Historical Slavic religion
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Slavic religion, in its narrower sense, defines the religious beliefs, godlores and ritual practices of the Slavs before the formal Christianisation of their ruling elites under the influence of Byzantine Orthodox Christianity, beginning with the latter's official adoption in 988 CE by Vladimir of Kievan Rus'. The Christianisation of the Slavic peoples was, however, a slow and—in many cases—superficial phenomenon, especially in what is today Russia. Christianisation was vigorous in western and central parts of what is today Ukraine, as they were closer to the capital Kiev, but even there, popular resistance led by volkhvs, Pagan priests, recurred periodically for centuries. Many elements of the indigenous Slavic religion were officially incorporated into Slavic Christianity, and besides this, the worship of Slavic gods persisted in unofficial folk religion until modern times. Since the early 20th century, Slavic folk religion has undergone an organised reinvention and reincorporation in the movement of Slavic Native Faith (Rodnovery).
- 1 Historical phases and features
- 1.1 Indo-European origins and other influences
- 1.2 Vladimir's official religion and popular cults in Kievan Rus'
- 1.3 Christianisation
- 1.4 Slavic folk religion
- 1.5 Modern Rodnovery
- 2 Reconstructed calendar of celebrations
- 3 See also
- 4 References
- 5 External links
Historical phases and features
Twentieth-century scholars who pursued the study of ancient Slavic religion include Vyacheslav Ivanov, Vladimir Toporov, Marija Gimbutas, Boris Rybakov, and Roman Jakobson amongst others. Rybakov is noted for his effort of re-examination of medieval ecclesiastical texts, synthesising his findings with archaeological data, comparative mythology, ethnography and nineteenth-century folk practices, and for having given one of the most coherent pictures of ancient Slavic religion in his major book Paganism of the Ancient Slavs and other works. Among earlier, nineteenth-century scholars there was Bernhard Severin Ingemann, known for his study of Fundamentals of a North Slavic and Wendish mythology.
Indo-European origins and other influences
Ivanov and Toporov identified Slavic religion as an outgrowth of a common Proto-Indo-European religion, sharing strong similarities with other neighbouring Indo-European belief systems such as those of Balts, Thracians and Indo-Iranians. According to Adrian Ivakhiv, the Indo-European element of Slavic religion may have included what Georges Dumézil studied as the "trifunctional hypothesis", that is to say a threefold conception of the social order, represented by the three castes of priests, warriors and farmers. Gimbutas, otherwise, emphasised that Slavic religion represented an unmistakable overlapping of Indo-European patriarchal themes and pre-Indo-European—or what she called "Old European"—matrifocal themes. The latter were particularly hardwearing in Slavic religion, represented by the widespread devotion to Mat Syra Zemlya, the "Damp Mother Earth". Rybakov emphasised the continuity and gradual complexification of Slavic religion, which started from devotion to life-giving forces (bereginy), ancestors and the supreme God, Rod ("Generation" itself), and developed into the "high mythology" of the official religion of the early Kievan Rus'.
From archaeological and ethnographic evidence, it can be said that the pre-Christian Slavs perceived the world as enlivened by a variety of spirits, which they represented as persons and worshipped. These spirits included those of waters (mavka and rusalka), forests (lisovyk), fields (polyovyk), those of households (domovyk), those of illnesses, luck and human ancestors. Certain places were revered as numinous and therefore holy, such as springs, rivers, groves, rounded tops of hills and flat cliffs overlooking rivers. Calendrical rituals were attuned to the comings and goings of nature spirits, of ancestors, and with the agrarian fertility cycle. According to Rybakov's studies, wheel symbols such as the "thunder marks" (gromovoi znak) and the "six-petaled rose inside a circle", which are so common in Slavic folk crafts, and which were still carved on edges and peaks of roofs in northern Russia in the nineteenth century, were symbols of the supreme life-giver Rod. This supreme God was identified in the form of Svetovid ("Worldseer") among West Slavs, and in the form of Perun ("Thunder") among East Slavs especially after Vladimir's 970s–980s reforms.
