Sunday, 18 July 2021

An Interview with Dr Jefferson F. Calico

This week’s interview is with Dr Jefferson F. Calico, an associate professor at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky. Dr Calico completed his PhD research at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky in 2013, for which he conducted fieldwork among American practitioners of Heathenry, a modern Pagan religion whose adherents seek to reconstruct the pre-Christian traditions of Europe’s linguistically Germanic communities. This research provided the data for his subsequent book, Being Viking: Heathenism in Contemporary America (Equinox, 2018), which is one of two important works on American Heathenry that have appeared over the past decade, the other being American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement (Temple University Press, 2015) by Dr Jennifer Snook, who was previously interviewed here back in March. In this interview, Dr Calico discusses how he first came to be interested in Heathenry, his experiences conducting ethnographic research, and the impact of growing ideological polarisation on the U.S. Heathen community.

[EDW] For readers who may not be familiar with the topic, could you give us an idea as to what the modern Pagan religion of Heathenry is?

[JFC] Heathenry is a new religious movement/milieu that looks to ancient Norse and Germanic cultures for inspiration in creating contemporary approaches to life, spirituality, and the world.

From a historical perspective, the “modern Pagan religion of Heathenry” can be traced back to a particular set of people and religious awakenings in the early 1970s. I look at this historical process in chapter one of Being Viking:

For these early adherents, the religious entrepreneurs of Asatru, the Norse heritage, history, customs, and stories suddenly and powerfully took on more than historical and cultural significance. They awakened to a new life-way, a paradigm that could transform life, a roadmap for the creation of a new culture. The Christian age was over. The time had come for the old gods to reassert themselves amongst their human kin in the reconstruction of an ancient religio-cultural community. (Being Viking, 58)

Ideologically, Heathen and Heathenry or Heathenism are umbrella terms covering a diverse array of more specific approaches. That diversity encompasses differences in orientation along political/social lines (this spectrum is the one of which most observers are aware), but also differences in theological, cultural, ethical, and aesthetic opinions and approaches. For American Heathenry, I think that my book Being Viking and Jennifer Snook’s book American Heathens both describe some of that diversity among Heathens.

What makes it Heathen—rather than historical re-enactment or Vikings fandom for instance—is a shared spiritual core. This includes texts (the Lore), Gods, ancestors, nature spirits often called “land vaettir” (because Heathen LOVE to use words derived from Old Norse and other Germanic languages. Really, a Heathen gathering isn’t complete if someone doesn’t drop some Old Norse or Anglo-Saxon), concepts, runes, time, and rituals—derived from the pre-Christian cultures of northern Europe.

As I said to a writer from “How Stuff Works” [] Heathens look at these pre-Christian traditions of the past as repositories of ancient sacred wisdom and lifestyles that connected humans and their communities to the cosmos and to each other in ways that are holy and sacred. For Heathens, reconnecting to these spiritual resources—the ancient wisdom, beings, and forces—is a return to a fully human life – living “tru.” The old ways (Forn Sed or forn siðr) established relational networks to these resources and beings that nourished human life and produced thriving. In Being Viking, I devote chapter four, “Spears and Shieldwalls,” to a discussion of this Heathen concept of life. Rather than the “coming home” idea that been used to describe Pagan conversion, I would use “re-connecting” to talk about how Heathens relate to their religious system.

[EDW] Where did your interest in Heathenry come from and what led you to pursue your doctoral research on this new religious movement? Did you have a longstanding research interest in new and alternative religions?

[JFC] I can look back into my personal history and see how many moments played into my craft and practice. I have been interested in religion and culture for as long as I can remember and was encouraged to explore these aspects of life through reading, experiences, and friendships. Living in an Inupiaq community in northern Alaska opened my eyes to the importance of culture as a human phenomenon. Stepping into a classroom for the first time to teach world religions came to be a challenging and deeply creative experience for me.

