(RIA Novosti continues its six-part series on Russian sects and fringe beliefs with an account of Scottish author Daniel Kalder's visit to the Siberian hideaway of an ex-traffic cop and self-proclaimed messiah)
AUSTIN (Texas), June 16 (Daniel Kalder for RIA Novosti) - In the early 1990s Russia was awash with mystics, fortune tellers and messiahs as the collapse of the Soviet Union had opened up a Pandora's Box of hitherto forbidden beliefs.
After seven decades of state-supported atheism, all the world's religious possibilities flooded the country at once, and in the ensuing chaos thousands of men and women claimed to hear messages from spiritual realms. Many of these seers simply faded away, while a few such as the Ukrainian prophetess Maria Devi Christos ended up engulfed in scandal, and then locked up in jail.
One Messiah however has shown real staying power, and is surely the most successful of the many Christs that were wandering around Russia 18 years ago. He is the ex-traffic policeman Sergei Torop, better known to his followers as Vissarion Christ, who lives on top of a mountain in the southern Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia. It is reported that between 4000 and 5000 followers live in villages scattered around the mountain, while a further 50 000 follow his teachings in the world beyond.
Born on January 14th 1961 in Krasnodar in Russia's south, Torop's parents divorced when he was young. His mother took him to the industrial town of Minussinsk in Siberia where he grew up, and after completing his military service he became a traffic policeman. However Torop was also a talented artist and while painting an icon for a local church he experienced a mystical vision which lasted for several months, after which he realised that he was the Son of God. Donning red robes and assuming the name Vissarion, he preached his first sermon on the 18th August 1991. The charismatic Vissarion soon attracted followers and led them to the mountain he now calls home. There, equipped only with handheld saws and axes, they cut a path to the top and erected a home for 'the Teacher'. A community began to grow in the villages around the mountain. Soon afterwards Vissarion spoke at a press conference revealing to the world that he was the Messiah, come to reveal the Last Testament to mankind.
About three years ago I travelled to Siberia to meet Vissarion for a book I was writing. I was driven mainly by curiosity: I had never met a Messiah before, and I also wanted to talk to the people who had given up everything to follow him, to try and understand their motivations. After a 2000 mile flight from Moscow that passed through 4 time zones I arrived in Abakan, a bleak industrial town close to Mongolia, and from there travelled for hours through the flat, snow-covered Siberian landscape to Petropavlovka, the 'capital village' of the Vissarionites. Immediately I was in a different world, as Petropavlovka was clean, orderly and contained lots of new buildings- unlike most of the depressed and run down settlements I had passed through en route. After some initial confusion (my contact had left the village and so nobody knew I was coming) I was ushered into the home of Tatiana Denisova, formerly the editor of a soviet newspaper, now one of Vissarion's most devoted followers.
Tatiana explained to me that she had built her house, a dance hall, and a girl's school with the proceeds from the sale of her apartment in Moscow. Everybody who came to live in Petropavlovka had to sell his house in order to pay for a home in the new world: thus although money was banned in the community, those who had been richest in their old life managed to maintain some of their prosperity in their new life- and it also makes it harder to leave, of course. The atmosphere was friendly and open, though the portrait of a smiling Vissarion hanging on the wall was a little unnerving.
Tatiana and her friend Rashid, an ex-Muslim from Tatarstan stressed Vissarion's environmentalism. His teachings were about living in harmony with nature, they said, and anyone was free to live in the community so long as he agreed to respect the community's rules, which included adherence to a strict vegan diet, and a prohibition on alcohol and drugs. Most of the people in the community came from the former Soviet Union, but there were also some Bulgarians, Germans and a lone Belgian among them. Contrary to the popular belief that sects appeal mainly to the weak-willed and stupid, many of the people I met were highly educated members of the professional classes: teachers, scientists and artists, an astrophysicist from Cuba and there was even a former deputy minister in the Belarussian government living in the village. Tatiana's next door neighbour was Svetlana Vladimirskaya, an extremely famous pop star from the mid-1990s who had abandoned the world of fame and glamour to follow Vissarion. All of them spoke in glowing terms about 'the Teacher'. Once you heard the wisdom of his teachings, once you met him, you just knew that he was the Son of God.
I spent a few days in Petropavlovka, speaking to people, and marvelling at the smoothness of the operation- it was especially surprising to find a state of the art media studio located inside a traditional wooden Russian house. This was where the group produced videos and DVDs that they used to proselytise throughout Russia. These frequently depicted images of beautiful Siberian meadows that looked like something out of a Tolkien fantasy. They didn't show much of the snow and the backbreaking toil required to live in isolation in Siberia however.
The most interesting person I met was 'Sergei' the village priest, who in an earlier life had been a rocket scientist, officer in the Red Army, and also one of the men who sat in a remote station in the Far East waiting for the phonecall from the Kremlin instructing him to press the button that would start a nuclear holocaust. Sergei saw the Vissarionites as continuing the Russian tradition of religious non-conformism which had begun with the schism of 1666. Since then the remote regions of the country have always been home to a bewildering mix of apocalyptic Old Believers, self- castrating Skopts, self flagellating Khlysts and many other movements which rejected the state and the official church.
