Through an analysis of current conflicts between the supporters of Orthodox Christianity and those of a revival of the ancient Chuvash religion, the author shows how religion has been used to define the concept of the “national idea,” becoming a key medium for the expression of Chuvash national consciousness. She first examines how the leaders of the national movement of the 1990s have represented history and religion in their conceptions of the national idea. She then discusses their use of rituals as an expression of ethnic consciousness and a method of cultural unification. Last, she probes the varied ways in which national activists have sought to reformulate national beliefs into a national religion.
Among revisited national traditions, the author stresses the extension of the Chuvash historical narrative back to the founding of the Volga-Bulghar state (tenth century ce), and the reinterpretation of “Christian enlightenment,” a nineteenth-century movement that gave birth to the first generation of the Chuvash intelligentsia. By asserting that tradition has been “forgotten,” its “revivers” legitimize a variety of interpretations related to their interests and to external conditions. At the same time, notions of the permanence, the longevity and the vitality of tradition create the impression of continuity and stability during a period of transition and economic crisis. Rituals performed in villages by educated intellectuals play a central role in the transmission to a broader public of the symbolic elements elaborated by the ideologists of Chuvash nationalism. Interpreting traditional folk religion (notably as a form of Zoroastrianism) has become the central focus for the Chuvash creative and academic intelligentsia, standing in opposition for Orthodoxy, Islam and processes of assimilation.
However, the response of the population to the ritual-ceremonial practices of the intelligentsia has been ambivalent: If the national movement has contributed to the emergence of a growing interest in Chuvash history and culture, at the same time its religious doctrines and reconstructed rituals have not attracted broad support, and among Orthodox Christian Chuvash the revival of pre-Christian religion has provoked adamant opposition. Given the unaffordable political climate and the competition from both Orthodoxy and Islam, it seemed unlikely, in the early 2000s, that the religious conceptions offered by national activists would gain broad acceptance—in contrast with the neighbouring Mari-El Republic, where traditional pre-Christian religion was preserved to a much greater extent, and the revivalist efforts by national activists have met with a much more positive response. It remains that the Chuvash national movement has have a much greater impact in the creation of a national mythology, and testifies of the continuing strength of religion as an emblem of national identity.