Many of us have experienced paradigm shifting moments during our educational journeys— those moments of discovery that unfold for us along new and unexpected paths. These moments arise from all sorts of stimuli—disciplined reading, insights from our teachers, and from seemingly random “aha” moments, to name a few. In my own journey, one of those moments came for me in reading Carole Cusack’s Invented Religions (Routledge, 2010; [EDW: Professor Cusack was interviewed here back in 2014]). The cumulative effect of that book rescued me from a previously dismissive attitude about new religious movements and opened a new world of scholarly interest. I had entered my PhD program initially intending to pursue research on Islam. However, a conversation with my supervisor—strangely enough about the 1994 Olympics hosted by Norway—caused me to re-evaluate and drew my attention to the growing presence and influence of Paganism in the contemporary world. As I discuss in the introduction to Being Viking, an offhand question in a graduate seminar stirred my initial curiosity about Heathenry and led to it becoming a major interest. A chance conversation with a friend, Dr Thad Horrell, while walking to an American Academy of Religion (AAR) venue in San Diego led to a new line of inquiry and research that helped me to better understand the tributaries of American Heathenry. Rather than one over-riding passion, my interests and work have been nudged along by these sorts of important and transformative experiences.

[EDW] The study of modern Paganism (including the study of Heathenry) has tended to be dominated by practicing Pagans, but – if I understand correctly – you are not coming at Heathenry from a practitioner perspective. How do you feel that this status as an ‘outsider’ impacted your reception when conducting participant-observation with Heathen groups, and has it impacted your interactions with other scholars of Paganism?

[JFC] Look, field work is difficult. It raises all sorts of challenges. When engaged in field work, all of us who are doing anthropology and ethnography bring aspects of identity, personal history, and value/ideology differences that must be negotiated with our host communities and within ourselves. As a guest in people’s homes and religious events, researchers are being invited into sacred and intimate settings, so respect and trust is essential. I quickly found that methodology has ethical implications and in this regard Jone Salomonsen’s work on methodology was influential for my approach. The relationship with a host community and different individuals therein is a process, an ongoing effort to analyze, evaluate, and respond.  I do not think it is categorically different for “insiders” except that the issues and dilemmas themselves may vary. And the stakes are potentially higher for those who are devotionally committed to the religions they study. Insiders also experience a range of responses from their communities and face challenges in negotiating their presence and their relationships. I think—for some insiders—the relationship with their religious community is forever changed for better or worse by their research experience. I do want to push back against a dichotomizing assumption that “outsider” and “insider” are clearly definable terms. Both insiders and outsiders can and do take both emic and etic perspectives during the research process. The methodologies we employ for field work should weave us through both of these perspectives, thereby complicating the outsider/insider perspective. That said, the goal for both insiders and outsiders is always good research.

But yes as an outsider certain difficulties presented themselves from the outset. When I was attempting my first field experience with a Heathen group, my positionality (i.e., the institution with which I was affiliated for my PhD work) was an immediate red flag to my hosts. This was no surprise to any of us. There were good reasons for their hesitancy. Any religious group—and particularly Pagans who have experienced religious persecution from hegemonic religions—want to protect the integrity of their events, avoid persecution and exploitation. From my perspective, this was a challenge that I was committed to working through. And to their immense credit, the group did not simply cut me off. They were willing to enter into a discussion and negotiation that resulted in the leadership of that group getting to know me and granting permission to attend their religious event as a researcher. Several of those leaders went on to become friends and collaborators and are people whom I greatly respect. As I moved among Heathen religious communities and groups during field work, similar vetting processes took place repeatedly. From my perspective, the onus is on the researcher to establish and maintain working relationships. There are always people who are going to be suspicious and even hostile, and some people with whom work is not possible—but that’s okay. For the most part, I found that Heathen people were careful but hospitable and willing to take a risk with a stranger as long as trust can be established. I am grateful for the many Heathens who spoke with me about their religion and shared their thoughts and experiences.

Regarding the scholarly community, I feel strongly that we should avoid tribalizing our fields of study along lines of religious affiliation. As scholars who want to understand the world more fully, insularity is not a positive trait. Positionality is important and we need to be serious about how it impacts our work. However, it should not be a barrier to scholarly inquiry or participation in scholarly community. Any field of study benefits from participants from a variety of perspectives. Are there limits to scholarly inclusivity? Of course, some positionalities do create conflicts of interest. Work that promotes anti-social, racial, and religious persecution is to be shunned. But generally speaking, scholarly communities should strive to be generous in whom they include as constructive participants. 

