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Russia’s Zoroastrians

A Quest for Recognition

Tuesday 17 April 2007, by Maria ANTONOVA

White-robed men around a bonfire who leave their dead atop towers for birds of prey are not the sort of people you’d expect to meet in Moscow. [*]

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(© Enric Marti / AP)

Russia’s Zoroastrians have not been around for long, but they have big plans. The first is to change the image of their religion as a mysterious sect and become one of Russia’s several recognized confessions.

In 2005, an Iranian priest, Kamran Jamshidi, came to Moscow to induct six people into Zoroastrianism. A year later, a ceremony for one more person was performed in Minsk by Yury Lukashevich, whose Zoroastrian name is Jamshid. Lukashevich, who was inducted in 2001, is jokingly referred to as “the patriarch of Russian Zoroastrianism”.

«Although it was the traditional religion of ancient Persia, Zoroastrianism is a world religion», said Ivan Titkov, head of the Moscow Zoroastrian community, or Anjoman. «This is the position of priests in Anjoman Moghan Iran, a Zoroastrian organization of highest authority. Any person can become Zoroastrian if he wishes, and the community has to accept him.»

Ironically, the Zoroastrian community itself is sharply divided on the subject of new members. Indian Zoroastrians, who are descended from Persian Zoroastrians and known as Parsis, refuse to accept converts for fear of diluting their culture. Because they do not proselytize and have few children, the approximately 60,000 Parsis of India are on the path to extinction, a Parsi-dedicated UNESCO project concluded in 2003. Worldwide, there are estimated to be fewer than 200,000 Zoroastrians. This is where people like Kamran Jamshidi come in, inducting people whose ancestors had nothing to do with ancient Persia. There are between 100 and 200 people who went through the Zoroastrian induction ceremony in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States who are not of Persian descent. Russian Anjoman, the name of Russia’s Zoroastrian community, «sets an interesting precedent for Zoroastrianism», said Titkov, who converted in 2005.

Even in the 1980s and ‘90s, when Russia was overwhelmed by missionaries and self-proclaimed prophets, Zoroastrians didn’t come to take advantage of the situation. The Russian Zoroastrians are products of their own intellectual pursuits, which led them to the few doctrinal and historical texts that were available in the Russian language. Titkov, a lawyer who grew up in a Russian family, said that becoming Zoroastrian was not going against the beliefs of his parents: «I was atheist before», he said. Farroukh, an Azeri who lectures at a Moscow university, was brought up in Islamic culture but searched for answers beyond the Quran, finding them in the texts of Zoroaster.

The ancient religion is so foreign to Russian culture that people commonly associate it with evil magicians, otherworldly rituals and demonic fire dances. People who are a little more informed recall the ancient Persians and rock star Freddie Mercury, but in general, Zoroastrianism is both a big mystery and an unclaimed symbol, Titkov said.

He said there was a Moscow nightclub called Avesta, which is the name of ancient Zoroastrian scriptures. «We find that offensive and will probably have to challenge them at some point.»

He said offence is often caused because nobody thinks of Zoroastrianism as a real religion. At a science fiction convention a few years ago, a member of Moscow Anjoman met with the authors of Bez Poschady (“No Mercy”), a book about future cosmic wars between Russia and Zoroastrians that live on other planets. «The authors didn’t want to offend anyone, and chose Zoroastrianism as the enemy religion, thinking there were no Zoroastrians left», Titkov said.

One of the missions of the Russian Anjoman, the Russian Zoroastrian organization, is to debunk the misconceptions associated with the religion and improve its reputation. But taking Zoroastrianism from the fifth century BC in Persia to modern Russia doesn’t happen without effort. One of the first steps the Russian Anjoman took was creating a professional web site (blagoverie.org), including a special calendar.

«We had several conditions: it had to use Zoroastrian chronology, calculate all holy days, and change the date at the time of sunrise, rather than midnight, which is traditional to the ancient Persians», Titkov said. «Later the programmer we’d asked wrote in his blog: “I met live Zoroastrians, and they asked me to do the impossible!”»

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Yury Lukashevich, right, inducting a new convert in 2006.
(Courtesy of Blagoverie.org)

Russia’s Zoroastrians have their own blog on LiveJournal called Common Zoroastrianism, reflecting the group’s desire to disassociate itself from the image of a scandalous sect.

Although Zoroastrians are often referred to as “fire worshipers”, they find the term a bit insulting.