Sergei explained Vissarion's theology, assuring me that it contained no contradictions and was completely reconciled with science. It seemed to include a bit of everything- which is appropriate as Vissarion claims to have come to unite all religions. Here are just a few of the Teacher's ideas, which are accepted as truth by his thousands of followers:
1) There are two Gods. The first created the universe and then withdrew, leaving us to cause chaos. The second came into being later and wants to help us.
2) Satan is created by our own negative energy. He and his demons manipulate us into committing sinful deeds.
3) The earth is in the process of eradicating us for our wickedness.
4) Moral perfection is possible and necessary. This can be attained by studying and internalising Vissarion's Last Testament, now incorporating ten fat volumes of moral and metaphysical instruction.
5) If we do not perfect ourselves, then after the earth annihilates us there will be no bodies left for us to reincarnate into; thus our souls will whirl around the cosmos in torment forever. Vissarion's community is ensuring that a small quantity of 'good flesh' will survive the apocalypse so that the souls will have somewhere to go.
Want to know more? Well, the sect's site has information in English, and Sergei also recommended The Matrix as a good illustration of their world view.
Finally I received clearance to visit the Messiah. And so early one morning I left Petropavlovka and travelled 40km offroad, before trekking a further four kilometres on foot through the taiga to the entrance of the 'Abode of Dawn'. This was the village where 250 of Vissarion's most devoted followers lived, working to build a perfect 'city' of fourteen streets, radiating outwards from a central point like a star. The Messiah lived above it all in a wooden house at the highest stage of the mountain, with only his family, secretary and a few servants to attend to his needs. A guide met me at the entrance to the village and very soon I was ascending the path for my audience with the Son of God.
Vissarion was standing when I entered the room, dressed in white, nodding and smiling beatifically. He was tall and imposing and looked a lot like pictures of Jesus Christ. His personal secretary Vadim was at his side: in an earlier life, he had been a member of the Russian rock band Integral, which had performed at the groundbreaking Tbilisi Rock Festival 1980, regarded as the 'Soviet Woodstock'. Now he attended to the Messiah's every needs, and recorded his every public utterance for possible inclusion in the Last Testament- which is why it's ten volumes long and still growing.
I had read other interviews and knew that Vissarion got bored easily. So I decided to speak to him as if he was who he claimed to be: the Son of God. My first question was very open: 'What is the most important thing for people who don't know what you are doing here to understand?'
Vissarion paused, formulating his answer precisely. Then, eyelids half-closed as if hypnotized, he replied in a soft, sing- song voice that they should come and follow him if they hoped to survive the coming global catastrophe.
'But it's difficult,' I said. 'You live so far away and hardly anyone knows about your revelation. Why don't you come to the people as Jesus did, and preach?'
'I have visited many places,' he said wearily. 'I have seen enough. They will
find me, if their souls are ready.'
'And the others?'
He shrugged, apparently unconcerned. Then he started explaining parts of his theology but I already knew it all from the priest. I then tried to find out if there was there any trace of Sergei Torop, the ex- traffic policeman left in him, but those questions led to a dead end. It was as if Torop was somebody else he had known a long time ago. The only continuity was the easel by the window: the Messiah was still an enthusiastic artist. The question that really set him on fire was this: 'Is it a joy or a burden to be the Christ?' I asked.
Vissarion paused, and then laughed. Instantly, the atmosphere changed and he began to elaborate upon how difficult it was to be the Messiah, but at the same time, he had no choice. It was necessary to suffer so that he could understand the pain in the hearts of men. And now, the Son of God could not be stopped: thirty minutes later he was still talking, totally energized, speaking of the events that would follow the Apocalypse when the survivors would cast off their bodies and colonize new planets as spirit beings. Finally I called a halt to the interview: listening to all that talk about cosmic energy and reincarnation had left me exhausted.
Vissarion was unlike anybody I had ever met. He was very charismatic, and I didn't doubt that he was sincere. It was also impossible to deny that he and his devotees had achieved impressive things, whether it be building a town on top of a mountain or growing bananas in Siberia.
The next day however I attended an open air meeting between Vissarion and the villagers and was shocked by what I heard. They wanted to know what brands of washing powder were acceptable to God, and whether it was okay to laugh at dirty jokes. There was nothing dangerous or surprising in his answers, but that was the problem. His followers were highly intelligent people, indeed probably more intelligent than their Saviour. They should have known the answers already. His divine plan to make his followers morally perfect was failing: the vast list of rules in the Last Testament was actually making them infantile, terrified they weren't fulfilling God's commands accurately. It was as if having escaped one totalitarian system, they had decided to embrace another, different one, under the Teacher's watchful eye.
I left shortly afterwards. And while I never came close to believing, and it remained a mystery to me why so many intelligent and capable people accepted Sergei Torop as their Saviour, I must admit that I am haunted by memories of the time I spent among the Vissarionites. I often think about the people I met out there, and wonder how they're doing. I would like to go back- not to live, just to spend a little more time on the edge of the End of the World. I hear the mountain calling. Thus far I have been able to resist.
Daniel Kalder is the author of Strange Telescopes and Lost Cosmonaut. Visit his website at www.danielkalder.com
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.