Fedochenko’s The Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari is a film about the Meadow Mari – the ‘last authentic pagans in Europe’ – who live in the Mari El Republic of Russia. The film is made up of 23 short stories about 23 different ‘wives’ – although not all are married, marriage is the ultimate goal of those who are yet to find a husband.
Each of the wives’ names begins with the letter ‘O’ – a symbol of infinity and fertility. Indeed, sexuality is the unifying theme of the each story. The film combines elements of the supernatural, sexuality and the natural world to the extent that the three are inseparable in the film – one woman has sex with the wind, while another is cursed for having sex under a tree.
The film is shot beautifully: stunning scenes of Mari El give the natural landscape the magnificence it merits in a film about paganism. The film successfully heightens the sense of beauty to be found in the natural world through contrasting its peace and tranquillity with the harsh, grey urban landscapes.
However, what the film does most successfully is draw attention to the wide array of cultures and peoples that exist in the ‘multinational’ Russian Federation. It begs the question as to how many more cultures may exist in Russia today if it had adopted a less imperialist agenda in the past. At present, this issue is only growing in pertinence with the rise in ethnonationalism since the annexation of Crimea. The subtext of this ethnonationalism is that ethnic Russians are of greater importance in the Russian state than non-ethnic Russians.
It is impossible to quantify the loss of communities, cultures and peoples, past and future, due to Russification; however, it certainly poses an omnipresent threat for peoples like the Meadow Mari. Nonetheless, The Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari is a celebration of the diversity that can still be found within the borders of the Russian Federation, and a warning of what might be.