[EDW] Have you observed changes in the American (or international) Heathen community since you started your research on the topic in 2010? Obviously, there has been growing ideological polarisation within U.S. society during the last decade; has this had a significant impact on Heathenry?

[JFC] The ideological polarization has dramatically affected Heathenry in the American context. We have observed a hardening of folkish positions* as well as the emergence of anti-racist and inclusive Heathen identities – these aren’t new by any means, but have attained a new degree of prominence. I think that the older generations of Heathens, even those who were anti-racist, were more likely to hold a “live-and-let-live” perspective. These early generations of Heathens were part of building the religion with few adherents, little infrastructure, and resource scarcity. This situation impacted their understanding of community. However, due to incidents of racial violence, change in the American culture, and growth of the Heathen community, ideological positions within Heathenry have also become more pronounced and Heathens are more willing to draw hard and fast ideological lines such as Declaration 127 ( I see Heathenry experiencing a couple of “reformations” – an earlier one that sought to weed out Christian influence in Heathen culture and lore, and a current one that directly confronts the legacy of racism and neo-Nazi ideology. As an example, consider the new edition of The Troth’s tome Our Troth ( which contains a new chapter dealing with the influence of Völkisch and Nazi tributaries on the development of contemporary Heathenry.  

The importance of the internet has only increased in the last decade. Heathenry has seen the emergence of more extra-organizational voices—influencers with their own social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Patreon. And on the far-right of Heathenry, ideologues have shifted toward alternative social media like Gab and VK as they have been de-platformed from mainstream social media sites. That is an important structural change. And these voices are often exploring new ways of being Heathen. Both ideological sides of Heathenry have seen the growth of new forms of (online) community that are not primarily religious in nature. More than just getting people together to do a ritual, Heathens are increasingly exploring cultural and lifestyle issues and thinking about how these work out in the contemporary world.

[* = EDW: Folkish Heathenry is a wing of the religion that generally argues that Heathen practice should be restricted to members of a putative Northern European/Germanic/Nordic racial group. Typically, it is characterised as being politically right-wing to far-right.]

[EDW] What has the response to your thesis and book been like? How have Heathens themselves responded to the work, and what was the response at the primarily Christian environment where you conducted your doctoral research (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)?

[JFC] It has been rewarding to find Being Viking showing up in bibliographies, presentations at the AAR, and being used constructively in the research of other scholars. I hope it will continue to be a springboard for further work. And I hope it contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of Heathenry as much more than a hot mess of far-right racism. I think my book has a lot to say for those who will take some time with it.

I chose to pursue my PhD in World Religions where I did for a variety of reasons.  One of the benefits of that program was being able to work very closely with my supervisor, Dr James D. Chancellor. He was an impressive and inspiring ethnographer and researcher, and a great teacher, who wrote an important work on the new religious movement known as the Children of God, or The Family (Life in the Family: An Oral History of the Children of God, Syracuse, 2000).

Generally speaking, those of us who are researching and writing about Paganism and/or other socially controversial religious communities—and especially those of us who do intensive fieldwork with those groups—find ourselves potentially misunderstood by both our host and home communities. This experience of mistrust is an old story for all sorts of cross-cultural people. As Mary Douglas elucidated, doubts and suspicions about purity are frequently raised against boundary-crossers. Again, it is something that I find myself continually negotiating.

While the research for Being Viking began during my dissertation, it grew and expanded as I moved on from that degree program. So Being Viking is not a revision of my dissertation. It was a significantly different work. It reflects my own growth as a researcher and my continued interaction with the Heathen community. The book was guided by a completely different set of advisers and editors. Again, I can’t speak too highly of my editors Chas Clifton, author of Her Hidden Children (Rowman and Littlefield, 2006) [EDW: interviewed here back in 2012], and Scott Simpson, co-editor of Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe (Routledge, 2013), and the team at Equinox Publishing. They all made significant contributions to my life as a scholar. 

