In this article we aim to explore how vernacular ideas about spiritual power, words, and silence shape perceptions of religion and witchcraft among the rural Komi people, whose predominant religion is Russian Orthodoxy. In this framework we investigate local ideas of witchcraft, belonging, and strangeness. During our joint ethnographic fieldwork trips to the Komi Republic, Russia, these notions were evoked repeatedly in discussions concerning the Evangelical Protestants who established their mission in a village historically associated with witches. This particular coincidence is reflected in discourses that brand the Evangelicals culturally alien, drawing on both traditional and contemporary categories of otherness. Our analysis shows that ideas about magical power and the usage of words constitute significant aspects of vernacular understanding of faith regardless of formal denominational belonging. We claim that religious practices are switched more spontaneously than feelings of spiritual power and traditionally accepted religious belonging among the rural Komi.
The diversity of religious organizations in Russia increased rapidly following the fall of the Soviet Union, then after the 1990s the number of religious organizations and groups in Russia grew more slowly. Today, religious diversity is increasing as Muslim and Protestant organizations grow more quickly than the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) (Nemtseva 2019). In Russia, people commonly recognize religion to be related to ethnic belonging, and thus foreign missionaries and those converting people to non-Orthodox faiths are frequently regarded as suspect and intimidating. People usually denote non-Orthodox religious groups as sects. The notion of sect engages various negative connotations that Soviet ideology projected onto religion, and the term has eventually come to signify the “dark other” of religious life (Broz 2009: 21). Thus, despite religious freedom in post-Soviet Russia, religions are treated unequally by the authorities as well as in vernacular discourse.
Historically, the Komi people have been followers of the ROC. Stephan Hrap (St. Stephan of Perm) baptized the Komi at the end of the fourteenth century. Over time, Orthodox Christianity became an essential part of the worldview and everyday life of the Komi (Smirnova and Chuvyurov 2007: 311). From the 1930s, when almost all the Russian Orthodox churches in the Komi region were closed, elderly women continued to arrange private meetings for prayers, to baptize children, and to coordinate funerals according to Russian Orthodox traditions (see Il′ina and Ulyashev 2009: 162; Siikala and Ulyashev 2011: 322; Vlasova 2018). Old women had more freedom to practice their religion, as the Soviet authorities did not consider them much of a danger to the ruling ideology.
Simultaneously, the Komi animist world perception survived,1 and the persistence of hunting practice maintained its functional basis. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, hunting constituted a significant element of the Komi subsistence pattern (Belitser 1958: 68; Konakov 1983: 14–18, 24–32). Today, hunting serves as a primary source of income in regions of more intensive hunting for 3–4 percent of the male population. This share may appear insignificant, but it is extraordinary for contemporary European Russia to have such a large number of specialized hunters (FM 1999).2 Researchers’ opinions regarding the degree of survival of the Komi animist worldview vary to a great degree.3
The Russian Orthodox faith is very much visible in rural Komi community life, while animist ideas remain more in the shadows. Nevertheless, both of these spiritual traditions shape the way people conceptualize the world. The Komi tend to judge new options of religious commitment from the viewpoint of customary ones.
Since the 1990s, the Komi Republic has become an arena of various Protestant initiatives.4 Although the history of Protestantism in the Komi region is almost a hundred years old (Gagarin 1971, 1978), only recently has it become a significant social phenomenon through the presence and public activities of different Evangelical churches and missionaries.5 They are not large in number, but the social impact of Evangelical Christians exceeds their statistical presence notably (Koosa and Leete 2014).
This increasing prominence of Protestants causes tensions in the regional religious landscape. The local ROC bishop, Pitirim, does not consider Protestant branches real Christianity but rather “sects resembling Christianity and pseudo- Christian sects” and “pseudo-religious cults” (Episkop Pitirim 1996: 31, 33). In Russia, Protestant Churches are generally viewed as alien; Evangelical and charismatic branches in particular are frequently conceptualized as New Religious Movements or totalitarian sects, supported by the West and threatening the state, the ROC, and public morality (see Zakonodatel′stvo 1971; Episkop Pitirim 1996: 33; Agadjanian 2001: 354; Elliot 2003: 42; Baran 2006: 638, 643; Luehrmann 2011: 29–31; Shterin 2012: 296; Fagan 2013: 95; Sibirieva 2013).6 As we will suggest in the following, contemporary concepts and biases about Protestants are partly rooted in earlier modes of hostility toward strangers, witches, and unorthodox believers.
So far, scholars’ attention has been predominantly concentrated on Komi animism (e.g., Zhakov 1901; Nalimov  2010; Sidorov 1926,  1997; Limerov 2005), Russian Orthodoxy (e.g., Rogachev 2001; Chuvyurov and Smirnova 2003; Smirnova and Chuvyurov 2007), and dialog between these traditional phenomena in the spiritual landscape of the region (e.g., Limerov 2003; Sharapov 2006). Protestantism among the Komi and its interplay with Russian Orthodoxy on the regional social scene has received much less attention (Gagarin 1971, 1978; Matsuk 2000; Koosa 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017; Koosa and Leete 2014; Leete 2013 – the list is basically complete). There have been no previous attempts to conduct a case study on the combined effects of these three religious practices in particular Komi communities. We suggest that it is necessary to take all of them into account to more fully understand the complexity of spiritual interaction in the contemporary Komi countryside.