«It’s like calling Orthodox Christians “board worshipers”, since they pray in front of icons», said Farroukh. Fire represents the energy of the creator, so Zoroastrians pray facing fire or another source of light. It can be as large as a bonfire or as small as a candle.

Practicing Zoroastrianism is a lot easier than explaining it to friends and acquaintances, Titkov said. «I set a Google reminder at home that sends me a text message when it’s time to read the prayers», he said. Zoroastrians also wear ritual white shirts and thin woollen belts that are untied and retied during prayer.

One of the unique Zoroastrian traditions has to do with burial: bodies of the dead cannot contaminate fire, earth or water, so special “towers of silence” are constructed for bodies to be exposed to sun and birds of prey on the levels of the tower. In densely populated Mumbai, where Parsi Zoroastrians have settled since the 17th century, such towers with hovering eagles are on Malabar Hill, protected from the business district only by trees. The young Russian Anjoman hasn’t had to deal with this tradition yet, but as Titkov said, «Russia is a big country. … We’ll figure something out.»


[*First published in The Moscow Times.

Forum posts

  • Your article was right on. I was delighted to read about Zoroastrians in Russia. Do you undergo the initiation ceremony called a Navjote? Here the new initiate (the navjotee) has to learn basic Avesta prayers. Then, a priest puts on the sudreh and kusti for the navjotee for the first time as both say the prayers together. May you prosper!

    View online : Russia’s Zoroastrians

    • I am glad that Zoroastrianism is accepting converts in Russia. The Bombay Parsis are dying out because they are against accepting converts and even off-springs of mixed marriages. Their vision is narrow and they will pay with extinction. But the great religion and philosophy of Zarathustra will continue in North America and parts of Europe. Who know, one day it may even return to Iran in large numbers.

    • I am so glad that a great country like Russia has taken timely step to get on with allowing responsible and knowledgeable people to embrace Zoroastrianism by choice. It is a Universal religion which professes free thoughts, and there is no compulsion to pray five times and go to fire temples on fixed days. You are free to dress as you like, eat and drink what you like, and in short enjoy living to the full, so long as it is not out of the ordinary. Even after embracing the religion if you wish to leave, you may do so and there is no punishment or FATWA as such. Neither is there any stoning of women. Women are regarded as important members of the society because they are finally responsible for bringing up their children practising Good thoughts, Good words and Good deeds. The more you educate women and make them enlightened the better it is for humanity.

      Finally, I hope and pray the number of neo Zoroastrians keep coming in great numbers and the converts in their turn spread the word and teachings of Asho Spitaman Zarathushtra. Peace be upon you and our Zoroastrian community in Russia.

      It would not be a bad idea to project by means of a videod version of spreading the teachings of Zarathushtra in Russian TV as well as in BBC and USA TV stations.

      May Ahura Mazda help you in your efforts to spread the philosophy of Zarathushtra.

      View online : Zoroastrianism, the religion of Good Mind!

    • THIS IS NOT RIGHT ................... YOU CAN ONLY BE A ZOROASTRIAN BY BIRTH . THERE IS NO PROVISION FOR BEING CONVERTED TO A ZOROASTRIAN AND We dont mind "PAYING BY EXTENTION" . N IF WE R GOIN 2 BECOME EXTINCT SO BE IT BUT CONVERSION IS SOMETHING THAT WE WILL DEFY TILL OUR LAST BREATH. AND ZOROASTRIANS ARE NOT EXCEPTIG CONVERTS IN RUSSIA OR FROM ANY PART OF THE WORLD - FOR YOUR INFORMATION. ALSO IF YOU’LL CLAIM TO BE ZOROASTRIANS , ONE OF ZARATHUSHTRA’S TEACHINGS WAS ........ THAT YOU CAN ONLY BE A ZOROASTRIAN BY BIRTH AND BIRTH ONLY !!!!!!!!!! Call it "HAVING NARROW VISION" or whatever but CONVERSION IS DEFINATELY NOT THERE IN OUR GOD’S WILL !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      WE HAVE OPPOSED CONVERSION , WE ARE OPPOSING CONVERSION & WE WILL OPPOSE CONVERSION IN THE FUTURE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Hello Sir,

      It is like this: Ahura Mazda gave me the right to choose and I will choose the din-behi. I think it is very easy to understand. But if u have any thing against it, it is another matter. Are u speaking instead of Ahura Mazda and who gave u this right? Can u answer this simple question. My Sudre poshi is on 26 march 2011 if u get any message from our almighty god Ahura Mazda that he is displeased so please do not hesitate and tell me I will appreciate it. Your opinion does not matter. Zoroasterism is for ALL MANKIND. It is my ancestors religion too. You have to read Avesta very very very carefully before u speak.