[EDW] What do you see as the areas of Heathenry that really require further academic research?

[JFC] How is Heathenry contributing to the re-emergence of polytheism in the West? And what is this polytheism like? How might it be like and unlike the polytheism of the ancient past and the polytheistic continuity of other world religions?

I am especially interested in how Heathenry changes the daily life and practices of people in the real world. How does Heathen practice and ritual create new networks—religious, social, economic—that build more sustainable ways of life? Scholars such as Barbara Davies and Rune Hjarnø Rasmussen are exploring these areas in their work.

As Heathen culture continues to change, scholars like Jennifer Snook are helping us to see into the diversity of the Heathen world, looking at how Heathenry manifests in different political spheres and flows into other subcultures. More work could be done on the permutations of Heathen identity.

We need to learn more about the influence of the internet on Heathenry. Scholars such as Ross Downing have just begun to explore the complex forms that Heathenry is taking online.  

Stephanie Schnurbein and other scholars have done a lot of work in uncovering and explicating the völkisch and Traditionalist tributaries to the contemporary confluence of far-right racism and violence. There is still work to be done in understanding this.

[EDW] Are you continuing to pursue research into Heathenry or are you switching focus to other topics? Have you any forthcoming projects that we should be keeping an eye out for?

[JFC] My ongoing research into Heathenry looks at how certain groups have propagated a white supremacist and nationalist agenda in recent years. In this vein, my chapter “Performing ‘American Völkisch’” is included in the recently published book Paganism and Its Discontents: Enduring Problems of Racialized Identity (Holli S. Emore, Jonathan M. Leader, editors, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020). I am also presenting work at the American Academy of Religion along these lines. At the 2020 AAR I presented to the New Religious Movements Unit on “White Nationalism and the Performance of Religion in Heathenism” which looked at Heathen internet memes and racist radicalization. For the upcoming 2021 AAR, I along with other scholars of Heathenry will be presenting to the Pagan Studies and the Religion and Ecology units on the impact of blood and soil ideology in Heathenry. Over the years, the AAR has played an important role in my research process and scholarly life.  I have valued and benefited from the hospitality of the Pagan Studies group and the New Religious Movements group as spaces to present research and to refine my work.

In addition to Heathenry, since moving to the Appalachian region, I have a growing interest in Appalachian religion. I am hoping to pull together a project on Paganism in Appalachia in the near future.

[EDW] Thank you very much for this additional insight into your work, Dr Calico, and I look forward to your future research on the Pagans of Appalachia!

Thursday, 15 July 2021

An Interview with Dr Kaarina Aitamurto

Today, I have an interview with Dr Kaarina Aitamurto, the head of training at the Aleksanteri Institute, which is the Finnish Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Helsinki. Dr Aitamurto is a specialist in the study of religion in Russia, with her current work exploring the role of Muslim migrant minorities living in that country. Her previous research project, which resulted in her PhD thesis, delved into the Rodnoverie, or ‘Native Faith’ movement in Russia, a form of modern Paganism that seeks to recreate the religious system adhered to by pre-Christian Russians. On that subject she is the author of Paganism, Traditionalism, Nationalism: Narratives of Russian Rodnoverie (Routledge, 2016) and, with Scott Simpson, also co-edited the important Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe (Acumen, 2013), both of which should really be required reading for anyone studying modern Pagan religion. We talk about these research projects and how modern Paganism first attracted her interest.

[EDW] Your main research has been on the Russian religion of Rodnoverie, or ‘Native Faith.’ For readers unfamiliar with this tradition, could you give us a brief overview of what it is?

[KA] The term Rodnoverie comes from the Russian words rodnaya vera (“native faith”) and refers to a religion that is based on pre-Christian Slavic spirituality. The question about the terminology is actually quite complex and there seems to be a recent tendency to define Rodnoverie more narrowly as a distinct form of Paganism that does not even include all groupings that subscribe to the Slavic tradition in Russia.