We have conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the Kulömdin region for a couple of decades and have been in regular contact with the Don Village Protestant group since 2008.7 We have interviewed all regular members of the group and some of the people who only occasionally visit the mission’s events. We also follow the Don Evangelicals on social media and communicate online on a regular basis. Folk Orthodox faith is manifested conspicuously in the Komi countryside and thus we have documented and contemplated its presence and role from the very beginning of our field studies. Since 2006, when the new Orthodox priest appeared in the district center, Kulömdin (for several years before that the church lacked a resident priest), we have also visited Orthodox church ceremonies, Sunday schools, and interviewed some of the more active churchgoers. Art Leete has studied Komi hunters, who are the most distinctive keepers of animist customs, joining several hunting trips over the years and recording a multitude of hunting narratives.
We aim to explore the interaction between Evangelical Protestants, Russian Orthodox believers, and Komi hunters with an animistic disposition as it relates to the Don mission. Whereas the vernacular comments usually oppose two viewpoints (Evangelical versus Orthodox or animistic), we intend to outline a more complex picture of spiritual diversity and fusion in the Kulömdin region. This broader look enables us to scrutinize the problems related to choosing and practicing any particular faith or spiritual attitude in the Komi countryside. Furthermore, we intend to explore the opposition of what are perceived as traditional versus new or unfamiliar, in vernacular religious experience by concentrating on villagers’ reflections in the area in which we have worked since 1996.
1 Spiritual Power in Vernacular Orthodoxy
Russian Orthodoxy is the faith most supported by ordinary people and officials in the Kulömdin region (as in the whole of the Komi Republic and Russia). Both ROC priests and lay people often invoke the notion of historical tradition when justifying the ROC’s privileged position in Russia. However, the way in which ROC priests and lay believers practice and conceptualize faith differs, and this plurality of understandings has local peculiarities.
One general trend in Russia is that home prayers in front of an icon have become increasingly significant, with people even preferring this form of religious practice to church attendance (Inglehart et al. 2014). The custom of attending church ceremonies (historically this has been a predominant aspect of faith; see Listova 2004: 726–727) lost its role as a primary indicator of performed faith in Russian Orthodoxy under the influence of the Soviet period, when the majority of churches were closed (Freeze 2017: 2–3). In Kulömdin we have also documented the practice of home prayers among Orthodox people, although our observations did not allow us to make any conclusions about the popularity of this habit as people prefer to keep their prayers private.
Home prayers are a traditional Orthodox spiritual practice sanctioned by the Church. The priest of Kulömdin’s Russian Orthodox church also promotes knowledge of the Bible among his congregation through discussions of Scripture during Sunday school meetings arranged for both children and adults. However, lay people do not attribute much value to a literal acquaintance with the Word of God. They consider this knowledge a peculiarity of the Protestants and suppose that Orthodox people can do just fine with general knowledge of the Bible and understanding that fits within their Orthodox tradition:
It’s not a heroic deed to know the Bible by heart. I read the Bible as well, but it’s not the most important task to memorize it all. For me the most essential aspiration is to understand myself and to know that I have a God. I need to believe. But they [the Protestants] know the Bible quite completely. When he [the missionary] spoke to me the first time, he asked, do I know how the Bible begins. I know how it begins but I cannot tell the exact wording. I know that God created the world and something else … But I really don’t remember. That’s exactly what I want to tell you – this [knowing the text of the Bible] is not the most important issue for us [the Orthodox].Alevtina, aged 45 (FM 2006)8
New converts (mainly middle-aged women) in Kulömdin have generally agreed that they started to visit the Orthodox church because of “the call of the heart” (often felt after some personally distressing experience). They do not attach any particular role to reading the Bible in their becoming devout churchgoers. People attribute magical faith qualities to Orthodoxy that the priest rejects as a symptom of a “pagan attitude” (FM 2007).9 Old women with folk Orthodox experience and knowledge from the Soviet period attempt to combine respect for their priest (who arrived in the region recently) as possessor and mediator of dogmatic knowledge, with the vernacular idea of the “spiritual power” (Rus: dukhovnaya sila) of the Orthodox faith. This notion of spiritual power is somewhat obscure; it is an empowering and inspirational sensation that can be acquired or triggered by contact with objects or places (such as icons, church or holy places) that are perceived to be imbued with similar qualities. If caught attempting to employ this “spiritual power” concept, the women risk contradicting the priest, who rejects the vernacular approach to Orthodoxy and tries to cultivate a rational (for example Bible-based) understanding of Christian truth among the churchgoers. One of these topics of disagreement is related to dreams:
The priest said that one must not believe in dreams. But sometimes I fly in my dreams. I fly in the church, above the other people. And I say, look, can you see how I fly? I rise higher and then fall downwards. In Orthodoxy, spiritual power helps a lot, if you believe by heart and soul. I wanted to tell you this.10Valentina, aged 71 (FM 2008)
In the Komi vernacular worldview, a dream is an external substance, approaching a human being from outside; it is not a vision but rather something akin to feelings. According to this understanding, it is logical that sacred objects induce certain dreams. The Komi considered dreams the most easily accessible way to make contact with the world beyond. In this way, lay people can get in touch with the sacred without the mediation of priests. So it makes sense that the priest was not happy that Valentina was fond of dreams, even if they had Christian content. However, regardless of the priest’s critical remarks, Valentina ignores his arguments because according to her it is primarily the church building and icons that bring her into contact with the divine and provide access to the transcendent:
I pick potatoes and fall ill. My blood pressure drops, heart makes trouble, I need to drink strong coffee and tea and after that I become alive. My heart gets better, but only a little bit. If I go to the church, I get much better. The church reanimates me. That’s true. I love the church. I love that spiritual power very much. There is nothing without spiritual power. If I have a pain in my heart during the night, I put icons on my chest.Valentina (FM 2008)
The tangible qualities of Orthodox church buildings as well as the perceived healing power of icons make the faith meaningful for Komi women.11 According to them, the concept of spiritual power (manifested in dreams and visions,12 icons and church buildings) constitutes a significant aspect of the Orthodox faith. As this vernacular perception of Orthodoxy is not fully accepted by the Church, this understanding remains outside of institutional dogma. In addition, the increasing prominence of home prayers, although recognized and promoted by the Church, steers the core of individual religious practice away from the public religious sphere, leading to women’s Orthodox faith being somewhat hidden. In turn, this avoidance of public manifestation constitutes grounds for confusion from the viewpoint of the Evangelicals, who consider talking about one’s faith very important.