The axis mundi and the three worlds
The cosmology of ancient Slavic religion, which is preserved in contemporary Slavic folk religion, is visualised as a three-tiered vertical structure, or "world tree", as common in other Indo-European religions. At the top there is the heavenly plane, symbolised by birds, the Sun and the Moon; the middle plane is that of earthly humanity, symbolised by bees and men; at the bottom of the structure there is the netherworld, symbolised by snakes and beavers, and by the chthonic god Veles. The Zbruch Idol, found in western Ukraine, represents this theo-cosmology: the three-layered effigy of the god Svetovid is constituted by a top level with four heads, representing four gods, facing the four cardinal directions; a middle level with representations of a human ritual community (khorovod); and a bottom level with the representation of a three-headed chthonic god, Veles, who sustains the entire structure. Temples—of which numerous archaeological remains have been found—were built on upraised platforms, frequently on hills, and they enshrined wooden or—less frequently—stone effigies of the deities. Some of these effigies were three- or four-headed, and held drinking horns or were decorated with solar symbols and horses.
Scholar Jiří Dynda has studied the figures of Triglav (literally the "Three-Headed One") and Svetovid, which are widely attested in archaeological testimonies, as the respectively three-headed and four-headed representations of the same axis mundi, of the same supreme God. Triglav itself was connected to the symbols of the tree and the mountain, which are other common symbols of the axis mundi, and in this quality he was a summus deus (a sum of all things), as recorded by the early-medieval chronicler Ebbo. Triglav represents the vertical interconnection of the three worlds, reflected by the three social functions studied by Dumézil: sacerdotal, martial and economic. Ebbo himself documented that the Triglav was seen as embodying the connection and mediation between Heaven, Earth and the underworld. Adam of Bremen described the Triglav of Wolin as Neptunus triplicis naturae (that is to say "Neptune of the three natures/generations") attesting the colours that were associated to the three worlds, then further studied by Karel Jaromír Erben: white for Heaven, green for Earth and black for the underworld. It also represents the three dimensions of time, mythologically rendered in the figure of a three-threaded rope. Triglav is Perun in the heavenly plane, Svetovid in the centre from which the horizontal four directions unfold, and Veles the psychopomp in the underworld. Svetovid is interpreted by Dynda as the incarnation of the axis mundi in the four dimensions of space. Medieval historian Helmold defined Svetovid as deus deorum ("god of all gods").
Vladimir's official religion and popular cults in Kievan Rus'
In 980 CE, in Kievan Rus', led by the Great Prince Vladimir, there was an attempt to unify the various beliefs and priestly practices of Slavic religion in order to bind together the Slavic peoples in the growing centralised state. Vladimir canonised a number of deities, to whom he erected a temple on the hills of the capital Kiev. These deities, recorded in the Primary Chronicle, were five: Perun, Khors Dazhbog, Stribog, Simargl and Mokosh. Various other deities were worshipped by the common people, notably Veles who had a temple in the merchant's district of Podil of the capital itself. According to scholars, Vladimir's project consisted in a number of reforms that he already started by the 970s, and which were aimed at preserving the traditions of noble kins (plemen) and making Kiev the spiritual centre of East Slavdom.
Perun was the god of thunder, law and war, symbolised by the oak and the axe, and identified with the Baltic Perkunas, the Germanic Thor and the Vedic Indra; his cult was practised not so much by commoners but mainly by the aristocracy. Veles was the god of horned livestock (Skotnibog), of wealth and of the underworld. Perun and Veles symbolised an oppositional and yet complementary duality similar to that of the Vedic Mitra and Varuna, an eternal struggle between heavenly and chthonic forces. Roman Jakobson himself identified Veles as the Vedic Varuna, god of oaths and world order. This belief in cosmic duality was likely the reason that led to the exclusion of Veles from Vladimir's official temple in Kiev. Khors Dazhbog ("Sun Giving-God") was the god of the life-bringing power of the Sun. Stribog was identified by E. G. Kagarov as the god of wind, storm and dissension. Mokosh, the only female deity in Vladimir's pantheon, is interpreted as meaning the "Wet" or "Moist" by Jakobson, identifying her with the Mat Syra Zemlya ("Damp Mother Earth") of later folk religion. According to scholars, Khors Dazhbog, Simargl and Stribog represent the unmistakable Indo-Iranian (Scythian and Sarmatian) component of Slavic religion.
