Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Globe and Mail - JESUS LIVES

Here's a bizzare story.

A reclusive ex-cop in Siberia now has so big a following that it may become Russia's first new official religion despite its bizarre beliefs. For example, he says he's Christ returned


From Saturday's Globe and Mail

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Before dawn, the forests of Siberia have an uncanny quiet, as sounds fall into the dark trees and echoes sink into the sea of snow. Then a bell disturbs the stillness, followed by another and another, until they become a chorus. Horses snort, leather tack creaks and boots squeak on snow. Shapes that seem to be from a different century emerge from the grey dimness. On a logging road near the remote Russian village of Petropavlovka, about 4,000 kilometres east of Moscow, what looks like a medieval procession jingles though the woods. A bearded man holding a candle leads the way, followed by men in hooded robes and women in long skirts. Standard-bearers carry flags, a girl juggles balls and horses pull rough wooden sledges. Welcome to fairyland. Here in the foothills of the Western Sayan mountains, where the snows are so deep that you can literally drown in the vast whiteness, one of the world's largest and most isolated religious colonies is performing an annual ritual. They're celebrating the birthday of their Messiah, a former traffic cop named Sergei Torop. Among his 5,000 followers in these Siberian forests, and perhaps as many as 50,000 other faithful around the world, Mr. Torop is known as Vissarion, a reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

Mr. Torop's birthdays are always an occasion for joy, as his followers celebrate Christmas and New Year's on the same day. However, the fact that he is turning 45 signals the beginning of Year 46 of the Blossoming Epoch, which has special significance for yet another reason. It will mark the 15th year since he started wearing flowing robes and preaching a New Age version of the gospel. Under Russian law, that is a watershed.

The ex-cop from southern Siberia has achieved what other small-time cult figures, demagogues and sectarian leaders have only dreamed about: He has built the largest religious sect in Russia.

Following his commands, Vissarionites have carved a new settlement, Sun City, from the slopes of a remote mountain. They constructed a three-storey chalet for their master on the mountain's peak, where he lives with a select group of followers and, because he enjoys painting, has a studio stocked with expensive art supplies.

From this aerie, he has a splendid view of the hills and valleys where his acolytes have hacked out clearings for their own meagre farms and cabins. When he wants to guide his flock, he picks up his radiophone or roars down the mountain on his U.S.-made snowmobile to deliver his teachings in person. When he speaks, his followers hear the word of God.

The government in Krasnoyarsk, the regional capital, used to bother Mr. Torop with questions about whether he was stealing his followers' money, whether his rule over the sect was totalitarian, whether his people were getting enough nutrition from their vegan diet of homegrown foods and whether they were keeping their children ignorant about the outside world.

These concerns have eased as Mr. Torop has earned the cautious support of the local government. His followers pay taxes and they're a rare source of population growth among the dying villages in this region.

Still, Mr. Torop isn't satisfied. His group is regularly labelled as a sect, or a dangerous cult, and he wants to remove this stigma. His church has registered as a federal religious organization, and in the coming months his followers plan to apply for recognition as a "traditional" religion in Russia.

That is possible only after a religion has been active for 15 years, which puts the Vissarionites in a unique position. When former president Boris Yeltsin signed the law on religion in 1997, it was seen as an attempt to suppress the bizarre array of religious movements that sprang up after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Vissarionites will be the first to test that law.

Vladimir Vedernikov, who serves as Mr. Torop's manager of external relations, has been meeting weekly with government officials, and believes that the bid will succeed. "Maybe this year or next year, depending on the formalities . . .," he says. "We won't be a sect any more; we will be a religion."

At least one government official agrees with him, and predicts that the Vissarionites will follow the same path to acceptance taken by the Mormons in the 19th century. But they are bitterly opposed by both the Russian Orthodox Church and by some disgruntled former members, who accuse Mr. Torop of leading a cult that robs people of their money and their health.

But as the morning light grows stronger and the procession continues its march toward Mr. Torop's birthday celebration, it's hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer strangeness of the notion that an international religion could spring from this odd little society in the Siberian forest.

A brochure advertises the settlement as "the fairy world where everything is real," and it does resemble something from a children's book or a bizarre dream. Padding across the snow in thick felt boots, the followers talk about what it's like to live in their fairy tale. They describe it as a land of forgetting: their personal history, the outside world, their own suffering and, sometimes, their own rules.

The first Vissarionite to escape his personal history was, of course, Vissarion himself.

