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.
The Christ of Siberia walked carefully onto the ice stage and observed the crowd kneeling before him in the snow. Most of them live in the Abode of Dawn City or a handful of villages in Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk region; they believe their religious community is the only ark that can save them in these troubled times. Their numbers have multiplied tenfold over the past 20 years, up to about 4,500 total. They do not drink or smoke, or eat meat. Convinced that the End of Light—as they call it—is near, they intend to survive the apocalypse in Siberian Arks. “I am Jesus Christ,” Vissarion introduced himself to the newcomers, some of whom hailed from as far away as Germany, Bulgaria, and Poland. “It was prophesied that I would return to finish what I started.”
The Vissarion Christ (who declined to be interviewed but allowed journalists to observe his ceremonies) is not the only superstar among Russia’s new religious idols. There’s also Vladimir Sobolev, the self-proclaimed reincarnation of the Chinese sage Confucius, who has led a neopagan cult of a few hundred people since 1995. They worship a deity called the Queen of Copper Mountain in the remote Ural Mountain forests—not to be confused with the Siberian goddess Anastasia, known as the Sister of Jesus Christ, a naked blonde deity documented by mystical literature througout the past decade. Over the past three years, the Anastasia legend has inspired thousands of disillusioned Russians to join a new-age exodus to the woods and countryside across the nation. Known as the “Anastasia Back-to-Land Movement,” or the “Tingling Cedar Movement,” its followers relocate to eco-villages (called “Kin’s Domains”), where they plant cedar trees to serve as antennas to connect to “space of love.” Some Anastasia followers meditate naked under the trees. “We escaped from big cities to create new social models, as the state systems have been destroyed by liars and outrageously corrupt managers,” says Dmitry Ivanov, a former army colonel who lives in one of the Kin Domains.
Adherents of these cults and many others are flocking to the Siberian taiga, Karelian woods, or Ural and Altai mountains to leave the material world behind and find enlightenment. Whereas a decade ago, Russians escaped the post-Soviet crisis by joining foreign religions—such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the Church of Scientology—domestic sects have been on the ascendant for the past decade. (The Russian Orthodox Church is growing, too—it has built more than 22,000 new monasteries since the collapse of the Soviet Union.) Many of the followers say they are exhausted by decades of corruption, terrorism, ethnic violence, and fading morality in Russia. This year, the feeling seems to have intensified as the date of the supposed Mayan apocalypse—Dec. 21, 2102—approached. Russian TV channels have taken to running shows about world disasters, including one popular one called “Apocalypse: Unfriendly Universe.” (Earlier this month, Prime Minsiter Dmitry Medvedev felt the need to reiterate that the Doomsday was not upon Russia. “I do not believe in the end of the world,” he said, “at least, not this year.”)
Analysts see the rise in cult membership to be indicative of a larger vacuum of values in mainstream Russia. “The Orthodox Church has no moral authority,” says Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Center for International Peace in Moscow. “The country’s president and prime minister often contradict each other. Russians feel lost searching for any definite truth.” Pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov adds, “Feeling spiritually hungry, people create their own tiny islands of survival. The government is aware of the issue, but has no concrete plan of persecuting the cult leaders.”
Nevertheless, the Russian government has grown increasingly worried about the sects. Alexander Dvorkin, of the Russian Asssociation of Centers for Religious and Sectarian Studies, estimates that 4,000 distinct religious movements and cults—involving up to 800,000 people—exist in Russia today. Authorities have gotten more aggressive about cracking down on the groups—last February, prosecutors banned a media campaign by a group called Power of Changes that advocated joining splinter religious groups in Rostov-on-Don, Perm, and Novosibirsk. And last December, a court in Birobidzhan banned a group called the Ark of Rescue, which focused on exorcising demons.
But Siberia is big and Moscow, distant, escapists say. “We go deep into the taiga and worship bears—nobody can forbid us from doing that,” says Grigory, the leader of an ethnic music band in Blagoveshesk.
The darker side of cults is not unknown in Russia. Seventy members—including 19 children—of the Land of Allah sect used to live in an eight-level “underground anthill” in the city of Kazan, awaiting the apocalypse. The children lived without seeing daylight and were allowed to have sex as teenagers until the group’s prophet leader, the 83-year-old Faizrakhman Satarov, was detained last August. He now faces up to six months in prison for “arbitrariness” and police are investigating the group’s activity. Last year the leader of the Novosibirsk branch of the large, countrywide Ashram Shambala sect—a man named Konstantin Rudnev, who claimed to be an alien god from the star Sirius—was convicted of sexually abusing 15 followers. And the followers of the Primorye Partisans movement, a violent back-to-the-woods group, have been accused of killing two police officers.
“There is no future for us in the cities besides prison,” said Sergei, a Primorye Partisans follower who lives in the village of Kirovsky, a downtrodden place deep in the forests outside of Vladivostok full of crumbling buildings and no jobs, though it boasted new villas for police officers.
