhabit everything in his pantheist's idea of the universe.
"There's still a dryad in every tree," he said, "only now people call it a biofield or bioplasm. But the ancient people just said that a tree has a spirit."
If he wanted to, he could use his pagan knowledge to perform magic, Dobrovolsky said, but he feels no need. The spirits provide.
"They give me strength, health, students," he said. "They give me the happiness of being, and what can be greater than that?"