Of all the strange sects in Russia today, the Church of Nav - also known as the Society of Nav, or as the Sacred Church of the White Race - is perhaps the strangest.
Its founder, Ilya Lazarenko, began his political career in 1990, when at the age of just 16 he joined one of the many splinter groups of Pamyat, the Russian Gathering Pamyat of taxi-driver Igor Shcheglov. In November 1991, La za ren ko proceeded to set up an organization of his own, the Union of Russian Youth. I happened to pick up the first issue of its journal, Nash Marsh (Our March) at a red-brown rally in Moscow's October Square. Most of the four pages of smudged typescript were about Benito Mussolini.
In 1993, Lazarenko's organization was renamed the Front of National-Revolutionary Action. In 1994, it became the National Front Party. Its doctrine was fascist in the classical sense, envisaging a "Great National-Socialist Russian Empire" under a "national dictatorship."
Lazarenko's party soon went into rapid decline. Many members left to join rival fascist organizations. So La za ren ko looked for a way of holding his remaining members together, and hit upon a novel idea. He would enroll them in a new church, a "military-spiritual occult brotherhood" of devotees of Nav. And so the Church of Nav was inaugurated - on Hitler's birthday, April 21, 1996. Meanwhile, the Party "National Front" continued to exist, with the same leader and the same members. On Feb. 14, 1998, it staged a rally at the United States embassy under the stirring slogan: "Freedom for Texas!" But who on Earth - or rather, in Heaven - is Nav?
Lazarenko and his followers are pagans, but of a special kind. Most Russian pagans believe in the gods that the Slavic tribes used to worship before they adopted Christianity. The most important ones were Perun, the god of storms, thunder, and lightning, and Svarog, the god of fire and the sun.
The Church of Nav despises such "primitive peasant cults" for having "no serious occult-magical content or coherent theology." Its members regard themselves not as pagans, but as Ariosophists. Ariosophy - Greek for "wisdom of the Aryans" - was a mystical racist doctrine that grew up in Central Europe 100 ago and influenced the early Nazis.
Nav is the supreme deity to whom the devotees of the Church of Nav pay homage, the "father-of-all" (vsyo-otets). They also revere the "Shining Gods" and the avatars - earthly incarnations of deities in Hindu mythology - who constitute a divine hierarchy under Nav.
The Book of Genesis tells us that the material universe was created out of the primeval void by a god called Jehovah, which is an anglicized variant of the Hebrew Yahweh ["I Am Who I Am"]. Then, one of Jehovah's sidekicks, an angel called Satan, or Lucifer, had the temerity to rebel, for which he was cast out of Heaven. Satan took up the position of Lord of Hell and master of the evil forces of the universe.
The Ariosophists add an intriguing twist to the story. Jehovah - whom they call Yav - is still the creator of the material universe. But he is no longer the supreme deity. That honor belongs to Nav.
Before the material universe came into being, there existed not a mere void, but a perfect, self-sufficient, and purely spiritual universe, the creation and realm of Nav. But the "criminal" Yav somehow captured the energies of Nav's universe, and used them to form the material universe, which was imperfect and therefore subject to corruption and degradation.
Thus the role of the good and rightful supreme god is taken by Nav, while Jehovah becomes the rebellious and malicious angel - that is to say, Satan.
To combat the disease set loose by Yav's crime, Nav created a race of people, the Aryans or Whites, who were to carry his spirit into the material universe. For their earthly homeland, Nav gave the Aryans a large island near the North Pole called Hyperborea. Later, the Aryans migrated south to Eurasia, taking with them their high culture, and founded there all known civilizations.
But racial mixing and spiritual decline brought them to their present sorry condition, their native gods forgotten and their race dying. A crucial role in their downfall was played by the plague of Judeo-Christianity, cunningly invented to break their magical tie with the Aryan gods and enslave them to Jehovah.
The Aryans must recognize themselves as part of the divine hierarchy, and return to the faith of their ancestors. They must set themselves "morally higher than the Adamite, slave of Jehovah" by means of "mutual aid and self-sacrifice, love for order and hierarchy, mutual respect, pride, love of honor, lack of pity or fear, irreconcilability to enemies, and loyalty to brothers." They must mend the broken magical ties that once united them with the gods, and arouse the gods from their slumber.
In this mission, they may avail themselves of the help of avatars such as Vodan, "bringer of runes and runic magic, a mighty weapon in the hands of the Aryans." When the epoch of the restoration of the ancient cult dawns, the awakened Shining Gods will prepare themselves for the Final Battle against Jehovah.
And that will complete the current cycle of existence!
Recruits to the Church of Nav must "belong to the White Race, observe Aryan moral norms, and have a good self-image." Participation in both political actions and religious rituals is compulsory. "Excessive" consumption of alcohol is forbidden, as are use of narcotics and "cultural entertainments of a non-Aryan nature."
Instead of such entertainments, adepts read the Book of Nav, also called The White Stone. Within the Church, there exist inner brotherhoods called Clans of Nav, recruits to which must satisfy even stricter requirements, and who must attend regular clan seminars.
Photos of some of the rituals - most of which take place in a wintry forest setting - are displayed on the Church of Nav's Web site, with adepts attired in sinister white robes and tall, black conical hoods, evidently copied from the Ku Klux Klan, holding aloft poles topped by lighted torches. There are also martial scenes of adepts about to engage in wrestling matches in a chamber prepared for ritual use, with a priest clad in a black robe and headdress present to bless the fighters.
Do sects like the Church of Nav matter? Why not let them enjoy the rituals that give their lives a grandiose ultimate meaning and divert their attention from the uninspiring reality of Russia in decay?
The trouble is that the religious rituals are not ends in themselves. Lazarenko is a politician. He created his church as a political - and paramilitary - instrument. An instrument to be used when the time is right.
Stephen D. Shenfield is an independent researcher based in Providence, Rhode Island. His book "Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, and Movements" is published this month by M. E. Sharpe (New York).