According to Ivanits, written sources from the Middle Ages "leave no doubt whatsoever" that the common Slavic peoples continued to worship their indigenous deities and hold their rituals for centuries after Kievan Rus' official baptism into Christianity, and the lower clergy of the newly formed Orthodox Christian church often joined the celebrations. The high clergy repeatedly condemned, through official admonitions, the worship of Rod and the Rozhanitsy ("God and the Goddesses", or "Generation and the generatrixes") with offerings of bread, porrdige, cheese and mead. Scholars of Russian religion define Rod as the "general power of birth and reproduction" and the Rozhanitsy as the "mistresses of individual destiny". Kagarov identified the later Domovoi, the god of the household and kinship ancestry, as a specific manifestation of Rod. Other gods attested in medieval documents remain largely mysterious, for instance Lada and her sons Lel and Polel, who are often identified by scholars with the Greek gods Leda or Leto and her twin sons Castor and Pollux. Other figures who in medieval documents are often presented as deities, such as Kupala and Koliada, were rather the personifications of the spirits of agrarian holidays.
Vladimir's baptism, popular resistance and syncretism
In 988 CE, Vladimir of Kievan Rus' rejected Slavic religion and he and his subjects were officially baptised into the Eastern Orthodox Church, then the state religion of the Byzantine Empire. According to legend, Vladimir sent delegates to foreign states to determine what was the most convincing religion to be adopted by Kiev. Joyfulness and beauty were the primary characteristics of pre-Christian Slavic ceremonies, and the delegates sought for something capable of matching these qualities. They were crestfallen by the Islamic religion of Volga Bulgaria, where they found "no joy ... but sorrow and great stench", and by Western Christianity (then the Catholic Church) where they found "many worship services, but nowhere ... beauty". Those who visited Constantinople were instead impressed by the arts and rituals of Byzantine Christianity. According to the Primary Chronicle, after the choice was made Vladimir commanded that the Slavic temple on the Kievan hills be destroyed and the effigies of the gods be burned or thrown into the Dnieper. Slavic temples were destroyed throughout the lands of Kievan Rus' and Christian churches were built in their places.
According to Ivakhiv, Christianisation was stronger in what is today western and central Ukraine, lands close to the capital Kiev. Slavic religion persisted, however, especially in northernmost regions of Slavic settlement, in what is today the central part of European Russia, such as the areas of Novgorod, Suzdal and Belozersk. One of the most famous instances of popular resistance against Christianisation occurred at the temple-stronghold of Cape Arkona, in Rugia. In the core regions of Christianisation themselves the common population remained attached to the volkhvs, Pagan priests and shamans, who periodically, over centuries, led popular rebellions against the central power and the Christian church. Christianisation was a very slow process among the Slavs, and the official Christian church adopted a policy of co-optation of pre-Christian elements into Slavic Christianity. Christian saints were identified with Slavic gods—for instance, the figure of Perun was overlapped with that of Saint Elias, Veles was identified with Saint Blasius, and Yarilo became Saint George—and Christian festivals were set at the same dates as Pagan ones.
Another feature of early Slavic Christianity was the strong influence of apocryphal literature, which became evident by the thirteenth century with the rise of Bogomilism among the South Slavs. South Slavic Bogomilism produced a large amount of apocryphal texts and their teachings later penetrated into Russia, and would have influenced later Slavic folk religion. Bernshtam tells of a "flood" of apocryphal literature in eleventh- to fifteenth-century Russia, which might not be controlled by the still-weak Russian Orthodox Church.
Continuity of Slavic religion up to the 15th century
Scholars have highlighted how the "conversion of Rus" took place no more than eight years after Vlardimir's reform of Slavic religion in 980; according to them Christianity in general did not have "any deep influence ... in the formation of the ideology, culture and social psychology of archaic societies" and the introduction of Christianity in Kiev "did not bring about a radical change in the consciousness of the society during the entire course of early Russian history". It was portrayed as a mass and conscious conversion only by half a century later, by the scribes of the Christian establishment. According to scholars the replacement of Slavic temples with Christian churches and the "baptism of Rus" has to be understood in continuity with the foregoing chain of reforms of Slavic religion launched by Vladimir, rather than as a breaking point.
