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A Place of One's Own

Redefining Territory Through Pilgrimage in Russia's Ural Region

In a multi-cultural environment and especially in conditions of empire, pilgrimage can be a tool for individuals and groups to newly experience and define space. Pilgrimage then has an inward and outward effect, remaking the people moving through the landscape but also recreating the ground they set foot upon.

Nowadays, Muslims tend to be portrayed as foreign Others in the Russian media, even though it was the Russian Empire that expanded south to swallow the multi-ethnic populations of the Volga and Urals regions. In a mostly Christian Orthodox environment that designates a minority status to Muslims, pilgrimage around the almost exclusively Tatar / Bashkir village of Barda in the south of Perm Krai contributes to a resignification of the entire space.

In order to do the research participants justice, this project can be seen as an attempt to decolonise our basic assumptions about the relationship between the world and the human subject. Epistemology is therefore not the default setting for analysis. Barda is located in a valley surrounded by seven mountains that once served as lookouts for guardians, who in time came to be venerated as holy men. When the pilgrims pay their respects at gravesites, springs and mountain slopes, the old paths of pilgrimage are being activated, baraka (a spiritual force) begins to flow, the landscape of the dead comes to life and a peripheral Russian area transforms into a mythic land of Tatar sages and warriors of central significance. The reawakening of the land goes hand in hand with spatial claims being made and related to religious, local and ethnic / national identities. Apart from the sites themselves, recorded sermons, photographs, fragrance and blessed sweets play their role in conferring a spiritual quality to the experience.