While the origin of the movement is still debatable, there were groupings and authors who had begun to explore Paganism by the 1980s and which were able to become public after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are many versions of modern Slavic native faith and continuous debates are conducted on who has the right to call themselves a representative of this tradition. Despite the differences, some common features can still be found. The ritual calendar is based on folkloric tradition with such celebrations as the midsummer festival, Kupala, and the winter solstice, Kolyada. In addition, some main deities, such as Perun, Veles and Mokosh, have their own days of celebration. The festivals usually take place in nature, in front of deity statues and around fire. The festivals are usually organised by the communities or umbrella-communities, of which there are a couple. Naturally, there are also solitary practitioners who do not participate in the communal festivals.

As in many other Pagan religions, there are debates both about what we can know about the pre-Christian tradition and how faithfully it should be followed today. Though the pictures from the festivals of Rodnoverie communities often resemble each other, the ritual practices – like the theology – are continuously developing and negotiated. An interesting feature (that I actually noticed only after starting to study Islam in Russia) is the central role of literature and reading in Rodnoverie. Although it is a relatively small movement,* there is much literature published on the topic. This is perhaps not so surprising, because some studies suggest that people with higher education and students are overrepresented among Russia’s Pagan community. The majority of Rodnovers also live in cities and scholars of the topic agree that there are more men than women in the movement.

*= there are no exact numbers but the estimations I have recently encountered usually suggest at least two hundred thousand people.

[EDW] Did you have a pre-existing interest in modern Paganism prior to embarking on your research with Russian Rodnover communities in 2004? What was it that sparked your interest in the topic and led you to conduct PhD research on it?

[KA] Back in the late 1990s, when I was thinking about a topic for my masters’ thesis, I found a newspaper article about Wicca, which it described as a feminist women’s religion. This intrigued me and I eventually based my thesis work on interviews with Finnish Wiccans. I became so fascinated with the topic that I decided to continue studying it in my doctoral thesis, although this time in Russia. The country was somewhat familiar to me, and I had already learned the Russian language at school. I was aware that there were Wiccans in Russia but there were hardly any references or publications on the topic.

I started my research through esoteric bookstores and stalls as well as inquiring if my Russian colleagues knew any Wiccan groups in Russia. Every way I turned there were hardly any signs of Wicca and questions about the topic usually led to ethnic Slavic Paganism. To be honest, I was initially a bit reluctant to change the topic of my research because it was the feminist aspect of Wicca that had appealed to me. In contrast, contemporary Slavic Paganism seemed emphatically patriarchal and conservative. Moreover, infrequently it was linked to intolerant nationalism. In many respects, this ethnic Paganism with its emphasis on warrior spirit and admiration of masculinity seemed to represent an opposite to the kind of feminist spirituality that had originally drawn me to Paganism.  However, gradually I became captivated by Slavic Paganism. First, I have always loved Russian culture and folklore so, of course, being able to gain a new perspective on it was fascinating. Secondly, it was intriguing to notice that Rodnoverie contained many similar features to the forms of Paganism I had encountered previously and which had initially drawn me to it: the emphasis on independent thinking and individual freedom, a connection to nature, the central role of aesthetics and play in religious practice.

[EDW] In your book, you describe encounters with Rodnovers who adhere to far-right political ideologies, a topic that you have written about elsewhere, as in your chapter for the recent Oxford Research Encyclopedias: Religion. Barring a few exceptions (most notably Mattias Gardell), such ideologies have tended to be avoided by a great deal of scholarly research on modern Paganism, at least in Western Europe and North America, but how significant do you think that they are for our understanding of modern Paganism as a global phenomenon?