V. G. Vlasov quotes the respected scholar of Slavic religion E. V. Anichkov, who, regarding Russia's Christianisation, said:
Christianization of the countryside was the work, not of the eleventh and twelfth, but of the fifteenth and sixteenth or even seventeenth century.
According to Vlasov the ritual of baptism and mass conversion undergone by Vladimir in 988 was never repeated in the centuries to follow, and mastery of Christian teachings was never accomplished on the popular level even by the start of the twentieth century. According to him, a nominal, superficial identification with Christianity was possible with the superimposition of a Christianised agrarian calendar ("Christian–Easter–Whitsunday") over the indigenous complex of festivals, "Koliada–Yarilo–Kupala". The analysis of the Christianised agrarian and ritual calendar, combined with data from popular astronomy, leads to determine that the Julian calendar associated with the Orthodox Church was adopted by Russian peasants between the sixteenth and seventeenth century. It was by this period that much of the Russian population became officially part of the Orthodox Church and therefore nominally Christians. This occurred as an effect of a broader complex of phenomena which Russia underwent by the fifteenth century, that is to say radical changes towards a centralisation of state power, which involved urbanisation, bureaucratisation and the consolidation of serfdom of the peasantry.
That the vast majority of the Russian population was not Christian back in the fifteenth century would be proven by archaeology: according to Vlasov, mound (kurgan) burials, which do not reflect Christian norms, were "a universal phenomenon in Russia up to the fifteenth century", and persisted to the 1530s. Moreover, chronicles from that period, such as the Pskov Chronicle, and archaeological data collected by N. M. Nikolsky, testify that back in the fifteenth century there were still "no rural churches for the general use of the populace; churches existed only at the courts of boyars and princes". It was only by the sixteenth century that the Russian Orthodox Church grew as a powerful, centralising institution taking the Catholic Church of Rome as a model, and the distinctiveness of a Slavic folk religion became evident. The church condemned "heresies" and tried to eradicate the "false half-pagan" folk religion of the common people, but these measures coming from the centres of church power were largely ineffective, and on the local level creative syntheses of folk religious rituals and holidays continued to thrive.
Sunwise Slavic religion, withershins Christianity, and Old Belief
When the incorporation of the Russian population into Christianity became substantial in the middle of the sixteenth century, the Russian Orthodox Church absorbed further elements of pre-Christian and popular tradition and underwent a transformation of its architecture, with the adoption of the hipped roof which was traditionally associated to pre-Christian Slavic temples. The most significant change was however the adoption of the sunwise direction in Christian ritual procession.
Christianity is characterised by withershins ritual movement, that is to say movement against the course of the Sun. This was also the case in Slavic Christianity before the sixteenth century. Sunwise movements are instead characteristic of Slavic religion, evident in the khorovod, ritual circle-dance, which magically favours the development of things. Withershins movement was employed in popular rituals, too, though only in those occasions when it was considered worthwhile to act against the course of nature, in order to alter the state of affairs.
When Patriarch Nikon of Moscow launched his reform of the Orthodox Church in 1656, he restored the withershins ritual movement. This was among the changes that led to a schism (raskol) within Russian Orthodoxy, between those who accepted the reforms and the Old Believers, who preserved instead the "ancient piety" derived from indigenous Slavic religion. A large number of Russians and ethnic minorities converted to the movement of the Old Believers, in the broadest meaning of the term—including a variety of folk religions—pointed out by Bernshtam, and these Old Believers were a significant part of the settlers of broader European Russia and Siberia throughout the second half of the seventeenth century, which saw the expansion of the Russian state in these regions. Old Believers were distinguished by their cohesion, literacy and initiative, and constantly-emerging new religious sects tended to identify themselves with the movement. This posed a great hitch to the Russian Orthodox Church's project of thorough Christianisation of the masses. Veletskaya highlighted how the Old Believers have preserved Indo-European and early Slavic ideas and practices such as the veneration of fire as a channel to the divine world, the symbolism of the colour red, the search for a "glorious death", and more in general the holistic vision of a divine cosmos.