Mr. Torop was born the son on a construction worker on Jan. 14, 1961, in a suburb of Krasnodar, a city near the Black Sea. As his website ( says, his life until he was 30 differed little from that of most Russians. He joined the Red Army at 18, spending his two years of mandatory service in an engineering unit that sent him to construction sites in Mongolia.

Afterward, he returned to Minusinsk, a city of 72,000 in southern Siberia, where his family was living at the time. He worked three years at a metalworking shop before starting a career in the police.

At the same time that his new job put him on the government payroll, the Soviet Union was showing signs of weakness. In 1985, the Communist Party got its third leader in less than three years: Mikhail Gorbachev, who soon tried to crack down on alcoholism by restricting the production and sale of vodka. Huge lineups formed at liquor stores across the country, and mobs sometimes attacked the police protecting them.

Now a tall and serene figure in his cream-coloured robe, Mr. Torop seems acutely aware that his followers take his words as scripture and, perhaps as a result, he doesn't say much. But during an interview at his mountaintop chalet, his demeanour changes as he recalls the chaos of the final Soviet years.

"I felt the times changing," he says. "It was difficult for me because there was a great distance between my inner world and the world I saw evolving around me . . . Things were developing badly, as new rules led people to worry more and have more aggression.

"New laws like prohibition, for example. That was one of the first signs. Bad things happened. When a shop was opening, you had to see it. It was craziness." (Now, the first of his 61 commandments to the Vissarionites is to react calmly in the face of aggression.)

In 1989, he left the police to immerse himself in his painting, carefully rendering bowls of fruit and bunches of flowers. By that point, he was married with children, and claims to have supported his family for 10 months exclusively by finding coins and bills on the street.

Scavenging wasn't great work, however, and in April, 1991, he came up with a better idea when the director of a tiny UFO research centre in Minusinsk claimed to recognize in him a divine nature, and suggested he rename himself Vissarion, or "He who gives life."

His new incarnation proved popular, partly because he wasn't the only one shaken by the changes in his country. Hundreds of new religious movements rushed into the spiritual vacuum as the fall of the Soviet empire brought an abrupt end to 70 years of official atheism. Almost overnight, the new regime gave Russians permission to believe whatever they wanted, and drove them to pray for mercy from a system that resembled the cruellest aspects of capitalism. Russia plunged into a chaotic, money-grabbing contest, in which the winners usually employed gangs of men armed with Kalashnikovs.

As an alternative, Mr. Torop offered a doctrine of non-aggression, the joys of rural living and the same vision of communal labour without pay that would be familiar to anyone nostalgic for Soviet times.

His teachings attracted a wide range of people -- including foreigners from Germany, China, Italy, Bulgaria, Cuba and Sweden, whom he met on his missionary visits abroad -- but the biggest group came from the ranks of Russian artists, performers, scientists, doctors, teachers and other members of the intelligentsia who lost status with the Communist collapse.

Marina Nikitina, 46, was trained as a director of "mass cultural activities," but discovered that state pageantry had abruptly fallen out of fashion. Now, she's a writer for the Vissarionite newsletter.

Anatoly Pshenay, 53, was a high-ranking railway general in Belarus before fleeing the corruption and backbiting. When he joined the colony in Siberia, he lived in an old shipping container.

Oleg Nadimsky, 45, left his job as a Moscow lawyer to be a potter.

The first major test of Mr. Torop's ability to recruit occurred in Moscow in the winter of 1991. At the time, Sergei Chevalkov, now 54, was a colonel in the Russian strategic rocket forces, teaching at a Moscow academy and doing nuclear research. Mr. Chevalkov says he was drawn by curiosity to an early-morning meeting on Red Square, in front of Saint Basil's Cathedral.

Mr. Torop had just arrived after a three-day train journey from Siberia, and "we saw this young guy in a fur coat like a villager," Mr. Chevalkov recalls. "He took off his cap, and said: 'I have something important to tell you. Our Heavenly Father sent met here today.'

"I had a reaction like, 'What can this guy teach us -- yoga?' "

Mr. Chevalkov chuckles at his first impression; he's now a senior priest among the Vissarionites, joining not because he was fleeing the Soviet collapse but because, he says, the people who control Russia's nuclear forces aren't completely sane. "Mankind stands at a very dangerous precipice."

For those who want to leave their past behind and forget the outside world, Sun City offers plenty of isolation. For the faithful from far-flung regions, the trek to mark Mr. Torop's birthday required a five-hour flight from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk, followed by an overnight train ride south to the town of Kuragino and then a trip by car or minibus across the winding, rutted roads through the old logging towns now almost entirely taken over by Vissarionites.