[KA] While far-right and racist Pagans probably form a minority, and in some countries just a small fraction, of the Pagan scene, omitting these kinds of groups from the analysis of the global phenomenon would lead to both a biased portrayal and a partial understanding of it. The reasons why topics such as racism and nationalism are understudied in Western studies of Paganism are of course understandable. People often prefer to study things that they find fascinating and which they want others to know about too. This was indeed also my motive in choosing Wicca as the topic of my master’s thesis. Another probable reason is that there are still many prejudices regarding modern Paganism and that therefore many scholars feel it is their responsibility to evaporate rather than increase these. Having said that, the situation was almost the opposite in the Russian study of Paganism, especially in the 2000s; there, the majority of studies focused solely on ultra-nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism in Slavic Paganism. Admittedly, addressing these topics is important, especially considering what a huge problem racism is in Russian society. However, some studies also seemed to set out to demonstrate that there is not and cannot be reconstructionist Paganism without nationalist exclusions.

This kind of approach is anchored to the common misconception of religions as something that can be demarcated and revealed in some “pure” or “original” form. In reality, religions evolve, change and have countless interpretations. Christianity, for instance, can motivate both Crusades against “infidels” but also selfless acts of compassion. In a similar vein, Paganism can be understood and presented in several, even conflicting ways. In general, the attempts to find borders around particular religions often limit our understandings of them and exclude some aspect. A prominent example of this are the claims that some unpleasant phenomena are just misuse of religion for political purposes. I understand the desire to vindicate religions and their innocent adherents, but such an approach seems intellectually dishonest. It is true that some far-right groups use Pagan symbols and rhetoric very superficially, but none the less that is one of the manifestations of Paganism in our times. An interesting question is why one religious tradition, or the idea of it, gets translated differently in different contexts and by different actors.

[EDW] What has the response to your work been, both from Russian Rodnovers and other Pagans themselves, and from academics working on these subjects?

[KA] To be honest, I think I have been in a privileged situation because, as I mentioned before, so much of the early research on Russian Paganism took such a negative attitude toward it. Therefore, I have got the impression that many have valued my research as more neutral or objective. Of course, I have also received feedback regarding some mistakes or what someone has considered as misinterpretation, and I have valued this too.

In recent decades, the study of Paganism has diversified much and there are interesting studies on such varied topics as Pagan food culture or biographies of certain central thinkers. Although I am not very active in studying Paganism in Russia anymore, I have kept in contact with some of my colleagues and friends in that field. The situation in the study of minority and especially newer religions in Russia is quite delicate at the moment. For example, some prominent scholars have lost their jobs after publicly opposing the labelling of certain religions or groups as extremists (a label which, in Russia, results in them being banned). Despite this pressure, I greatly admire my Russian colleagues who have continued to write balanced analyses of contemporary Paganism. 

[EDW] With Scott Simpson, you also put together an important edited volume on Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, which came out in 2013. How did this project come about and where do you think the study of modern Paganism in Central and Eastern Europe stands at the moment? Do you think that there is sufficient interaction between those working on Pagan religion in these regions and those working on it in Western Europe and North America?

[KA] The idea for that book came from James R. Lewis and when I started to look for possible contributors, I met Scott Simpson online. Back then, there were usually one or two scholars of Paganism in Central and East European countries and it was wonderful to be a part of the process when the networks between scholars began to emerge. In ten years, the study of Paganism in Central and Eastern Europe has advanced in “leaps and bounds”. There are more scholars and active networks. The basic idea of our book was to outline the history and the current situation of Paganisms in different countries. However, now this field of inquiry has moved on from just offering descriptions of different geographical areas into focusing on different aspects of Paganism and using different case studies to participate in larger debates, whether it is, for example, politics and Paganism or the debates about indigenous traditions. There is also much more contact and dialogue between Eastern European and Anglophone scholars of the topic, although of course there could always be more international collaboration.

[EDW] Have you explored much of the Pagan scene in Finland? What does that look like?

[KA] I have not actively followed the Finnish Pagan community since the 1990s. I thus have a very partial knowledge of it and am hesitant to say anything general. In the 1990s, Wicca had a very central role in the emergence of the new Pagan networks in Finland. Back then, some of the main discussions addressed such issues as the division between eclectic and traditional Wicca or whether philosophical Satanism can be counted as a part of Paganism. Reconstructionist groups drawing on local traditions were rather few and for many the idea of ethnic Finnish Paganism was associated with certain earlier, marginal far-right groupings. Since the early 2000s, the interest in pre-Christian traditions in Finland has grown. In 2014, the first modern Pagan group to successfully gain formal registration as a religious organization was Karhun Kansa (the People of the Bear), which follows the Finnish pre-Christian tradition.