2 Evangelical Mission in Don Village: Confronting Spiritual Challenges
In 2003 an American missionary together with two Russian missionaries (one of whom later became the group’s pastor) established an Evangelical mission in Don village, 200 kilometers from the Komi capital Syktyvkar and fifteen kilometers from the district center Kulömdin.13 By Komi standards Don is a small village, with 300 inhabitants. The Evangelical group we focus on includes approximately fifteen to twenty regular members. The group formed around the William Wood Mission, which reaches out to surrounding villages within a radius of fifty to seventy kilometers.14 Although the core of the Evangelical group is small, their social initiatives (see Koosa and Leete 2014) as well as public image (see Koosa 2015) guarantee that they are rather well known among the population of the region.
The Protestant church in Don village has encountered numerous obstacles in its activities. The ROC, people from surrounding villages, the local administration, and journalists have all accused the Evangelicals of being American spies or, at least, strangers and agents of foreign influence. This rather demanding social environment makes the Evangelicals very careful in choosing their social strategy as well as their approach to the differences between Russian Orthodoxy and Protestantism. Some of these challenges concern tolerance of people’s appreciation of Orthodox spiritual symbols and rituals even when attending Evangelical services, as well as the overall emotional tone of ritual behavior and everyday conduct.
Core members of the Don Evangelical group often talk of their faith in relation to experiencing an enhanced ability to feel and radiate positive emotions, and by describing the inner peace they have found after accepting God. Protestants see their main goal as revealing the truth of the Gospel to non-Evangelicals and hence arrange emotionally engaging services that enable them to attract and maintain congregation numbers.
The Don Evangelical church follows nondenominational ideology and is very open to collaboration with other Christian groups and Churches, especially the Baptists (both registered and unregistered congregations) and Pentecostals in the region. The group is unregistered and named the Christian Community of Don (Rus: Donskaia khristianskaia obshchina). The majority of group members have personal backgrounds in vernacular Orthodoxy, with some still thinking of themselves as Orthodox (Koosa 2016: 59). Several churchgoers have combined traditional, vernacular Orthodox ideas and ritual practices with Protestant rhetoric. While some group members have taken a more cautious and even critical approach to icons after joining the Evangelical group, some still appreciate or even continue to venerate icons. In some cases, this somewhat ambiguous attitude becomes apparent in the way people try to make sense of the icons they have at home. Some of them make no reference to this seeming contradiction; others explain it by having icons as mementos from their parents.15 But the missionaries’ practice of decorating the wall of the prayer room with pictures of biblical scenes or keeping an image of Jesus in the corner of the church entrance hall also confuses people. One older woman who occasionally visited the Don church even expressed envy of the American missionary for an image of Jesus adorned with electrical illumination.
If you go inside of William’s prayer house, there was Jesus Christ wired to electric current in the corner. You see – it is possible to switch Him on. He gets illuminated and fades out, gets illuminated and fades out. Later I asked a craftsman to make a corner shelf for me. I thought that I’d ask William to give that icon of Jesus Christ to me. But afterwards I asked him where he bought such a thing and how much it cost. I suppose it is around 500 roubles. I think that if I turn seventy on the fifth of November, I’ll certainly ask William to drive [to the city] and buy that for me. You see, I have a place ready for Jesus Christ. But I don’t have the icon yet.Anna, aged 69 (FM 2008)
Encountering images reminiscent of Orthodox iconography in the Evangelical context helped to reassure Anna that Protestant Christianity too is indeed a respectable faith. She was rather hopeful about convincing the missionary to hand this “icon” over to her as, by the time of our visit, the image was no longer displayed in the church and apparently the missionaries did not need it. The American missionary commented on this confusion as well and was concerned by his parishioners’ tendency to search for signs familiar from Orthodoxy in the Evangelical church. In fact, the image of Jesus had been removed from the entrance hall as upon their entrance the women kept making the sign of the cross in front of it (FM 2008).
In addition to this issue with icons, there are some other Orthodox ideas and practices that the newly Evangelical villagers have maintained, quite unaware of the potential conflict with Protestant ideas. For example, parishioners celebrate folk Orthodox festivities in the Evangelical church without recognizing the missionaries’ confusion: we observed one occasion when old women brought apples to the church on the occasion of the Transfiguration, following thus the vernacular Orthodox custom.16 The missionaries attempted to protest vaguely but the women did not seem to notice.
