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In Search of Merjamaa. 4. Modern meryanness in art and culture


The research data include 11 articles about art exhibitions organised by the activists of the neo-Meryan movement (see Appendix 2). As a form of voluntary activity, Meryan art projects bring together different sectors of society. First, art projects may be carried out by clubs when the question is about volunteering in a traditional sense. Second, professional artists may organise these projects without pay. In this case, the question is about serious leisure in which significant personal effort is based on specially acquired knowledge, training or skill (Stebbins 1992, p. 6). Namely, professional artists volunteer for the Meryan movement, and Meryanness offers them a source of inspiration.

An essential artistic vision or an idea which unites the core members of the neo-Meryan movement is ethno-futurism. In the neo-Meryan movement ethno-futurism manifests itself in art exhibitions. Art exhibitions constitute an important means of introducing the Meryan movement as well as ethno-futurism to the general public. For example, in December 2018 two neo-Meryan activists organized an art exhibition called `A Meryan`s Measurement´ in Saint Petersburg. During the exhibition one of them described ethno-futurism as ”an universal instrument in preserving our people`s culture under the living conditions of the global world”. Thus, ethno-futurism offers a strong foundation for self-knowledge. (Merjamaa 2 January 2018.)

Art exhibitions also serve as a way of combining theory and practice. For example, in May 2014 a neo-Meryan activist presented an art exhibition as a part of `The Night of the Museums´, an event which was organised at the Art Museum of Ivanovo Oblast. The aim of the exhibition was ”to understand the sacral symbolics of the Upper Volga region which stems from the Meryan people, well known from chronicles and annals”. (Merjamaa 19 May 2014.) The sacral symbolics of the Meryan people have to do with the cultural archetypes which play an important role in ethno-futurism.

According to E. M. Kolcheva, a cultural archetype is ”an effective analytical toolkit of ethnicnational art, reflecting ethnic-cultural processes in itself”. To a great extent, an archetype consists of completed, representative cultural forms and symbols which have taken shape in the course of history. In national art an ethnic-cultural archetype primarily maintains the fundamental elements. Therefore, cultural archetypes expose their content in an iconic, illustrative way. Along Kolcheva, archetypes can be actualized by incorporating them into new historical realities. (Kolcheva 2015, p. 254).

The aim of incorporating archetypes into new realities was visible in the art exhibition `Lege artis´ which was opened at the art museum of Cherepovets in September 2018. At the exhibition archaeologs, designers and artists presented both ancient and modern jewelry worn by the inhabitants of The Upper Volga region. According to the article published in the Merjamaa portal, Lege artis offered ”a new format of communication with the archaeological collections – by means of art and the universal language of fashion”. (Merjamaa 23 September 2018.) The question is about cultural reproduction.


Art exhibitions have a close connection to the local studies activity of the neo-Meryan movement. Local studies serve as a means of collecting information about Meryan culture. 

Especially the content category `An introduction of a place or a region´ include articles about Central Russian local cultural features. These cultural features can be reproduced by means of modern art.

As a good example serves the project `International Vladimir´ which was carried out in The Vladimir Oblast Youth Library in 2015. As a part of the project, `The Week of Finno-Ugric Culture´ was organized in the end of September. `The Rarog´, a Vladimiryan club of historical reconstructions, took part in the theme week. The club is specialized in reconstructing Meryan and Muromean items of Early Middle Ages. At the event, the members of the club offered visitors an opportunity to see reconstructions of ancient clothing and jewelry. (Merjamaa 6 October 2015.)

Meryan art projects have a radical attitude towards the local or the indigenous. The established norms of cultural representation are criticized in an article published in the Merjamaa portal in June 2014. The article is founded on a previous article published in a scientific journal. In the article, a philosopher-culturologist presents his opinions on the absence of local cultural memory in ”the historical nucleus of Russia”. According to the philosopher, a paradoxal peculiarity in Russia is that the culture of a small town does not exist as a local entity. The situation in Russia is ”a passive reproduction of the Soviet situation”. Along the philosopher, the Soviet cultural project was founded on an idea of rationally organized culture, and even today, along the Soviet scheme, everything starts from the top. (Merjamaa 25 June 2014.)

