NIKOLSKOYE, RUSSIA — To the people in this snowy Russian outpost, Piotr Kuznetsov was a pious Christian man who brought life to their dying village.
From across Russia and beyond, Mr. Kuznetsov’s spiritual followers flocked to Nikolskoye to worship in the movement he founded called the True Orthodox Church.
They grew their own food, prayed outside in meadows and socialized with the village’s lonely old women.
Then last November, the streets and yards fell silent. Mr. Kuznetsov’s 35 followers, including four children, vanished.
When police came to Mr. Kuznetsov’s blue wooden cottage, he told them his people had all retreated to a man-made cave he designed, where they will await the apocalypse, which he said will occur in May.
Three months later, his followers are still holed up in their tunnel beneath the snow, about 600 kilometres southeast of Moscow. Mr. Kuznetsov has been held since mid-November in a psychiatric hospital where doctors are trying to determine his mental health status. Under Russian law, a person can’t be held for more than 30 days without being charged, but the criminal medical examiners asked the prosecutors’ office for more time because they said the case was “so unusual.” The prosecutor agreed.
Police, priests, psychologists and frantic relatives have all begged the cave dwellers to come out, but they have threatened to blow themselves up with kerosene if police storm their hideaway. Local geologists have warned the tunnel could collapse under the snow and soil, killing everyone inside.
“We have begged them: ‘Give us the kids,’ ” said police officer Evgeny Tushin, who has been guarding the tunnel’s entrance since last fall. “They say: ‘The kids are okay. We won’t let them go.’ ”
While Mr. Kuznetsov’s followers could beat the odds and survive the winter, their dangerous, spiritual misadventure has focused attention on the proliferation of bizarre religious cults in this once-atheist country. Many are based, in part, on the Russian Orthodox Church.
Experts say there are as many as 700 cults in Russia attracting between 600,000 to 800,000 followers.
In the Siberian town of Abakan, thousands of Russians have abandoned careers, families and homes to follow the word of Sergei Torop, a former traffic cop who claims he is Jesus Christ. His 5,000 followers have built a rural community called Abode of Dawn out of a Siberian forest.
In another rural village in central Russia, a group of residents believe President Vladimir Putin was an apostle in a former life and perform daily devotions in front of a “presidential icon.”
The proliferation of home-grown cults is a relatively recent phenomenon. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia became a destination of choice for every variety of faith, from Western-based evangelical churches to exploitive con artists eager to tap this new market.
But Russia’s fondness for mysticism isn’t entirely new. Its pre-revolutionary religious history is steeped in rituals and superstition. Christianity came to Russia in the 10th century, and though it replaced paganism, it didn’t fully stamp it out.
Even today, many Russians are superstitious, openly discussing omens and bad luck. It’s not uncommon for a Moscow merchant to refuse to handle money after sunset because it is considered bad luck. Customers must instead place their money on the counter.
In the back pages of Moscow’s tabloids, magicians and healers offer to solve everyday problems, ranging from love woes to business dilemmas, and offer as well to cast and remove spells on enemies and friends.
Alexander Dvorkin, who studies Russian cults, said followers tend to be idealistic, middle-aged people, who were ill-equipped to deal with Russia’s switch from communism to capitalism. Others are disillusioned by the materialism of modern life.
“It is a chance to return to the ideals of their youth, which weren’t so materialistic,” said Mr. Dvorkin, a professor of religion at Moscow’s St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University.
He also noted that 70 years of state-sponsored atheism forced many Russians to seek spiritual answers outside religion, namely in science, new-age concepts or in a return to pagan rituals. “For 70 years, they were told not to believe in God, so people believed in everything else.”
Many believe in Sophia Dobrolyubova’s spells. They flock to her small Moscow office seeking cures for infertility, impotence, cancer and professional woes.
A former physical therapist with a psychology degree, Ms. Dobrolyubova said she inherited her gifts from her grandmother, a village healer in central Russia. Her 15-year-old daughter also has the gift. “I feel strong energy coming from her.”
Her office is a mix of religious and new-age paraphernalia; on her desk is a crystal ball. A family-owned copy of the icon of Kazan, Russia’s most revered icon, is mounted in the corner where clients leave written wishes.
Ms. Dobrolyubova said many Russians believe religion and magic are tied together. She spends most of her mornings in church praying for her clients before heading to the office.
“I have never thought of being anything else,” she said. “This is what I am.”
One of the most popular spiritual movements in Russia is Anastasia, founded by Russian entrepreneur Vladimir Megre. Followers adhere to the new-age advice of a never-seen, mysterious blond beauty named Anastasia, who lives in the Siberian woods and communicates through Mr. Megre.
Mr. Megre wrote nine volumes of best-selling books, The Ringing Cedars, which advocate a better relationship with nature and good nutrition.
The books also promote the healing qualities of cedar products, which Mr. Megre sells around the world though a mail-order business.
Lyudmila Kaptelova, 56, a former teacher, said she was instantly converted upon reading Mr. Megre’s books. “I thought, ‘Oh my God. This is what I’ve been searching for my whole life.’ ”
Ms. Kaptelova’s husband, also a teacher, initially ridiculed her conversion, but now the entire family, along with the couple’s three grown daughters, are Anastasia devotees.
Ms. Kaptelova said she used to read the Bible and attend Russian Orthodox services, but felt no connection to God. “The Bible is too complicated,” she said in an interview at the Moscow Anastasian’s dingy basement office.
