Tambourine throbbing in hand, Velislav chants to gods whose cult has almost been obliterated by a millennium of Christianity in Russia.
Several hundred followers wearing linen, ancient Slavic ornaments and flower garlands circle around the high priest to celebrate the summer solstice in an all-night festivity fought by the Russian Orthodox Church for centuries.
The rugged faces of bearded gods and stern goddesses top a temple of upright logs.
These are Russia’s pagans, whose ranks are estimated in the low thousands.
However, only a handful of pagan groups are officially registered in this predominantly Orthodox Christian country with sizable Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish minorities.
The fractured pagan groups constantly argue about the authenticity of rituals, the hierarchy of priests or the pantheon of gods.
The Orthodox Church says neo-pagans are mostly interested in the entertainment of the rituals, and only some are pagans of principle.
The neo-pagans are also controversial because right-wing nationalists who oppose the immigration of non-Slavs have said some of their members are neo-pagan.
In late February, four pagans were arrested in Moscow and charged with organizing a series of explosions and the brutal killing of 11 dark-skinned non-Slavs.
On this night of the summer solstice, the pagans gather on a fragrant meadow near the city of Maloyaroslavets in Kaluga Oblast, some 200km west of Moscow.
They go through a fertility rite known as Ivan Kupala — derived from the Slavic word “to bathe” — whose purpose is self-purification, unity with forces of nature and the honoring of the Sun god, Velislav says.
Priests pelt grain on the crowd, and young women with braided hair serve loaves of unleavened bread and kvas, a nonalcoholic drink made of rye.
As darkness falls, they jump over bonfires, roll burning wooden wheels that symbolize the Sun chariot and float burning candles in a nearby river to attract good luck.
Dmitri Pankratov, who goes by Ragnar among his friends, says Slavic paganism is the only true religion for Russians.
Other religious “are branches grafted to a tree,” Pankratov says on the morning after the festivity.
“None of them are a root of the people,” he says.