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.
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 offense 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 B.C. 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 (www.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!'"
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 woolen 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."