Slavic folk religion
Ethnography in late-nineteenth-century Ukraine documented a "thorough synthesis of Pagan and Christian elements" in Slavic folk religion, a system often called "double belief" (Russian: dvoeverie, Ukrainian: dvovirya). According to Bernshtam, dvoeverie is still used to this day in scholarly works to define Slavic folk religion, which is seen by certain scholars as having preserved much of pre-Christian Slavic religion, "poorly and transparently" covered by a Christianity that may be easily "stripped away" to reveal more or less "pure" patterns of the original faith. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been a new wave of scholarly debate umbe the subjects of Slavic folk religion and dvoeverie. A. E. Musin, an academic and deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church published an article about the "problem of double belief" as recently as 1991. In this article he divides scholars between those who say that Russian Orthodoxy adapted to entrenched indigenous faith, continuing the Soviet idea of an "undefeated paganism", and those who say that Russian Orthodoxy is an out-and-out syncretic religion. Bernshtam challenges dualistic notions of dvoeverie and proposes to interpret broader Slavic religiosity as a mnogoverie ("multifaith") continuum, in which a higher layer of Orthodox Christian officialdom is alternated with a variety of "Old Beliefs" among the various strata of the population.
According to Ivanits, nineteenth- and twentieth-century Slavic folk religion's central concern was fertility, propitiated with rites celebrating death and resurrection. Scholars of Slavic religion who focused on nineteenth-century folk religion were often led to mistakes such as the interpretation of Rod and Rozhanitsy as figures of a merely ancestral cult; however in medieval documents Rod is equated with the ancient Egyptian god Osiris, representing a broader concept of natural generativity. Belief in the holiness of Mat Syra Zemlya ("Damp Mother Earth") is another feature that has persisted into modern Slavic folk religion; up to the twentieth century, Russian peasants practised a variety of rituals devoted to her and confessed their sins to her in the absence of a priest. Ivanits also reports that in the region of Vladimir old people practised a ritual asking Earth's forgiveness prior to their death. A number of scholars attributed the Russians' particular devotion to the Theotokos, the "Mother of God", to this still powerful pre-Christian substratum of devotion to a great mother goddess.
Ivanits attributes the tenacity of synthetic Slavic folk religion to an exceptionality of Slavs and of Russia in particular, compared to other European countries; "the Russian case is extreme", she says, because Russia—especially the vastity of rural Russia—neither lived the intellectual upheavals of the Renaissance, nor the Reformation, nor the Age of Enlightenment, which severely weakened folk spirituality in the rest of Europe.
Slavic folk religious festivals and rites reflect the times of the ancient Pagan calendar. For instance, the Christmas period is marked by the rites of Koliada, characterised by the element of fire, processions and ritual drama, offerings of food and drink to the ancestors. Spring and summer rites are characterised by fire- and water-related imagery spinning umbe the figures of the gods Yarilo, Kupala and Marzanna. The switching of seasonal spirits is celebrated through the interaction of effigies of these spirits and the elements which symbolise the coming season; for instance by burning, drowning or setting the effigies onto water, and the "rolling of burning wheels of straw down into rivers".
Since the early twentieth century there has been a reinvention and reinstitutionalisation of "Slavic religion" in the so-called movement of "Rodnovery", literally "Slavic Native Faith". The movement draws from ancient Slavic folk religion, often combining it with philosophical underpinnings taken from other religions, chiefly Hinduism.:26 Some Rodnover groups focus almost exclusively on folk religions and the worship of gods at the right times of the year, while others have developed a scriptural core, represented by writings purported to be centuries-old documents such as the Book of Veles; writings which elaborate powerful national mythologemes such as the Maha Vira of Sylenkoism; and esoteric writings such as the Slavo-Aryan Vedas of Ynglism.:50
Reconstructed calendar of celebrations
Linda J. Ivanits reconstructed a basic calendar of the celebrations of the most important Slavic gods among East Slavs, based on Boris Rybakov's studies on ancient agricultural calendars, especially a fourth-century one from an area around Kiev.
|Festival||Date (Julian or Gregorian)||Deity celebrated||Overlapped Christian festival or figure|
|Yuletide (Koliada)||Winter solstice||Rod — first half
Veles — second half
|Christmas, Baptism of the Lord, Epiphany|
|Shrovetide (Komoeditsa)||Spring equinox||Veles||-|
|Day of Young Shoots||May 2||-||Saints Boris and Gleb|
|Rusalnaya Week||June 17–23||Simargl||Trinity Sunday|
|Kupala Night / Kupalo||June 24||-||Saint John the Baptist|
|Festival of Perun||July 20||Rod—Perun||Saint Elijah|
|Harvest festivals||July 24 / September 9||Rodzanica—Rodzanicy||Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) / Birthday of the Mother of God (September 8)|
|Festival of Mokosh||October 28||Mokosh||Saint Paraskeva's Friday|
- Ivakhiv 2005, p. 214.