Another domain of confusion between Evangelicals and the surrounding community is related to words and emotions. The Evangelicals regularly emphasize that embodied experiences and attention to one’s emotional responses makes it easier to accept God and recognize his presence in one’s life. What is perceived as a manifestation of sincere faith prominently involves a positive mindset. A believer feels delighted and peaceful, not being disturbed by or irritated about things that worried him or her before the conversion. Being a good Christian presumes regulating and quieting undesirable sentiments and demonstrating an optimistic attitude. One needs to respond in an emotionally proper way to the challenges of confronting people with different spiritual ideas and convictions. The sociocultural situation in the Komi countryside complicates the proselytizing of one’s faith verbally, shifting the emphasis to embodied, more inarticulate aspects of Evangelical commitment (that involves staying good-tempered in challenging or tedious social situations, for example in a lengthy queue at a food store) (Koosa 2016: 64–66).
Being able to feel and remain calm in different circumstances is connected to the Evangelicals’ cultivation of inner spiritual joy and contentment. In a predominantly Orthodox environment in which people regard Evangelicals with strong skepticism, many members of the group give priority to nonverbal manifestations over verbal claims of religious commitment. The emphasis on positive emotions could also be interpreted in the framework of American cultural influence. This is what some of the Orthodox villagers have also expressed – while their (the Orthodox) joy is sincere, the Evangelicals bear an “American smile,” that is to say, their friendliness and geniality are dubbed as fake. The Don Evangelicals usually evade straightforward criticism of Orthodox believers (Koosa 2016: 58–59). On the one hand, certain words and topics are to be avoided to cultivate and maintain a good Evangelical self (refraining from speech practices such as gossiping or using foul language, downplaying issues such as lapsing from faith), on the other hand, being taciturn helps to sustain good neighborly relations and prevents disagreement (68–71). This leads to the Don Protestants adopting the behavioral etiquette of the rural Orthodox Komi nearby, as far as it does not directly contradict their faith.
This kind of Evangelical silence can be connected not only to pro-Orthodox feelings nurtured by the majority in the Kulömdin region, but also to the local vernacular belief that includes in the worldview a layer of ideas with an animistic background. This animist component is usually undeclared by villagers despite significantly contradicting Evangelical ideals, something that causes misunderstanding and gives rise to hesitant sentiments about witchcraft.
3 The Hidden Threat from Witches
The success of the Don mission has been relatively modest. This lack of popularity accords with a general decline in Protestantism from the 2000s (after rapid expansion from the late 1980s) in the Komi Republic and in Russia more generally (see Matsuk 2000; Filatov 2005; Gabusheva and Dontsova 2010; Koosa 2017: 37). There are some specific reasons behind the missionaries’ moderate success, for example, Komi villagers vaguely suspecting some kind of American political agenda motivating their presence, and locally unconventional church services and Protestant outsider social conduct that is perceived as obtrusive (Koosa 2013, 2015; Koosa and Leete 2014). The Don group’s troubles also relate to the fact that the local people associate Evangelicals with the idea of witchcraft – a notion to which we now want to turn. Labeling Protestants as witches has a certain history among the Komi in the region.17
In the nineteenth century, an official at the statistical committee of the Vologda Governorate, Klavdii Popov, argued that the Komi recognized witches by their habit of avoiding church services. At the same time, Popov also claimed that the Komi believed that witches come to churches during the night of Holy Thursday to chew church bells, as this gave them the power to conduct witchcraft (Popov 1874: 59). As the Komi have historically considered it appropriate to visit only Orthodox churches (and in some regions also churches of the Old Believers), it is not surprising that the Orthodox Komi conceptually connect and even merge these unusual social encounters with non-Orthodox agents and phenomena (strangers, Protestantism, and witchcraft) nowadays also.
The Evangelicals’ situation is further complicated by the fact that the surrounding Komi communities consider the village of Don to be the traditional village of witches (Komi: eretnikyas) (Chuvyurov and Smirnova 2003: 172).18 In order to confirm this attitude toward Don villagers, we asked Oleg, one of our fieldwork partners from Kulömdin. He confirmed that the idea that Don villagers are witches still exists but did not give a more precise answer, arguing that he has too close a relationship with the Don community:
For me this is an uneasy subject to talk about. The fact is that one of my great-great-grandmothers was from Don. Because of that, it’s not good if I talk about this. It is considered that everybody in Don village is a witch – eretnik. They are not exactly witches but are able to perform witchcraft. My ancestress had black eyes but blond hair. Among the Komi people, this is considered nonsense.Oleg, aged 54 (FM 2019)
The Komi have acknowledged certain colors of hair and eyes as markers of a witch. For example, dark hair and eyes, yellow eyes, or red hair served as indicators (Ulyashev 2003: 104–105). Colors signifying someone’s animistic powers can vary, but the idea that one’s hair and eyes are signs of a witch is strong. Oleg argued that neighboring villages have different ideas; in order to establish what colors indicate a witch, one needs to know where the person was born (FM 2019).19
Oleg also specified that the kind of witchcraft he meant is called sheva or loua. Komi witches have used sheva to “spoil” another person. Sheva forces one to become hysterical and has been a rather common type of witchcraft that was effective primarily among Komi women.20 Sheva is imagined as a being that enters someone’s body and provokes changed behavior. Sheva can have various forms, for example a single hair or thread, or a bug, butterfly, lizard, mouse, small bird, or worm (Popov 1874: 59; Sidorov  1997: 106–110; Il′ina 2003: 300; Sharapov 2006: 18–20; see also Panchenko 2004: 324–325).