“There are too many symbols. Anastasia gives direct answers to questions. She says ‘Do this and you will be happy.’ ” Ms. Kaptelova has heeded the Anastasian call to return to nature. She and her husband have bought land in an Anastasian “eco-village” outside Moscow, where they plan to build a small house.
Meanwhile in Nikolskoye, Mr. Kuznetsov urged his followers to sell their material belongings, including their apartments and live a simple, rural life.
Prosecutor Alexander Fomin who interviewed Mr. Kuznetsov many times, said he doesn’t appear mentally ill. “He looks like a decent, upright man,” Mr. Fomin said in an interview at his office in the nearby city of Penza.
By all accounts, Mr. Kuznetsov was a model husband and father and worked as an engineer with the Penza electrical utility. Five years ago, he quit his job and moved to his hometown of Nikolskoye, a village three hours away.
He settled into his parents’ abandoned cottage and bought up other decrepit properties, Mr. Fomin said. Later, he wrote a book outlining his beliefs, which is loosely based on Christian principles. Soon he was travelling the Russian countryside, luring followers to his rural village.
They came in droves, their cars stuffed with belongings, said villager Galina Cheprunova, 69, who was charmed by the new faces in town.
“They always said ‘Hello’ and talked about the weather,” she said. “I couldn’t say one bad word about them. Every day they prayed. They were good people.”
Last October, the old woman noticed people lugging sacks and bags to Mr. Kuznetsov’s house. Within a month, the village newcomers were gone.
“I can’t imagine how they can live in a cave,” Ms. Cheprunova said. “I can’t believe it. I don’t believe they are mad.”
Mr. Fomin said the tunnel constructed by Mr. Kuznetsov was elaborate, with bedrooms and a ventilation system.
Why Mr. Kuznetsov didn’t accompany his flock to the cave has mystified police, but he has assured authorities that his people have food and warmth.
“They had stoves and kerosene to cook with,” Mr. Fomin said. “He’s not worried about the kids. He said: ‘How do you think people lived in medieval times. Our bodies have mechanisms to adapt for survival.’ ” But local prosecutor Gennady Bulayev is worried about the children, one of whom is only 18 months old, and fears the drama will end in tragedy.
“We’ve tried everything,” said Mr. Bulayev, steering his small car across a snowy field after a visit to the tunnel’s entrance. “Something is very, very wrong. It’s not for me to judge them. But it’s my job to take care of them.”
Cults and mystics of Russia
Known as the “mad monk,” Grigori Rasputin was an outlandish figure in the court of Czar Nicholas II of Russia. A wandering peasant and self-styled holy man, Rasputin became a favourite of Nicholas and the Empress Alexandra in 1905 after he laid hands on their son Alexis, apparently healing the boy of hemophilia. Rasputin was soon a fixture in the royal household and a particular confidant to Alexandra. Wild eyed and unkempt, Rasputin was strangely charismatic and his personal magnetism was legendary; at the same time his bouts of drinking, womanizing and wild behaviour created a scandal in Russian society. He was finally killed in 1916 by a cabal of aristocrats who feared Rasputin’s influence had grown too great. His death became the stuff of legend: Assassins fed him poisoned cakes and wine, and when the poison failed, they shot him and beat him. Still Rasputin didn’t die, until finally the men bound him and tossed him into the Neva River, where he drowned.
SERGEI TOROP: JESUS OF SIBERIA
Sergei Torop is a 41-year-old former traffic cop and factory worker from Krasnodar in southern Russia who moved to Siberia as a youth, experienced an awakening in the early 1990s. Now he dresses in a velvet crimson robe, long brown hair framing a beatific smile, claiming to be Jesus Christ. He is called Vissarion Christ, the Messiah of Siberia and the Teacher by his thousands of disciples, who are convinced that he is the reincarnation of Jesus of Nazareth, come back to Earth to save the world.
His followers live by arcane rituals, laws, symbols, prayers, hymns and a new calendar. A strict code of conduct is enforced; no vices are permitted. To his critics in the established churches who accuse him of brainwashing and embezzling his followers, Vissarion is a charlatan deluding the devotees of “a destructive, totalitarian sect.”
OPRICHNIK BROTHERHOOD OF IVAN THE TERRIBLE
The Oprichniki were a group of killers used by Ivan the Terrible to eliminate his enemies in 16th-century Russia. 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 a few hours from Moscow in the village of Koscsheyevo in peasant-like conditions – outside toilets, water drawn from wells – and have a mixed reputation in the surrounding area. Some people accuse them of cruelty and religious fanaticism, while others think they are a strange, yet essentially harmless, group of committed Christians. The group is thought to consist of three families, all of which moved to the area from Russia’s Far East a few years ago.
This cult, which worships Russian President Vladimir Putin as the reincarnation of the Apostle Paul, has been flourishing near Nizhny Novgorod for several years. A portrait of the President hangs next to Orthodox icons in church, as members of the affiliation say he has come to the world to lead those who have gone astray to the light.
The Russia Resurrecting affiliation looks like a typical parish, with regular church services and people coming to be baptized and married. Its patron saint is the Mother of God, but in addition the head of the affiliation has included some alternative members into the Orthodox tradition. There are suggestions that Mother Photinia, head of the affiliation, was involved in fraud cases back in the 1990s and spent 18 months behind bars.
Sources: The Guardian, who2.com, McClatchy News Service, discardedlies.com