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From Nordic symbols to sledgehammer executions: Inside the Wagner Group’s neo-pagan rituals

The roof-capped cross standing on Evgeny Prigozhin’s stone bears a stark resemblance to those found in Old Believer cemeteries, golubets, Olga Maltseva/AFP

According to the Orthodox Eastern Church, the spirit of Wagner chief Evgeny Prigozhin now ought to have embarked in heaven or hell. The religion believes it takes 40 days after death for souls to reach their final destination, a threshold that the once hotdog seller reached on 1 October.

Dozens of everyday Russians and fighters gathered in Moscow and several other Russian cities to mark the occasion, amid notable silence from officials and state media. Prigozhin, who died in a plane explosion weeks after having led the biggest mutiny Russian president Vladimir Putin has faced in his 22-year rule, is thought to be buried at Porokhovskoye cemetery in St-Petersburg.

No orthodox Saint

It would be mistaken to believe that the mercenary boss was a strictly abiding orthodox during his life, however. Aside from a track record that would have questioned most claims to piousness, Prigozhin and his troops largely practiced Slavic neo-paganism, or Rodnovery, an ideology closely linked to nationalist sentiments within the Russian military, especially special forces and security forces.

Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church were quick to shed doubt on the mercenaries’ faith following the failed mutiny on 23 June, when heavily armed Wagner troops in Ukraine advanced north toward Moscow, capturing the town Rostov and even nearing a Russian nuclear base.

Patriarch Kirill’s vicar, Bishop Euthymius, hinted in his sermon that Prigozhin and his mercenaries served pagan idols, and thus Satan himself. Following Prigozhin’s secret funeral, attention was also drawn to the cross symbol erected on his stone, which bears closer resemblance to the pagan and Old Believer crosses endowed with roofs, golubets, than a traditional Orthodox tomb cross.

Golubets crosses lay side by side in an Old Believer cemetery in Kem, now Karalia, 1899. Arkhangelsk Governorate / Public domain

Rodnovery

From the Russian Rodnaya vera (“Родная вера”), “Native faith”, Rodnovery emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Russian nationalists thrived amid Soviet nostalgia and mounting interest in Russian and ancient history. The movement also fed off mass esotericism of the 1990s, as the void left by the communist project gave rise to alternative political practices such as predictions, divination and channeling.

Most Rodnovers believe Slavs originated from the ancient “Aryans” (or “Hyperboreans”, the inhabitants of the ancient northern civilisation), deriving a special civilising mission toward the rest of the world. According to various estimates, there are several hundred to several thousand neo-pagans in every major city in Russia (up to 100,000 throughout Russia).

Mercenaries look up to myriad gods. For example, Russian martial arts club, from which fighters are often recruited to be sent to special units, have been reported to carry out rituals at Rodonoveran temples by Kaluga, North West of Moscow, in honour of the Slavic thunder god Perun, and some mercenaries have described themselves as “warriors of Perun”. But Wagner PMC also looks beyond the confines of Slavic neo-paganism to incorporate Scandinavian and Germanic gods.

The Scandinavian god Wotan - also known as Odin - is often invoked. Then there is the Germanic thunder god Thor, in many ways Perun’s Germanic equivalent, whose legendary hammer Mjelnir can be found adorning the bodies of fighters in the form of tattoos and medallions.

Execution rituals

It is possible to read Wagnerians’ partiality toward sledgehammers to torture and kill enemies as another reference to Thor’s Mjelnir. Footage shows the fighters already wielding the tool in the Syrian war, with at least one 2017 video showing soldiers crushing a man’s hand. In November 2022, another video of a man being executed by a sledgehammer blow to the head after having switched sides in the Ukraine war also surfaced. Later that month, Evgeny Prigozhin expressed his disapproval of EU legislators’ decision to place Wagner PMC on the bloc’s terrorist list by sending a sledgehammer smeared with flake blood to the European Parliament. The Wagner chief is on record acknowledging the tool as a symbol of the god Thor.

A picture of Wagner contractors allegedly posing with a sledgehammer in Kherson Oblast, June 2022. Wagner Group Telegram Channel/X @GuinieZoo_Intel

Runes

Other neo-pagan symbols favoured by the mercenaries include the kolovrat, a solar swastika, which also appears in the fighters’ tattoos and medallions. Moreover, runes, letters of ancient Germanic pre-Christian writing that are attributed special mystical properties, have been spotted on military vehicles, uniforms and tattoos. Particularly common is the Tiwaz (Týr) rune, an ancient pagan sign symbolizing military leadership. Favoured by the Nazi regime, it became popular among supporters of white supremacy, especially in militaristic groups.

The Othala rune symbolizes legacy, heritage and inherited property and is popular among supporters of white supremacy. In Libya, the mercenaries of the PMC Wagner placed this rune on military equipment.

In the Central African Republic, “Wagnerians” used the “STD” runic inscription, consisting of Sigrún, Tiwaz, and Thurisaz runes, on their chevrons. In Slavic neo-paganism, this inscription is interpreted as “Warriors bring good and peace by their force” or “Bringing light with their force”.

The influence of Prigozhin’s right-hand man

Neo-Paganism owes much of its popularity within PMC Wagner to the group’s alleged co-founder and Prigozhin’s right-hand man, Dmitry Utkin (call sign “Wagner”), who died in the plane crash alongside his boss. According to one of the PMC commanders:

“Wagner is a tough man in general, not a flabby fellow. He came to the positions near Palmyra, undressed, he has a German swastika on his arm [on his shoulder], a tattoo. His helmet has horns. He is a Rodnover. To become a company commander, it is desirable to be a Rodnover”

Former combattant from the paramilitary company, Marat Gabidullin, even recounts that Utkin created an “ideological department” in 2019 in PMC Wagner to “popularise” neo-paganism among his subordinates.

Nazi undertones

The Wagnerianes’ penchant for neo-paganism is further echoed in the Russian security services. According to military sources, neo-paganism accounts for half of the personnel in some elite units of the Russian security services.

Neo-pagan mercenaries’ veneration of heroes, cult of strength and courage as well as frequent use of runes often lead them to stray toward neo-nazism. In 2021, a picture surfaced of a bare-chested Dmitry Utkin, revealing tattoos of Nazi collar tabs with Waffen SS bolts and military rank. Other Wagner heads have been captured giving the Nazi salute.

In addition, the nationalists who merged into neo-paganism introduced the ideas of superiority and anti-Semitism (Victor Shnirelman writes about this in detail, for example, in his book “Russian Rodnovery. Neo-paganism and nationalism in modern Russia”), the idea of protecting the homeland and their loved ones from the “machinations of the West”.

In the case of PMC Wagner and similar militarized groups, Rodnovery often turns out to be a religious component of the phenomenon which Russian sociologist Nikolai Mitrokhin has dubbed “Russian militarism” or “militarized Russian nationalism” - the Russian military’s nationalism.

According to him:

“At the heart of this nationalism is an ideology particular to the special-purpose units in the Soviet army (special forces, marines, border guards, etc.), which explains why these guys, mostly from the provinces, with big fists, who were drawn not into gangs, but into sports sections of fist fighting or wrestling, and then sent to these special forces, why they have to work harder than ordinary soldiers, to be ready at any moment to die for the state”.

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