The neo-Meryans` approach to local culture is opposed to the from top to bottom approach. Design projects aiming to create new brands to Central Russian towns and cities stand as a good example. The article published in the Merjamaa portal in February 2012, for instance, deals with ”an art project of designers who came freely together on Facebook”. According to the article, the art project ”gave birth to a whole bunch of logotypes of the brand and significance of the name Moscow”. A designer participating in the project pointed out that one has to find ”the nucleus” of the city when creating a symbol for it. For the designer, this nucleus had to do with ”a Meryan town”. (Merjamaa 15 February 2012.)

Similarily, the photographic art project `Yaroslavl´ in Yaroslavl presented ”the work, lifestyle, freetime, thought, and worldview of Meryan society and a Meryan individual”. According to an article about the project (Merjamaa 17 September 2013), the cultural comprehension of design and art focusing on an urban milieu is extremely important, and it does not only involve the planning of existing and future objects. It is also important to analyse those processes which have to do with the complex influence of an urban milieu in an individual living in its sociocultural sphere.

The article highlights the cultural comprehension of design and art. This comprehension of local or Meryan archetypes and symbols is the key issue in transferring Meryan heritage to the general public by means of art. The question is about transferring symbolic goods which, according to Pierre Bourdieu, are ”a two-faced reality, a commodity and a symbolic object” (Bourdieu 1984, p. 3).

According to Pierre Bourdieu, the field of production of symbolic goods owes its own structure to the opposition between the field of restricted production and the field of large scale cultural production. The field of restricted production is a system producing cultural goods for a public of producers whereas the field of large scale cultural production is for the production of cultural goods destined for the non-producers of these goods, ”the public at large”. (Bourdieu 1984, p. 4.)

The neo-Meryan movement, aiming to promote the Meryan issue, has to deal with these two fields. Like the article `The Cultral Archeology of the Meryan Myth´ points out, Meryan identity is about ”embedding ancient myths in the environment of modern culture”. The article leaves this task of ”reconstructing and manifesting” the Meryan myth to philosophers, local studies researchers, historians and artists. (Merjamaa 27 December 2011.) Their task is to turn signs back into symbols wtih a connection to the mythical beginning. On one hand this requires making the ancient Meryan culture comprehensible to the general public, but on the other hand a certain amount of insider knowledge is needed to understand ”the regional Meryan cultural logics” (ibid.) enabling a contact to the Meryan past. Here, festivals play an important role.


The research data include six articles dealing with festivals or performances (see Appendix 2). All these festivals and performances are founded on voluntary activity. Festivals serve as a way of recruiting volunteers. Thus, they can be attractor events designed to engage the attention and short-term involvement of larger number of volunteers (McCurley, Lynch, Jackson 2012, p. 126). For the neo-Meryan movement this is principally about arousing interest in the Meryan issue. Being founded on loosely structured activity with a heterogeneous group of activists, festivals offer a way of bringing together peer groups. The question is about brokered volunteer recruitment in which the recruitment efforts are boosted by connecting with other groups which provide volunteers for community efforts (ibid., p. 117). Thus, the example of these groups may inspire potential new volunteers.

Festivals serve as a way of gathering together social capital necessary for maintaining and developing the neo-Meryan movement. Social capital is about belonging to a group which is brought together by permanent and beneficial relationships (Bourdieu 1980, p. 2). However, an essential challenge for the movement is to present Meryan themes, in particular those with an ethnographic nature, to the general public in a meaningful and understandable way. The question is about representation. Festivals can be seen as living ethnographic museums. According to Henrietta Lidchi, ethnographic museums ”produce certain kinds of representations and mobilize distinct classificatory systems which are framed by anthropological theory and ethnographic research”. Thus, there is a conflation between the physical presence and the meaning of objects. (Lidchi 1997, pp. 161 – 162.)

Producing representations of Meryans requires creativeness. This is because Meryans were a Finno-Ugric people, and as a concept ”Finno-Ugric” is rather obscure. According to Ildikó Lehtinen, Finno-Ugrism lives as a vision, as an imaginary reality, because Finno-Ugric peoples have always lived in a multinational area. Therefore, Finno-Ugrism is a social representation which includes a community`s interpretations of the world. Therefore, representations interpret social memory. (ibid., p. 172.)

Along Lehtinen, language, collective memory, tradition and a story of a common origin are the essential criteria of national culture. Tradition is present in the postmodern world. However, tradition changes, and it requires perpetuity. (p. 175.) Also the neo-Meryan movement needs a way of keeping tradition alive. This is where festivals come to the picture. As an activity a festival lives and changes, and it is present in the action of postmodern time (ibid., p. 175).