Connecting the Don Evangelicals with witchcraft is not traced only by historical-ethnographic evidence and the opinions of neighboring non- Protestants. We have also documented some more particular evidence of this relationship. As we discovered during our fieldwork, Vera, a member of the nucleus of the Evangelical Christian group, admitted that she belonged to a famous clan of witches:
The Komi people are very scared of witches. You see that our Don village is very much famed for witches. Even a clan of witches exists here. And I am counted as a member of that clan, too. As if I happen to descend from that clan. But I don’t know anything, of course. As if those witches know something or they can foretell some future. They have that kind of [power]. For example, if they look at a child with the evil eye, that child could die.Vera, aged 35 (FM 2009)
After this announcement, she laughed heartily as if to dismiss all such ideas as nonsense, although it was in fact she who had raised the topic. From this statement it was clear that members of the Don congregation are aware that in the local social scene people connect Evangelical faith and witchcraft. The reason for this association combines the fact that the Evangelicals, who are considered “foreign,” cultural strangers, happened to choose this particular village as a place of residence with their emotionally exuberant services and witnessing.
Sometimes a person can unintentionally cause harm by witchcraft. The evil eye, mentioned by Vera, is an indicator of another kind of witchcraft that is related to uncontrolled emotion. This traditional spiritual practice is called vomidź (vom meaning “mouth” in Komi, i.e. vomidź is witchcraft of words or sounds). A person may cause illness even semi-accidentally, if he or she expresses publicly what is considered an overly emotional reaction to something: “An off-balanced person turns into a source of or reason for disease among the surrounding people” (Sidorov  1997: 139). It is enough to express surprise, delight, or envy to conjure illness or death. It is also necessary that the victim must notice that emotional outburst. Similarly, a spell can be performed with a glance (139–148).
A similar understanding of witchcraft also concerns an elderly woman named Anna, who lives in a nearby village and attends Don Protestant service, and who is believed by her fellow villagers to have the evil eye. During our interviews we got the feeling that this woman paid quite a bit of attention to the emotional framework of faith. She stressed how nothing bad had been done to her by “the Christians” in Don: “But I don’t feel anything bad at the moment, everything is just fine. No evil stuff has been taught to us by anybody, despite the issue that we are engaged in the Christian faith” (Anna, aged 69 [FM 2008]). With this assertion, Anna was indirectly responding to her overwhelmingly pro-Orthodox neighbors who accused her of choosing the “Christian faith” over Russian Orthodoxy. Certainly, the informant’s neighbors in principle know that the Orthodox Church is also a Christian Church, being “the right one” among all others, as publicly promoted by the local Orthodox priest. However, different Protestant believers are habitually referred to as the “Christians” as opposed to the “Orthodox” (Rus: khristiane and pravoslavnye respectively). The neighbors, being Orthodox believers, say that the Protestants are involved in some sort of concealed or even occult practices, so Anna was arguing against this view. At the same time, she had been worried that perhaps some harm could indeed be expected from the Evangelicals and was happy to affirm that nothing of that kind could be spotted.
Anna was not yet baptized, but she expressed a strong wish to be. The main reason for her to desire going through “the Christian” baptism seemed to be her envy of those who had managed to be baptized. Anna’s enviousness was based on the beauty of the baptismal ritual she had witnessed: nice sunny weather during the ceremony, the lovely light-colored clothes of the newly baptized girls and the splendid photographs taken during the ritual (FM 2008).21 Thus, Anna admitted that she experiences strong affection for the baptismal rite. By envying other people, Anna displayed feelings that do not really correspond to Protestant ideals. The same emotional inclination (envy of other people) could be why she had gained the reputation of a witch with the non-Evangelical population.
As we can see in the case of vomidź, the line between everyday communication and spiritual offense is fragile. According to Komi belief, nobody can avoid performing some vomidź-style witchcraft just by accident. The presence and strategies of Evangelical missionaries have actualized certain ideas of witchcraft for the Komi people. In their own terms, the Evangelicals use the witchcraft narrative as an example of what a true Christian no longer needs to be afraid of. For example, one Evangelical churchgoer told us in Don that “clairvoyant people are not able to probe the Evangelicals’ [minds]” (FM 2013). In addition to this, in the Komi tradition some witches used to present themselves as kind people acting with the help of divine power (Sidorov  1997: 26).
In the Komi vernacular perception, vomidź is the principal form of witchcraft connected to hunting (Konakov 1983: 197). Komi hunter practice in this regard includes not naming hunting animals, not telling the exact truth about the catch, and not being emotional when talking about hunting episodes. Hunter communication is coded with complicated narrative rules and cannot usually be taken literally as the truth because talking explicitly might cause loss of hunting luck or some other magic damage to the hunter (Sidorov 1926: 31; Konakov 1983: 190–195; Il’ina and Ulyashev 2009: 111). Komi hunters become very suspicious if somebody speaks passionately and claims openly to tell nothing but the truth (Leete and Lipin 2015). Remaining silent in the forest is the most efficient way to avoid spoiling one’s hunting effort, in a practical as well as magical sense (Sidorov 1926: 31–32; Il’ina and Ulyashev 2009: 105).
The Evangelicals’ approach to belief involves being open and sincere about one’s faith and experiences. Using a passionate style in expressing this is valued both as a sign of divine inspiration and an efficient missionizing tool. Behavior that derives from this understanding very much resembles the ideas of how certain kinds of witchcraft are performed in the Komi vernacular perception. In the view of Komi hunters, if told openly and emotionally, truth could cause particular harm as every unbalanced deed conceals danger and can be interpreted as a potential threat.
Our field data indicates much misunderstanding as well as conscious accusations between the Protestants of Don village and other nearby Komi villagers. What the Evangelicals present as essential knowledge of the Bible, the Orthodox perceive as something not really relevant from the viewpoint of tradition. When Protestants aim to express sincerity, hunters recognize potential deception. When the newly converted Christians display joy, the locals suspect witchcraft. With some exceptions, the opposing views the villagers express are not necessarily so clear-cut, but the specific features of local context and cultural expectations certainly affect how the Evangelicals’ style of conduct and emotional comportment is perceived and reacted to. These confrontations appear analytically relevant, but we do acknowledge the need to remain cautious and recognize a variety of perspectives when examining this interaction.
