Raffaele Petralla

Mari People, a Pagan Beauty


There is a population with Finnish ancestors living in a rural area near Joshkar-ola, in the Republic of Mari-El, Russia. They are called Mari, speak a language belonging to the Ugro-Finnic and use a modified version of the Cyrillic alphabet. They settled in this area around the fifth century a.C. The current population is about 600,000 people.
The Mari are the last pagan population of the West. They live in symbiotic relationship with nature, which is celebrated as the basis of their existence. Nature exerts a magical religiosity on people. It is the mother who protects man, beneficial as long as he does not try to destroy it. The cyclical nature of the land merges with the ancient pagan practices. The faith of the Mari worships the gods of the four natural elements.



In the sixteenth century, Christianity was imposed on them by Ivan the Terrible and their territory was annexed to the Russian Empire. However, the religious subjugation was never fully accepted, they in fact retain their beliefs in a significant amount of pre-Christian elements. In the twentieth century, with the rise of the Soviet Union, it was officially forbidden to celebrate rituals and sacrifices. During the Cold War many prominent personalities of the Red Army, fascinated by their magical power, turned in secret to the Mari spiritual guidance looking for answers on the possible outcomes of their military strategies. In the 90’s the economy of the Mari, which was based on agriculture and livestock, entered a crisis with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Poverty and unemployment led young people to migrate to the big cities in search of a stable future, abandoning their villages and their ancient traditions.
In this journey back to the origins of man, in search of languages and cultures not yet disappeared, i came across this peasant ethic not yet affected by time. Among dances and forests, a pagan beauty emerges from this forgotten people.




Raffaele Petralla (33) is a documentary photographer. He graduated from the School of Roman Photograph with a three-year master in 2007. His research focuses on environmental issues and socio-anthropological. Winner of awards and honorable mentions of international level. His works have been exhibited in several important European galleries and published in many magazines.

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Raffaele Petralla

4 thoughts on “Raffaele Petralla – Mari People, a Pagan Beauty”

  1. Beautiful, beautiful work. About to share this out to a few Finnish FB site. Lovely.

  2. Wonderful photos that actually tell us about this culture (not always the case). Personally, I find the captions distracting. What little new info there could have been distilled into a separate paragraph at the beginning (like about the geese, etc). Photos are strong enough to use their own voice. Best to not repeat in words what is easily garnered from the photo itself (i.e. ‘boys in field on motorcycle’). Congrats and keep on documenting these wonderful people!

  3. Agree with Charles entirely on the quality of the photos and partly on the captions. “Boys in field on motorcycle” and others that simply describe what’s plain to see in the photo would be much better off without captions. The ones where the pagan spirituality are present, but not discernible to those who know nothing about the culture, are generally well-served by captions, imo.

    As I am in the tiny minority here that is not obsessed with books, I think this is the first essay I’ve ever looked at and read and thought, “I’d like to see that as a book.” But the quality of the photography and the nature of the tale (last pagan society in Europe?) definitely merit a deep and highest quality treatment.

    No offense intended to the photographer, but I also think this is a very strong confirmation of my belief that, if words are going to be involved, the great majority of photographers should find a like-minded professional writer to discuss the story in words, whether as an introduction, afterward, integrated part of the story or captions.

    Anyway, great work. Thanks.

  4. Pingback: Ulixes Pictures | BURN MAGAZINE – Raffele Petralla Finalist 2015

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