The article `Bylinnyj Bereg. Young Merya´ (Merjamaa 5 August 2013) gives a good description of a festival as a postmodern way of transferring cultural traditions to the future generations. The article deals with the Bylinnyj Bereg 2013 festival organized in Kimr in July 2013. The question is about an international festival of Early Middle Ages historical reconstructions. The essential themes of the festival were the culture and tradition of the ancient Russian realm as well as the Finnic, Baltic, Slavic, and Scandinavian peoples of the 9 – 11 centuries. Around six hundred reconstruction makers participated in the festival. The festival program was characterized by entertainment and interactivity. The program of the festival included shows, reconstruction makers` presentations, artisans` master classes, popularised lectures on archaeology and a jousting performed by a reconstruction club (ibid.). It is to be noted that the strength of festivals lies in the possibility of interactivity and participation. Appealing to all senses, festivals, especially folklore festivals, constitute a noteworthy alternative to museums, because museums only appeal to the sense of sight (Lehtinen 2008, p. 176).

Festivals provide a representation of Meryanness, but more is needed to turn Meryanness into a believeable identity in today`s postmodern world. Ethnic identity is a dimension of symbolic capital, an observable form of being (Bourdieu 1998, p. 167). The potential Meryan identity has to be imitated, and here performances organized by neo-Meryan activists offer a potential solution.

In 12 June 2013 `Bratstvo Lesa´ (The Metsa Kunnta association) organized a performance in Tver as a tribute to the Day of Russia. The performance was organized in cooperation with the `Tverzha´ and the `Vyatichkij Les´ associations. According to the article `Ethno-futurism is Patriotism´ (Merjamaa 13 June 2013), “the creative youth” from Tver, Shatura, Kostroma, Kaluga and Rjazan participated in the performance in order to ”commemorate the ancient tribes which constituted the foundation of Russian state”. As a part of the performance nine spiritual masks were presented. They stood for the nine tribes of ancient Russia.The performance introduced spectators with nine ritual masks, standing for ancient Russian tribes. Masks play an important role in neo-Meryan performances and festivals. For example, the article `Meryan Ethno-Futurists from Moscow Were Reborn as Spirits in Latvia´ (Merjamaa 14 February 2013) deals with the participation of the Metsa Kunnta association in The International Festival of Traditional Masks in Latvia. This annual festival is organized by The Latvian Association of Folklorists, and it aims to popularize Eastern European traditional masks. During the festival, the members of the Metsa Kunnta association presented ”an interactive lecture and a video show about the theme `The Tradition of Ritual Masks in the Upper Volga Region´.

According to the lecture presented in the festival, each human being has a role in his or her life. However, this role presents only a part of the world. Everyone chooses a particular role, but no one can play several roles at the same time. Nevertheless, one would like to visit in an another person`s role, and by recognizing this transpersonality in himself or herself, one becomes deeper and richer and able to multiply his or her force. (ibid.)

As a concept, ´the mask´ chrystallises an essential feature of the neo-Meryan movement. Namely, `the mask´ can be seen as a symbol of representation. On one hand it can serve as a transpersonal gateway, enabling one to step from an identity to another. On the other hand, like a neo-Meryan activist`s comment to the research question shows, belonging to a certain social, national, professional, linguistic, political, religious or racial group is about wearing a mask while one`s true self remains unclear (Comment 25 April 2019). The neo-Meryan voluntary activity is largely about serious leisure for which ”self-actualization, selfenrichment, self-expression, recreation or renewal of self” are characteristic (Stebbins 1992, p. 7).

According to Pierre Bourdieu, the social world can be presented as a space constructed on the basis of principles of differentiation and distribution. Agents and groups of agents are defined by their relative positions within that space, and one can not occupy two opposite regions of it. Bourdieu points out that agents construct the social world by constructing its view. This happens through representation. Thus, agents constantly perform in order to impose their view of the world and of their own position in it. According to Bourdieu, this position is their identity. (Bourdieu 1985, p. 723 - 724, 727.)

Maintaining a Meryan identity requires constant representation. Neo-Meryan activity is, in accordance with Bourdieu`s vision, about constructing the social world by constructing its view. However, this does not solely involve art exhibitions and performances, but also a particular lifestyle in general. Here, an essential way of differentiation and distribution is volunteering for the Meryan cause.

To be continued http://www.merjamaa.ru/index/in_search_of_merjamaa_sharing_information/0-48

The contents http://www.merjamaa.ru/index/in_search_of_merjamaa_aapo_kihlanki/0-43


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