The Don Evangelicals handle interfaith complications very cautiously. Members of the group tend not to discuss this matter much without being directly asked and, even when touched upon, disagreements with other religious groups are habitually downplayed (Koosa 2016: 69). This means that the Evangelicals try to position themselves as respectable believers not only according to their own rules but also by taking into account the Orthodox perspective.
The Evangelicals’ rivalry with the Orthodox is more explicit, while the possible contention with animistic discourse is not even a topic for discussion for the Protestants. Similarly, the Russian Orthodox priest of Kulömdin did not take the animist challenges seriously. Although he spoke at length of instances of “pagan” practice among his congregation, he dismissed manifestations of this outlook as simply signs of ignorance that could be easily disposed of with some religious education. The Christians see each other as competitors and underestimate or neglect the potential of animist perceptions as meaningfully shaping people’s understanding of faith and related practices.
In the particular case of Don village, the vernacular discourse associating the inhabitants of the village with witches has historical roots. Ideas about witches add to cognitive antagonism between the Don village Evangelicals and the population of neighboring settlements. In fact, it has been challenging to directly discuss this theme with the local people and we cannot be sure how prominent or marginal these sentiments are. The topic of witchcraft is culture-specifically obscure and becomes a factor related to the ways in which speech and silence are practiced in the Don village and surroundings.
As the available evidence indicates, different spiritual traditions consider certain types of silence as meaningful patterns of behavior. At the same time, the way silence is employed and interpreted depends on the specific perspective, that is, whether it is Protestant, Orthodox, or animist. For the Evangelicals, silence is more situational, derived from the social pressure that they encounter. But for the vernacular Orthodox and animist understandings of the world, the use of silence is framed by the logic of magic: some things should be left unuttered to avoid causing harm. There also appear to be similarities in how silence is understood, as it may be either a condition for or a consequence of a desired spiritual status in the Protestant and Orthodox, as well as animist perception.
In light of the examples presented, for the Komi who have Orthodox or animistic sympathy it makes certain sense to speculate that there are particular hidden or even occult reasons why strangers established the Protestant church in Don village. According to the writer and ethnographer Sergey Maksimov ( 2018: 107), a Russian witch could get rid of the undesired gift of witchcraft if they were cleansed and protected by an Orthodox priest’s prayers in a church or monastery, in this way achieving repentance and salvation. The understanding of witches was also related to vernacular Orthodox ecstatic practices (also conducted in church buildings) that spread primarily among women in the Russian North and had roots in pre-Christian customs. The line between an ecstatic Orthodox believer and a demon-possessed witch was somehow blurred (Worobec 2003: 49–54, 64–68, 72–88; Panchenko 2004: 324–339).
Our interview data can be interpreted as indicating that people visiting the Don Christian community perceive the Protestant faith as rather magical (i.e., related to “untranslatable experience,” “internal joy,” or “cleansing by the Lord”) despite the rational approach promoted by the pastor (Koosa 2016: 63–67). But the missionaries’ statements may also appear in accord with their congregants’ expectations. As another Don missionary put it: “Because with his mind and with reasoning a person cannot logically accept these ideas and truths” (FM 2011). This statement, rejecting rational perception of faith, was rather unexpected. We assume that the missionaries may sometimes use arguments suitable to the Orthodox faith due to sharing the cultural environment with their congregation. However, it could also be a conscious choice of explanation, meant primarily for the elderly woman participating in that conversation. Perhaps the missionary felt that the woman needed assurance of faith through culturally familiar arguments.
One also needs to be cautious when making definite conclusions in this regard, as arguments that connect Protestants and witches in the Komi perception derive from contextual and somewhat incidental evidence. People discuss this issue randomly, usually only hinting at certain probabilities and avoid explicit claims, and thus our conclusions rely on a combination of evidence of a rather ambiguous nature.
The way in which the Protestant faith becomes associated with witchcraft is a complicated subject for inquiry. If we analyze comparative data, it appears as a culturally logical argument, but we have not documented much explicit evidence about it. We have managed to witness and record just a few indirect ideas about this connection (for example Vera’s acknowledgment of her relatives’ reputation as witches). At the same time, questions about witchcraft cannot be asked directly as, in the perception of the Komi people, simply talking about witchcraft (based on words and emotions) can be dangerous.
In the local Komi vernacular discourse, narrative rules prescribe indirect, evasive treatment of the whole topic of witchcraft. So, it is unavoidable that discussion of a possible perceived connection between Protestants and witchcraft remains largely speculative. However, as this theme appears in our empirical data and has something to do with local people’s perception of Protestants, this must be touched upon in order to reflect the variety of images the Evangelicals have obtained among the region’s population. Apart from being connected to witches, the Don Protestants are also accused of being “the Americans,” “spies,” “terrorists,” or “sectarians” (Koosa 2013: 38–39, 42).
The cultural logic that ties Evangelical Christianity to witchcraft belongs to a sensitive sphere of people’s lives that requires cautious analytical treatment. It is not clear how much of this delicate scholarly knowledge or intuition can be made public.22 Our field partners were rather hesitant when talking about this potential relationship between witchcraft and the Evangelical presence. The existence of this theme reflects a hidden dimension of inter-religious interaction in Komi communities around the Don village.
