MOSCOW, Nov. 16, 2007 — At first glance the pictures of fields blanketed in thick, powder snow show no sign of life. Look closer and you can just make out a small hole in the snow, with smoke or steam occasionally piping out.
Inside that hole, deep in the countryside of central Russia, at least 29 people, four of whom are children, live in a cave. Authorities say that they are members of a little-known cult and that they refuse to leave the cave before May, when they believe the world will end.
They have threatened to blow themselves up if anyone tries to remove them.
Police, and psychologists continued trying to talk cult members into leaving their hideaway today after a group of local monks made initial contact Thursday. The leader of the group, Pyotr Kuznetsov, is a self-desribed prophet who formed his group after a split with the Russian Othodox church. Police say that he is not in the cave with his followers and that he has been arrested and is undergoing psychiatric evaluation, various media are reporting
The drama is unfolding in the small village of Nikolskoe, about 400 miles southeast of the Russian capital.
Thursday, Russian Orthodox monks used ropes to descend into a gully to talk with members of the group at the mouth of the cave, according to The Associated Press.
A police officer told the AP, “Those there have made no demands. When we contacted them, they said they have only one request — to leave them alone, because, they wanted to pray underground.”
TV images shot Thursday showed the archbishop of Penza and Kuznetsk at the mouth of the cave today assuring one of the cult members that authorities are not trying to secretly burrow into the cave.
“I reassure you, Vitaly, no one was digging anything. & No, it is not true. In my presence no one was digging anything,” the video shows.
Mikhail Chernov, a local reporter, spent Thursday at the scene of the standoff. He told ABC News that authorities say the youngest child in the cave is just 1 years old and the oldest person is 82.
Police are guarding the area around the clock, to prevent anyone from provoking the group. Local authorities are particularly concerned by unconfirmed reports of gunshots, fearing that the group may have weapons, Chernov says.
Chernov says that the group were originally members of the Russian Orthodox Church, but that they became more radical, rebelling against what they believe to be impurities in the church. They refused to participate in the most basic elements of civil life, such as registering for passports and social security.
Chernov says that Kuznetsov has two higher education degrees and is a certified engineer. Years ago authorities say he quit his job and became a monk of sorts, traveling around Ukraine, using the pseudonym Brother Maxim. He wrote a book in which he predicts the end of the world and it is this prophecy that is thought to have inspired the cult members to go underground.
The Russian Orthodox Church has made a statement saying that it will not interfere in the situation as it is the responsibility of local authorities. It said, however, that it will continue to pray for the souls of those in the cave.
Interfax, the Russian news agency, reports that the police have no plans to storm the cave at the moment. But as the days get shorter and colder, concerns for the children in the cave grow here. Today the front page of Izvestiya newspaper reads, “From the bunker you can hear how the children are crying.”