MOSCOW, November 27 (RIA Novosti) – As the drama around the Russian sect awaiting the apocalypse in a cave in the country’s Penza Region continues to unfold, media reports of other isolated and extreme Christian groups have begun to emerge.
The True Russian Orthodox Church went underground some two weeks ago in order to “save themselves during the time of the apocalypse,” which they say will come in May 2008. The group of 29 people, including four children, has threatened to set fire to themselves if any attempt is made to force them to come to the surface.
The story has never been far away from the headlines in Russia since the news first broke, and with a deadlock in negotiations seemingly having been reached in the Penza Region, the media spotlight has now fallen on other such “similar” groups.
On Tuesday, the Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper reported on a group calling itself the “Oprichnik Brotherhood of Ivan the Terrible,” which resides a few hours away from Moscow in the village of Koscsheyevo.
The Oprichniki were a group of merciless killers used by Ivan the Terrible to eliminate with extreme prejudice his enemies in 16th century Russia that lay under direct tsarist rule. The Oprichniki, who dressed all in black and rode black horses, gained notoriety for their brutal attack on the city of Novgorod, which Ivan the Terrible had suspected of wanting to join Poland, in 1570.
The modern-day Oprichniki live in peasant-like conditions – outside toilets, water drawn from wells, and have a mixed reputation in the surrounding area. Some people, reported the paper, accuse them of cruelty and religious fanaticism, while others offer the opinion that they are a strange, yet essentially harmless group of committed Christians.
The group is believed to consist of three families, all of which moved to the area from Russia’s Far East a few years ago.
A Russian expert on religions and sects, Alexander Dvorkin, told the paper that the group shared many similarities with the Penza sect – namely “mind control and deception.”
“At first,” went on Dvorkin, “the group attempt to make a good impression on the potential recruit, doing anything to get him to their door. Away from home, as is well known, a person is more suggestible.”
The brotherhood, like many such fringe Russian Orthodox groups, is reported to possess icons of Ivan the Terrible and the “mad monk” Rasputin.
The region’s local prosecutor told Rossiiskaya Gazeta that “the main problem we have had with the Oprichniki was in 2000-2001. When they got into a conflict with the police over a document check. Another time a woman from the Ukraine came to us claiming that her daughter was being held against her will by the group. We were unable to confirm this however.”
Burning passports is also common behavior amongst such groups, who believe that the documents contain 666, the number of the Beast.
Religion was tightly controlled in the U.S.S.R. and the collapse of the Soviet Union saw an explosion in sects and cults, as well as interest in New Age philosophies and beliefs. The back pages of many Russian tabloid newspapers are full of advertisements for ‘healers’ and ‘magicians’ who promise to bring happiness in love, success in business, as well as a range of other services.
One of the most well-known sects in Russia has its base near the southern Siberian town of Abakan, where thousands of people, both Russian and foreign, worship a former Russian provincial traffic policeman, Sergei Torop, as the second coming of Christ.
There are currently believed to be around 500-700 such sects in Russia, containing some 600,000-800,000 people.
In 2005, Grigory Grabovoi, a Russian cult leader, made headlines all over the world when he promised to resurrect children killed during the 2004 siege in the Russian North Caucasus town of Beslan, in which a school was seized by Chechen militants.
Grabovoi was eventually arrested and jailed in 2006 after being charged with fraud “under the guise of resurrecting the victim’s dead relatives or curing them of serious illnesses.”