- Ivanits, pp. 15–16.
- Ivakhiv 2005, p. 211.
- Ivanits 1989, p. 16.
- Ivakhiv 2005, pp. 211–212.
- Ivakhiv 2005, p. 212.
- Ivanits 1989, p. 17.
- Ivakhiv 2005, p. 213.
- Dynda 2014, p. passim.
- Dynda 2014, p. 64.
- Dynda 2014, p. 63.
- Dynda 2014, p. 60.
- Dynda 2014, pp. 74–75.
- Dynda 2014, p. 75.
- Dynda 2014, p. 59, note 9.
- Froianov, Dvornichenko & Krivosheev 1992, p. 3.
- Ivakhiv 2005, pp. 213–214.
- Kutarev, O. V. (2016). "Slavic Dažbog as the Development of the Indo-European God of the Shining Sky (Dyeu Ph2ter)". Philosophy and Culture. 1. pp. 126–141. doi:10.7256/1999-2793.2016.1.17386.
- Ivanits 1989, p. 13.
- Ivanits 1989, p. 13; Ivakhiv 2005, p. 214.
- Froianov, Dvornichenko & Krivosheev 1992, p. 4.
- Ivanits 1989, pp. 13–14; Ivakhiv 2005, p. 214.
- Ivanits 1989, p. 14.
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- Froianov, Dvornichenko & Krivosheev 1992, p. 10.
- Vlasov 1992, p. 16.
- Vlasov 1992, p. 17.
- Vlasov 1992, p. 18.
- Vlasov 1992, pp. 18–19.
- Vlasov 1992, p. 19.
- Vlasov 1992, pp. 19–20; Bernshtam 1992, p. 40.
- Vlasov 1992, p. 24.
- Vlasov 1992, p. 25.
- Bernshtam 1992, p. 40.
- Veletskaya 1992, p. passim.
- Bernshtam 1992, p. 35.
- Rock 2007, p. 110.
- Bernshtam 1992, p. 44.
- Ivanits 1989, p. 15.
- Ivanits 1989, p. 3.
- Aitamurto, Kaarina (2016). Paganism, Traditionalism, Nationalism: Narratives of Russian Rodnoverie. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 9781472460271.
- Ivakhiv 2005, pp. 217 ff.
- Bernshtam, T. A. (1992). "Russian Folk Culture and Folk Religion". In Balzer Marjorie Mandelstam and Radzai Ronald (eds.). Russian Traditional Culture: Religion, Gender and Customary Law. Routledge. pp. 34–47. ISBN 9781563240393.
- Dynda, Jiří (2014). "The Three-Headed One at the Crossroad: A Comparative Study of the Slavic God Triglav" (PDF). Studia mythologica Slavica. 17. Institute of Slovenian Ethnology. pp. 57–82. ISSN 1408-6271. Archived from the original (PDF) on 7 July 2017.
- Froianov, I. Ia.; Dvornichenko, A. Iu.; Krivosheev, Iu. V. (1992). "The Introduction of Christianity in Russia and the Pagan Traditions". In Balzer Marjorie Mandelstam and Radzai Ronald (eds.). Russian Traditional Culture: Religion, Gender and Customary Law. Routledge. pp. 3–15. ISBN 9781563240393.
- Ivakhiv, Adrian (2005). "The Revival of Ukrainian Native Faith". In Michael F. Strmiska (ed.). Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio. pp. 209–239. ISBN 9781851096084.
- Rock, Stella (2007). Popular Religion in Russia: 'Double Belief' and the Making of an Academic Myth. Routledge. ISBN 9781134369782.
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- Rybakov, Boris (1981). Iazychestvo drevnykh slavian [Paganism of the Ancient Slavs]. Moscow.
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