Depending on the situation, people can also shift the center of their spiritual positioning. Komi ethnographer Vasiliy Nalimov ( 2010: 25–26) argued that a Komi becomes Orthodox when in a village, whereas in the forest he or she remains faithful to animism (see also Il’ina and Ulyashev 2009: 125). As our observations confirm, some women attend the Evangelical church despite having been baptized in an Orthodox monastery, and occasionally attending Orthodox church services as well. In addition, some churchgoers identify themselves as Russian Orthodox and admit that they visit Protestant services merely because these are the only religious gatherings regularly available for the Don villagers and inhabitants of neighboring settlements. If, despite visiting Evangelical meetings, people have maintained affectionate feelings about the Orthodox faith, then they can feel a spiritual power, conceptually familiar from vernacular Orthodoxy, in the Protestant church. Nevertheless, not everybody has joined the Evangelical group after having previous experience from the ROC. For those who lack actual encounters with the Orthodox church, the notion of spiritual power might derive from the emotional involvement within a Protestant service. As people belong to the same narrative community, they share stories about the Orthodox Church. Thus, an extension of that cultural familiarity into a new religious context may also be an option of local religious dynamics.
Based on the literary evidence and our observations we raise a question about the connection between religious identities and practices. People are generally certain of themselves when talking about their religious ideas and preferences. Even if people visit different churches inconsistently, they still have an idea about their belonging. Departing from our data, we argue that in most cases regarding the Don group, religious practices are easier to diverge from or replace than embraced identities. However, there have also been people who have left the Don Evangelical community and joined the Russian Orthodox church, thus changing both identity and practice. Our observations also indicate that some people connect more loosely to the Evangelical group (their religious identity may be truly mixed, weak, or uncertain). Even if they leave the group, it is not because they decided to join another religious community; however, they stopped visiting any church. In the current study, we concentrated more on these examples when a particular Russian Orthodox identity was combined with active attendance to the Protestant church because this combination has the highest heuristic value for our analysis.
Between the Komi hunters’ animism and folk Orthodoxy, the identity margin is vague, while the Protestants are more clearly set apart as strangers. Protestant ideas about silence, sincerity, and expression of emotions differ from the traditional vernacular approach of the Orthodox inhabitants of the region as well as from the animist sentiments detected among the local community. The Evangelical mode of conceptualizing and expressing feelings depends greatly on interaction with the larger community that commonly questions the acceptability of Evangelical faith. In this situation, silence can be a consciously used tool that enables smoother communication on spiritual matters with the broader community (Koosa 2016: 61).
But for the Protestants, restricting emotional speech can be an ambivalent choice of action. Amy Wilkins (2008) argues that Evangelicals consider happiness an indicator of moral virtue, and that they employ the demonstration of positive emotions and friendliness as a preaching tool. This seems to hold true in the case of the Don Evangelicals too, as they prefer to express positive feelings vividly, although blending into the village community requires more modest social conduct. Inhabitants of the surrounding society perceive the Evangelicals in the conceptual framework that treats emotionality with suspicion. The existing discourse on witchcraft adds to the more typical challenges that Protestants commonly encounter in Russia.
In Komi rural communities there is a continuity in conceptually segregating people who follow an unfamiliar faith. Ideas about witches and witchcraft represent one of the traditionally available social categories for the social and/or cultural other. Particular behavioral patterns and individual characteristics tend to be interpreted accordingly in order to reinforce the perceived otherness of the Evangelicals. Talking about evil “American spies” signifies a contemporary way of labeling marginality that was earlier represented by witches (although the explicit discourse of witchcraft also circulates in the community). Both categorizations represent individuals ascribed with certain potency (whether stemming from foreign government money or the knowledge and skills of witchcraft) and agendas endangering social order. The contemporary discourse of spiritual danger from outsiders has its roots in the historical paradigm of marginalizing and condemning strangers, although the vocabulary has been adapted to the current circumstances.
Spiritual contestation, emotions, silence, and a specific cultural logic constitute the context for the discourse on faith, divine power, and witchcraft related to the Don Evangelicals, the Orthodox faith, and animism. The predominantly rejected religious practice of Protestantism challenges the habitual conduct of faith (mostly attributed to the Orthodox Church) among the people of the Kulömdin region in the Komi Republic. The overall context of the vernacular understanding of folk Orthodox faith, witchcraft, and strangers (including Protestants) is similar across all of the Russian North, although in the case of the Don Evangelicals these topics have come together in an exceptionally figurative way. This discursive metaphysical clustering was triggered by a rather unlikely coincidence; that is, that according to the local Komi perception, the Protestants settled in the village of witches.
This article has been supported by the Estonian Research Council (project PRG1584).
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Following recent theoretical debates (Descola 2005; Ingold 2000, 2006; Harvey 2006; Viveiros de Castro 2014), we define animism as an animal- and spirit-related mode of vernacular sensitivity, a complex way of perception, thought, and action that encompasses human and other-than-human persons.
FM = Fieldwork materials of the authors (1999–2019).
Some authors have argued that the Komi had forgotten their animist beliefs long ago (see Nemirovich-Danchenko  1999; Kandinsky  2013; Golovachev [1909–1911] 2011), whereas others claim that despite being spiritually dominated by the ROC for 600 years, the Komi are still “pagans” (Zasodimskiy  1999; Zhakov 1901; Abramov 1914).
The Komi Republic, with a population of about 738,000 (Rosstat 2022), is situated in the northeastern part of European Russia. Whereas the indigenous Komi constitute about 25 percent of the republic’s overall population, they form a majority in Kulömdin District, our fieldwork region. The Komi are bilingual. Although in the villages it is fairly common that people speak Komi at home, in the public sphere Russian prevails.
