A young girl with a garland of flowers in her hair sings to the setting sun before a group of women join in nearby.
“We give our thanks to you, oh sun,” they chant.
In the tiny village of Glubokovo, some 80 kilometres east of Moscow, several hundred people gathered to mark an ancient pagan ceremony to celebrate the summer solstice.
Women sang in circles as men collected firewood for a gigantic bonfire that formed a blazing centrepiece for the festivities.
The pagan ritual is believed to be one of the oldest in the world and marks the shortest night of the year.
But while it may have its roots in Russia’s ancient past, the celebration has made something of a modern comeback in recent years as more people have become interested in the country’s pagan history.
Self-proclaimed priestess Lada Korneyeva told AFP that the practice has been growing in popularity since the early 2000s as it struggled out from under a ban during Soviet times.
“More and more people are looking for meaning, because they are not satisfied with what they see on television,” she said.
“In the Communist era it was simple: the authorities told you that you were soviet. Then we started saying: you are Russian, you are not. But what does it mean to be Russian?”
“Some people have found the answer here in their history and their roots.”
But while Korneyeva insists that the search for spirituality is driving more people to paganism, the small community still faces some hurdles from suspicious authorities.
Russia’s influential Orthodox Church frowns upon their practices and “anti-terror” legislation from 2016 placed some curbs on the pagans who fear they could be punished for spreading their beliefs.
– ‘Forget logic’ –
As the sun sets over the participants the high-priest gathers those present with the beat of drum and addresses them.
“Look at what is around you my friends: our father the sky, our mother the Earth. Today, remember that you are part of nature,” he intones.
The priest then leads the believers to four wooden totems that represent the major pagan gods of love, war, fertility and water, where he offers a blessing.
“When I am in Moscow I am a very rational person,” says believer Alexander Mayarov.
“But here, I forget logic. I listen to the wisdom of my ancestors.”
The ceremony lasts several hours and culminates in the lighting of a the bonfire which all the participants then dance around.
As they looked into the flames other participants said that they had turned to paganism after failing to find enough spiritual succour from the faiths in which they were raised.
“I have the feeling that our beliefs are more pure than religion,” Elena Volkova, who was christened Orthodox, said, as her six-year-old daughter ran by the flames.
“Our values are more universal, respect each other, respect our traditions, love nature,” said Maxime.
The 21-year-old said he did not understand why the Orthodox Church and authorities appeared “afraid” of paganism.
“We don’t do any harm to anyone, we just want Russians to find their love of nature again.”