The followers of the Vissarion Christ cite different motivations for quitting their former lives and moving to join his sect in Siberia. Twenty-four-year-old Tamara, formerly a successful lawyer at a Moscow advertising company, liked the fact that Vissarion—who likes to paint—inspired dozens of other painters and sculptors. She wanted to join Vissarion’s community to “live among creative, happy people.” Others felt Vissarion’s philosophy just made sense. One of the Messiah’s first followers and his current chief priest, Sergei Chevalkov—a former colonel of the Strategic Rocket Forces, the branch of the Russian military that operates nuclear missiles—felt the teaching “embraced and mixed up bits of everything people liked from the Bible, Carlos Castenada, Osho or Krishna’s teachings.” The colonel joined up with Vissarion—who used to be a skinny traffic cop from Siberia named Sergei Torop—not long after Torop walked into Red Square on a summer morning in 1991 and declared himself to be the Christ. It was a chaotic time in Moscow, just days after a hardline coup, and few onlookers were surprised. After all, there were at least 12 other self-proclaimed Christs in the capital at the time, as well as hundreds of new-age seers healing the masses on TV, as well as tons of esoteric and tantric sex gurus.
After Chevalkov heard Vissarion preach, he sold his Moscow apartment, quit his job and followed the Teacher to the Siberia wilderness, along with hundreds of other Moscow and St. Petersburg officers, artists, and academics. More believers followed. One of them, Vasiliy Romanyuk, believed it was “time to settle in the Ark.” In a few years, he said, the world will be under water—or most of it, anyway. Siberia will survive, and enjoy a pleasantly tropical climate. With money made of the sale of their apartments in Russian cities, the Ark builders rent 250 hectares of land in the woods surrounding Sukhoi Mountain, about 700 kilometers from the regional capital of Krasnoyarsk, and erect beautifully designed, modest log houses, in which to await the end of the world.
Discipline is strict in the community’s capital, the Abode of Dawn City. Every morning, Chevalkov rounds up the men on the city’s center plaza. They pray in a circle, holding hands, then the supervisors distribute the eight-hour jobs: clearing snow, cutting wood, constructing new houses. Vissarion’s 11 volumes of testimony speak against the use of makeup, cash, shampoo, animal food, weapons, and cars, which are all banned in the city. All money brought in from the outside world goes into a common budget. Every month, the community gives each member a modest supply of food; otherwise, people survive on what they grow in their gardens.
Vissarion says that women should serve men, just as men serve God. Mothers look after the children, and the community’s birth rate is far higher than in the rest of Russia. A few years ago, in order to balance the disproportionate number of women to men, Vissarion ordered the wives to forget that their husbands only belong to them, and to let other women share the happiness of their family lives. The followers refer to the polygamist experiments as Triangles, and men must wait for the wives’ permission before bringing a new wife home. Vissarion’s authorities say the Triangles are attempts to boost the birth rate even further. “It is much easier to build the Ark with children brought up in the community,” said Vissarion’s right-hand apostle Vadim Redkin, who has written a detailed account of Vissarion’s life. (Vissarion’s own first marriage did not survive the Triangle experiment, and his first wife left him after he married a 19-year-old, who has served as a nude model for some of his paintings.)
The community—or Common Family, as they call themselves—measures time by the years of Vissarion’s life. Last year, the Messiah turned 50, and to highlight the inevitability of the approaching apocalypse, he gave an especially significant annual sermon. “There is no free time in the School of Life, where you’ve come to study,” Vissarion told his disciples. He urged them to “mobilize all life potentials on the brink of a precipice” and work to purify their beliefs before the end comes (unlike state television, Vissarion does not talk of any particular date for doomsday).
Vissarion’s paradise is not always so utopian, however. A young group of artists and musicians—including some of his former followers—have banded together to form a group called Shamans of the Last Testament, and they have vocally criticized Vissarion and his priests. They say that, unlike his followers, who live in relative poverty, Vissarion lives in luxury in a heated Western-style cottage with wooden verandas and warm towels, and that he goes on lavish trips to visit spiritual friends in India (including the late sitar guru, Shri Shri Ravi Shankar). And they say that since Vissarion’s elite group of priests make sure to keep the details of Vissarion’s personal income private, no one has been able to investigate the source of the Teacher’s cushy living standards.
Still, the Christ of Siberia does not come across as a maniacal overlord like a David Koresh or a Jim Jones. He spends most of his time preaching on Skype or playing with the youngest of his seven children. But critics worry about what Vissarion (known to authorities by his birth name, Torop) could do if he feels the end is approaching. Dvorkin, of the Russian Asssociation of Centers for Religious and Sectarian Studies, fears a grim end awaits the Siberian apostles: “If tomorrow Torop tells his followers to go and kill themselves, they will.”
Reporting for this article was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.