[EDW] Your work has since moved on to look at the presence of Islam in Russia. How is that progressing and what outputs can we expect? Do you see interesting parallels, or very distinct differences, between the place of Islam and Rodnoverie in contemporary Russia?

[KA] My study of Islam in Russia has turned into more of a mosaic or quilt patch than a coherent research project. When I started to work on this topic I focused on the “obvious” cases of Islamic organizations and mosques. However, it soon turned out that Islam as a lived religion cannot be captured by interviewing the muftis of established organizations and reading the literature, published by the Muftiates or publishing houses, which are connected to them. This is of course the case regarding virtually all religions, but I would argue that this is especially pertinent regarding the Muslim community in Russia. In line with the political authoritarianization, there is a pressure to channel all Islamic religiosity to the hierarchical, state sanctioned Muftiates. At the same time, migration has rapidly diversified the Muslim community in big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Even though many local Muftiates make efforts to reach the new migrant community, they still often seem to represent a completely different world and are occasionally criticised for not always understanding the life or even the religious traditions of the migrants.

Although I had conducted some interviews with the representatives of migrant Muslim religious communities, I realised that I had very little understanding of how Islam configures in the everyday life of Muslims. Therefore, I was very happy to be invited to take part in the project “Migration, Shadow Economy and Parallel Legal Orders in Russia” that was conducted between 2016 and 2019. Religion was not the focus of the project, but in our interviews with Central Asian migrants living in Moscow we also included questions about religiosity. I am definitely not an expert on Islam among Central Asian migrants in Russia, but this fieldwork offered me a new perspective on Islamic religiosity in the European part of the country. I am at the moment in the process of writing an article on the basis of my fieldwork, but I think that in future, I will focus more on the publicly available material on Islam while also using the insights I have gained. A fascinating topic is, for example, how the established Muftiates and mosques seek to integrate migrants into their community and how they perceive them.

The reason why I have decided to relinquish or at least minimise the role of fieldwork and interviews is the precarious situation of Islamic actors or Muslims in general, especially of migrant background, in contemporary Russia. For example, although in our interviews in Moscow we asked about such sensitive topics as corruption and harassment by the police, often the questions that scared the respondents most were whether they attended mosques often and whether religious networks provided them support in their everyday life. This can be explained by the fact that under the auspices of its anti-terrorist policies the government has implemented ruthless repression of religious activists. However, I had already noticed that even some Russian representatives of the established organizations preferred to repeat the official rhetoric about the respected position of Islam in Russia rather than address certain challenges faced by the community. Therefore, I concluded that the ethical challenges of ensuring that no harm or discomfort would be caused to the people who are being studied might prove too demanding. Getting proper access to migrant communities is not impossible for an outsider and I have some brilliant Russian colleagues who have produced fascinating ethnographic studies among these groups in recent years. However, that would require much time on site and unfortunately, I do not have the opportunity for that at the moment.

In many respect, Islam and contemporary Paganism are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Paganism is connected to Russian nationalism and in this way to the “majority,” while Islam is increasingly often the target of nationalist rhetoric and Muslims are associated with negative portrayals of migrants. At the same time, Islam is one of the four so-called “traditional religions” in Russia, the representatives of which regularly appear in stately events and have meetings with the President, while Paganism can be argued to belong to the group of new religious movements, which are still often labelled sects. In their own ways, both religions are thus infrequently associated with social problems and consequently are in a precarious position. The similarities and differences in the challenges these two religions face and the way they respond to them certainly seem to beg for a closer look. In fact, just before the Coronavirus pandemic I participated in a conference panel in which we analysed the use of expertise in those cases where religious minorities like Muslims and Pagans have been persecuted for extremism. The misuse of anti-extremist laws is a very topical issue in Russia and I would like to address that in future too.

[EDW] Dr Aitamurto, thank you so much for this fascinating insight into your work. I wish you the very best in your future research.