With famous supporters like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, the Church of Scientology is continuing to grow around the world. And Russia has proved one of its prime targets with more than 10,000 followers in Moscow alone.
Developed by author L. Ron Hubbard, it’s one of the most controversial religious movements of the last century.
It claims to be a study of truth but its better known for some other practices, such as encouraging women to give birth in silence and the belief that aliens brought humans to Earth in spaceships millions of years ago.
Critics condemn it as a cult and a con-trick but followers say it offers a path to true enlightenment.
And there are plenty of them. The church says it has more than three and a half million members in America and it’s been recruiting worldwide for decades.
Russia is no exception. It’s estimated there are now more than 10.000 scientologists in Moscow alone and up to 200,000 across the country.
Anti-drug campaigner Vladimir Ivanov was one of the first. He became interested in a drug rehabilitation programme called Narconon, based on Hubbard’s ideas.
After visits to U.S. training centres Ivanov had some success implementing it in Russia. But the more he learnt about scientology the more disillusioned he became.
“They say they want to protect the world and to make humankind happy, but they don’t practice what they preach. Their services are so expensive only the rich can afford them. Eventually they began saying it was my duty to expand the Narconon programme in Russia and transfer money abroad. It was the last straw,” he said.
With courses costing thousands of dollars, poorer followers who can’t pay often have to work off their debts. They may have to live in scientology accommodation and cut off all contact with friends and family.
Opponents say it amounts to little more than slave labour.
Representatives from Moscow’s only church of Scientology refused to comment on accusations that it exploits its members, nor would they allow Russia Today to film inside.