12/17/12 at 12:00 AM
Cupping candles in their hands, wrapped in white silk and knit robes, nearly 3,000 people knelt on the snow in the middle of the Siberian woods. Tall pine trees served as the walls of their church; the stage for their chorus was carved out of ice. Fluffy snowflakes landed on their heads as they sang their prayers: “God, illuminate our souls with your light, warm up our souls.” The next moment, silence fell over the forest as a bearded, chubby man in long white robes emerged at the top of a hill. His followers call him the Vissarion Christ, or just Teacher; they pray to his portraits and celebrate his birthday, Jan. 14, as their Christmas. And they obey his every instruction, living in expectation of the apocalypse he has predicted.