Even after that, reaching Sun City requires a two-day walk from the nearest village, and the roads are eventually replaced with narrow paths through the deep taiga.

The destination is a city in name only, a small collection of cabins with no plumbing and no gas. Mr. Torop says he selected the mountainside location because it radiates mystical energy. But real electricity is in short supply: Only some well-appointed cottages have solar power, providing weak current for a few hours each day. Buildings, furniture and even some tools are fashioned by hand.

The marchers stop at intervals along the way, singing songs, dancing, or slurping from steaming bowls of borsht. During one break, Mr. Pshenay, the former railway official, explains the community's plans to protect its isolation.

Like many of the Vissarionites, he sold most of his assets when he moved to Siberia and donated the money to a 150-member "family" within the larger community. They share everything: finances, food and possessions.

Mr. Pshenay gave more than most: He used to drive the newest model of Ford Scorpio and keep a fleet of other vehicles. "We couldn't drive Mercedes, because [Belarusian President Alexander] Lukashenko didn't want us to be too flashy," he says. His sacrifices appear to have earned him a measure of respect, and he now serves as chairman of the childcare board.

Education is an important portfolio, because it's one of the few remaining sore points with the government. Local authorities want all children in the district to study the usual curriculum and take standard tests, while the Vissarionites want to teach their own views in segregated classrooms.

Mr. Pshenay lost a battle in this ongoing war last fall, when many children were forced to attend state schools. Of the 800 children in the district village, only 60 now study the Vissarionites' heavily modified curriculum. But the community is fighting back, with plans to open new schools, and lobbying to replace the staff at the local state-funded school.

If Mr. Pshenay is successful, his system will produce more graduates such as Alena Nabiolena, 17, who blushes when asked questions about world history. Does the word Buchenwald mean anything to her? "No." Auschwitz? "Nope." The Holocaust? "No." Genocide? "No." How about Stalin?

"Stalin, Stalin, Stalin," she says, with a quizzical look. "He was a ruler, right? I'm not sure what he did."

But the Vissarionites have other kinds of knowledge they want to give their children. Many say they believe in extrasensory perception, reincarnation and the impending Apocalypse. They think cancer is caused by excessive aggression, and toothaches are the result of mulling over difficult spiritual problems. Foods such as meat or fish will pollute the body, they say, as will such combinations as potatoes and peas, or sugar and bread.

One visitor, who described himself as a student of Mr. Torop, says he studies by summoning a hologram of his master from the energy field surrounding Earth and then listening as it speaks. The UFO expert who first inspired Mr. Torop remains one of his advisers.

The third of the 61 rules for life contains what could be a telling statement: "An untruth which brings good is wisdom." Or, as Mr. Pshenay says: "We create our own fairy tale here."

Like the oldest fairy tales, life here can be grim, although the suffering isn't obvious at first glance.

Russian media report that Vissarionites are starving to death on their vegan diets and refusing conventional medical treatment, but regional government officials say this isn't true. Some followers suffered health problems while adjusting to life in the forest, but they have modified what they eat and now take people to hospital in emergencies. Mr. Torop also discourages smoking and drinking, which makes his villages visibly more healthy than many rural towns.

The faithful, very aware of their media image, make every effort to show outsiders that they're happy, even escorting visitors to see children playing table hockey and video games. But in quiet moments, over meals or warming themselves around woodstoves, others say they're exhausted by the daily regimen of hard farm work.

Other kinds of discomfort are more subtle. Ms. Nikitina, the newsletter writer, divorced her husband four years ago and now despairs of ever finding a new partner in a community that is at least 60-per-cent female. Love with a non-believer would be unthinkable, so "I try to stay happy, try to drive away the sadness. But it's hard; I have a woman's dreams."

In fact, women have many challenges in the colony. Mr. Torop teaches that they should serve their husbands and bear many children, and that men can have two wives, if the women agree. His own wife, he admits, isn't keen on this idea -- uncomfortable now that another woman wants to join their family.

Down the mountain from Sun City, Marina Aptusheva, 32, ruefully recalls being her husband's second wife. After three years, the first wife left, and Ms. Aptusheva says she would never try it again. "The egotism of a woman screams and shouts in that situation."

The hardship can go beyond the Vissarionites themselves.

For example, Olga Yenifarova, 40, runs an interior-decor store in Moscow, and spent seven years and about $10,000 (U.S.) trying to extract her mother, brother and sister from the colony. She says her family had already lost at least $20,000 when they sold their apartment in Latvia and went to Siberia in 1997. Alarmed at the health problems and depression she says they have suffered, Ms. Yenifarova regularly sent care packages containing boots, warm clothes and money.