      May Ahura Mazda bless you.

      Roj Dilan Dasuk (Kurdistan-Erbil)

      Now living in Stockholm-Sweden

    • Roj Dilan Dasuk,Congratulations on your initiation into the best of the best, the Din-e-Behi. The one thing Zarathushtra states in Gatha is to spread the good, and what better thing to share in the world than the message of good thoughts, good words and good deeds. We are all free to choose what we believe and no one in the world can change that. To the gentleman that is agains conversion, I feel sorry that he does not have the wisdom nor the strength to see how the world will change for the better if everyone believed in the message of Zarathushtra and could live in harmony with nature and others.

    • Quote me where in the Gathas, the Sacred Word of our Prophet, he teaches such a thing. He says things like: (yasna 45:1) "[...] Be attentive. Listen, both you who from near and you who from afar Have yearned to know.[...]", your vision of the Great religion is wrong.

    • REPLY TO YOUR STUPID COMMENT. I AM A PARSI BORN IT LOVE IT, BUT I HATE U SORRY PEOPLE, INFACT I PITTY U. U ARE IGNORANT AND DUMB. COMEON RUSSIA!!!!!!!!! THERE ARE MORE ON YOUR SIDE THAN YOU THINK!!!!!! BUILD THE BIGGEST DARN TEMPLE EVER!!!! DO IT SHOW THESE ASSES THAT YOU ARE ZORASTRIANS.

      I’M ZORASTRIAN, THE PARSIS MAY DIE OUT, WELL THEN THERES NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT!!!! THEY CANT STOP YOU!!!!!! AND I WOULD LOVE TO SEE THEIR FACES WHEN U MAKE IT LARGE.

      TO THE NEW ZORASTRIANS!!!!!!!!!! MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU!!!!!!!

    • The whole world is laughing at Parsis like you. You want to die and your religion to die with you too ? No doubt people like you are called "half mad Parsis". Then why did your ancestors leave Iran 1381 years ago and settled down in India ? They were given an option to convert to Islam or die, so they should have opted to die in Iran at that time. Why do you all want to die now after surviving for 1381 years happily, peacefully, progressively, prosperously on the soil of India ?

      "One of Zarathushtra’s teachings was ........that you can only be a Zoroastrian by birth and birth only!!!!!!!"

      Are you really the descendent of Prophet Zarathushtra by birth ? Are you his relative ?

      Who cares for the Parsis and how will they oppose and stop conversion ?

      Did Parsis ever try and stop their own men and women from marrying non-Parsis and to please their spouses and relatives, convert to their religion and even their children following their parents’ new religion ?

    • If you are Parsis, please tell me why don’t you look like Iranians, you look exactly like Indians. And that means that you were mixing with Indians and therefore cannot regard yourself as ’true’ Zoroastrians. Second point I want to make is Zoroastrianizm started with conversion, how else it would have started in the first place?

    • I’m a Zarathusti from India, & I completely disagree with you! Zoroastrianism is a universal religion my friend. And I petty you for your thoughts, as well as your words. Your mentality is bad, hence you think badly, thus speak badly & thus behave in that manner . So where is the Zoroastrianism in you?

      I pray your kind gets out of this self distruct mode!

    • Speak for yourself. I am a Parsee Zoroastrian and I welcome conversion. In which part of Zarathrushtras teachings did he say that one had to be born a Zoroastrian? He himself converted his cousin to Zoroastrianism .You are a narrow minded fool.

  • Is there not a part of Russia where this faith was historically practiced for centuries? Does anyone know?

  • According to me, the Zoroastrians of India do not believe in conversion is because, at the time when the Zoroastrians came from Iran to India, the King Rana set few rules, which included no conversion. Since then Parsis have not accepted conversion. But I guess, whoever wishes to follow Ahura Mazda, he surely can. Yatha Ni Madad!

  • Yazidis, kakays are also zoroastrans and most of Muslim kurds in turkey and Syria define themselves as Zoroastrians and they are ready to turn back to their original religion so please lets do something for our people ,I am yazidi

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