In this article, the term “Evangelical Christian” refers to the Anglo-American tradition of Protestant revival movements (see Noll 2004: 421–422). Although the term covers diverse Churches and movements, they all share some basic assumptions: an emphasis on personal conversion, the central authority of the Bible, and the obligation to evangelize.
Russia’s religious policy considers also Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as “traditional” religions. Catholicism and some branches of Protestantism are also tolerated as traditional religions of Russia’s ethnic minorities. According to the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, any religious organization in Russia may be classed as “traditional” if it existed before 1982 (Federal′nyy zakon 1997).
Art Leete started studying the Komi in 1996, Piret Koosa in 2006. Our continuous cultural experience is reflected in this article.
The names of the informants have been changed in order to maintain their anonymity. All translations from Russian are by the authors.
There is a certain continuity in the ROC approach toward “paganism” that can be traced at least from the late nineteenth century. Klavdii Popov (1874: 47–48) reports that the Orthodox priests treated various vernacular expressions of faith as “traces of paganism” (for example, while peasants sacrificed domestic animals near the church buildings, leaving part of sacrificial meat and money, earned by selling that meat, to the priests). In the nineteenth century, the ROC had to deal with a number of “false miracles” based on dreams containing spiritual messages (about churches and icons), experienced by lay people (Zabylin 1880: 275; Listova 2004: 717–721).
It is common among the Orthodox Komi to experience dreams that include flying to heaven (Sharapov 1997: 222, 225–228; Sharapov and Ulyashev 2003: 345–346). Dreams were the primary way for women in the Russian North to access saints because women were often denied entering monasteries where sacred relics were kept (Worobec 2003: 48–49).
Russians also attribute great spiritual power to items related to church buildings and touched by the priests (Maksimov  2018: 368; Listova 2004: 712, 726–733).
In 1842, local clairvoyant Anna Lupina had a vision of St. Nicholas combing his hair and leaving some of it to her. Peasants brought this lock of the saint’s hair to the Kulömdin church and put it in front of the icon of St. Nicholas. The priest ordered it to be removed from the church, although eventually, following an official investigation of the case by the church authorities, he lost his job as he had not succeeded in solving the conflict with the congregation (Listova 2004: 738–739).
The American missionary defines himself as nondenominational (just as his home church in the USA), the Don group’s pastor has a background in a Charismatic church, and the third missionary is a Baptist. All the missionaries and members of the Don Church generally describe themselves as Evangelical Christians even if they have a previous background in a specific Church.
The William Wood Missions to Russia are a non-profit mission based in Gladstone, Illinois (William Wood Missions to Russia, n.d).
Russian peasants greatly appreciate icons that are inherited from their parents. These icons are held carefully as they carry with them the blessing of the ancestors (Listova 2004: 712).
About the Transfiguration of Our Lord, see Matthew 17:1–5. In folk Orthodoxy the Transfiguration (August 19) is considered the Apple Feast of the Savior. Eating any fruit or vegetables is prohibited before that day; on the day, congregants take fruit and vegetables to churches and the priests bless them (Yudina 2005: 207–208).
The Russian Old Believers of the Ust′-Tsilma region (neighboring the areas inhabited by the Komi and Nenets) regarded representatives of strange ethnic and confessional groups (Russian Orthodox, Protestants, animists) as witches, among them, for example, the prominent Finnish scholar Mathias Alexander Castrén (similar rumors about Castrén reached also the Izva Komi people, whom he visited after he left the Ust′-Tsilma Russians) (Castrén 1860: 157–160; Dronova 2018: 76–77). The German Protestants have been accused of witchcraft in Russia since the seventeenth century (Zabylin 1880: 415), and among the Komi at least from the early twentieth century (Sidorov 1997: 26).
The concept of “the village of witches” has also been known among the Russian peasants. It was believed that witches were in control of these villages (Zabylin 1880: 243).
Russian peasants in the late nineteenth and in the early twentieth century have considered black and brown eyes as indicators of witches (Maksimov  2018: 166).
Sheva sometimes happened to the Komi women during the church services (Sidorov  1997: 129–130). This indicates that church buildings also were considered arenas for witchcraft among the Komi in the early twentieth century. In the Russian North, ecstatic ROC-related practices have spread since the seventeenth century. This was a rather widespread phenomenon as epidemics of ecstatic possession have been documented several times. In older times, the ROC considered glossolalia a transgression by an evil spirit and blasphemy. Since the 1860s, the Church recognized glossolalia as a proper custom of the Orthodox faith (Zabylin 1880: 413–415; Worobec 2003: 41–42; Panchenko 2004: 324–339). For the Komi Bursylysyas folk Orthodox movement (centered in Mys village, 60 kilometers from Don), home prayers were ecstatic and sometimes people achieved a collective trance (Gagarin 1971: 37, 46–47; 1976; 1978: 218–220; Chuvyurov 2001: 77).
While the pastor of the group holds the view that different forms of baptismal rites are equally acceptable, the preferred practice in the group has been baptizing through full immersion. The ceremony is held in the summer at the local river and both the pastor and person to be baptized are dressed in light-colored clothes. Standing in the river with the water approximately chest deep, the pastor asks the person if they acknowledge Christ as their savior and if they promise to serve him, and then he baptizes them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit by fully submerging them.
Cf. the discussion about documenting borderline spheres of allowed communication in the ethnographic field in Dudeck 2017.