Eventually, she persuaded them to quit after flying them out for a vacation. But by the time they moved to Moscow, they had changed. Her once-bubbly sister rarely spoke, and her mother suffered from a lung infection, and still seemed devoted to Mr. Torop.

"It didn't destroy their lives, but almost. . .," Ms. Yenifarova says. "Vissarion eats very well, travels the world, roars around on his snowmobile, while everybody else labours in the fields to keep him comfortable. That's not a religion."

Bishop Antony Cheremisov, who oversees the Krasnoyarsk region for the Orthodox Church, says disaffected Vissarionites sometimes show up asking for food and a ticket home. He says people are often trapped inside the Vissarionite colony because they have given up their money and property, and he argues that making the group a traditional religion could set a bad precedent. "This is a test of the law."

And yet, for Mr. Torop's birthday celebration, hundreds of his followers climb a small mountain that rises a kilometre above Sun City. They sprinkle dried flowers on a heart-shaped rock, draw symbols in the snow, light candles, sing songs, listen to speeches by their leader and his priests, and watch as he blesses loaves of bread.

They seem enthralled by these rituals. But as the temperature drops in the afternoon, with a nearby weather station reporting minus 50 Celsius, the effects of spending two days in the cold become apparent. A woman collapses, slumping unconscious onto one of the steps carved into the snow around a wooden temple. Soon, she is carried away.

In this land of forgetting, even Mr. Torop's rules can be forgotten. Despite his teachings about alcohol, villagers merrily maintain stashes of vodka, and many also have switched from being vegans to being vegetarians, which means they can eat eggs and dairy products. And if the 500 snow steps and the pathway from Sun City to Mr. Torop's hilltop home are supposedly shovelled by hand, why is there a snow blower nearby?

As well, his followers are trying to generate their own culture -- a homegrown roster of literature, music and even children's cartoons that will free their minds from the negative influences from the outside world. This has succeeded to some extent -- many Vissarionites say they now read nothing but their own literature (of course, book-burnings have thinned what else is on their shelves). Yet children still spend long afternoons watching Hollywood movies on TV, and the adults' video collections include soft-porn titles such as Mickey Rourke's Wild Orchid.

Ultimately, this trend toward moderation will make the Vissarionites an ordinary religious community, says Mark Denisov, the official in Krasnoyarsk responsible for relations with them.

"Many people could not survive the events of the 1990s," he explains. "Some people became drug addicts and alcoholics. Others turned to non-traditional religions, looking for salvation from the terror of life. By the force of historical events, we ended up with 5,000 people here in unfamiliar circumstances in the woods."

They made mistakes at first, Mr. Denisov says. They didn't co-operate with the local police, and they weren't open to the media. Children were given no schooling. Devout followers refused medical treatment and died.

But most problems have been solved, he says. "Years have passed. The community has matured."

A demonstration of that maturity -- and a sign of the outside world's growing acceptance of this strange sect -- comes after the birthday celebration has ended.

Ruslan Kagirov, a 28-year-old computer programmer, makes the gruelling journey from the mountain home to his village, walking for several hours down the steep slope, across a vast frozen swamp and through forests to meet Mr. Torop's fleet of old Soviet military trucks.

The engines are frozen, so the faithful must wait until water can be heated over open fires and bring them back to life. But finally Mr. Kagirov reaches Kuragino, where he can catch the train.

But three local youths, obviously drunk, notice the bespectacled, clean-cut young man, and one of them, wearing a black eye and a sneer, sits down across from him.

"I'm trying to decide whether to punch you," he says.

"That would be bad for me, because it would hurt," Mr. Kagirov replies, implacably. "But it would also be bad for you because I'd report you to the police."

"If you're frightening me with the police, I should hit you in the face," he's told.

"I'm not frightening you. I'm just telling you what will happen."

The drunk starts to repeat himself, saying, "I should hit you in the face" several times before adding some crude insults. Mr. Kagirov has a black belt in karate, but remains unnaturally calm.

Finally, his antagonist man asks: "Are you from Sun City?"

"Yes, I've come from Sun City, and I live by its laws."

This could be all the lout needs to make good on his threat, but instead, he just says: "Don't move to Kuragino. There's nothing here."

As a train pulls in and the sound of squealing brakes echoes through the station, Mr. Kagirov thanks the man for his advice. Then he politely says goodbye.

Graeme Smith is The Globe and Mail's correspondent in Moscow.

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