Novel Faiths Find Followers Among Russia’s Disillusioned

ABODE OF DAWN, Russia — Six miles from the nearest road, in the vast Siberian wilderness, a bearded man in flowing white linen robes sat at his kitchen table and talked about his crucifixion at the hands of Pontius Pilate 2,000 years ago.

In a voice barely louder than the rain falling on the mountaintop home his followers have built for him, Sergei Torop said it was painful to remember the end of his last life, in which he says he walked the Earth as Jesus Christ.

Torop, 46, is a former Siberian traffic cop who is now spiritual leader of at least 5,000 devoted followers. They have abandoned lives as artists, engineers and professionals in other fields to move to this remote corner of Siberia, 2,000 miles from Moscow. In empty woodlands, they are building from scratch an entire new town, where they pass their lives near the man they call Vissarion, “he who gives new life.”

Russian government officials and religion analysts call his Church of the Last Testament one of the largest new religious groups in Russia, which has become an incubator of novel faiths since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Thousands of new religious groups have formed all over the world in recent years as increasing numbers of people become disillusioned with traditional religions, according to experts who study worship trends. In Russia, millions of people returned to the Orthodox Church after seven decades of state suppression of religion, but hundreds of thousands of others sought new faiths for new times.

Custom-made religions spring up nearly weekly across the world, some attracting a handful of adherents and others many thousands. And whatever their god, gospel or guru, like-minded searchers are finding one another faster and easier than ever through the connecting powers of the Internet.

“It is a massive phenomenon,” said Christopher H. Partridge, author of the Encyclopedia of New Religions. The theology of the new groups ranges from esoteric revisionist interpretations of Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism to belief that God will arrive on a UFO.

“A misconception is that these people are all the mad and the gullible and the stupid,” Partridge said. “Often they are very well-educated. It’s usually people who had thought a great deal about themselves, their place in the world and their life in the world to come. They are looking for something.”

Periodically, Torop comes down from his mountaintop home to meet his followers, who bow down and worship him. On Sundays, he receives them at his house. Torop is well-traveled, too — he has preached in Moscow, Western Europe and the United States.

Critics variously dismiss him as a delusional or perhaps dangerous cult leader. But people who have flocked here declare themselves certain of his divinity. “When I saw Vissarion, my heart said, ‘This is him. This is the one, the teacher I have been waiting for all my life,’ ” said Luba Derbina, 44, a former Red Cross translator from the Russian port city of Murmansk. “Yes, I believe he is Jesus Christ. I know it, like I know I’m breathing, and that’s it.”

Preaching Kindness

It was already sticky-hot and spitting rain at 7 a.m. one recent day, with mosquitoes swarming in an unforgiving cloud, as a hundred people gathered for morning prayers. They came in ones and twos, many of them men in ponytails, women in print dresses. Most were in their 30s and 40s. They met, as they do every day, at the circular garden at the center of the village they are building with shovels, hammers, saws and muscle.

Kneeling in the muddy grass, they sang hymns amid the tall pines and soaring white birch trees. Others became lost in silent prayer: One woman didn’t seem to notice the bugs on her bare ankles, already scarred with raw, bloody bites.

Then they gathered beneath the community basketball hoop and divvied up chores for the day: Work crews were dispatched to create roads and paths, to re-channel mountain streams into plastic tubes for household water supply, to run workshops on woodcarving and embroidery.

Despite harsh winters when temperatures can dip to 50 below, more than 250 people live in the growing village, which doesn’t appear on any map. They have named it the Abode of Dawn. Between 4,000 and 5,000 more followers live in about 40 other villages scattered along old logging roads within a few hours’ drive.

Framed photos of Torop, wearing purple robes, hang in hundreds of small wooden homes. Here they measure time by the life of Vissarion. Because he turned 46 in January, the followers are now living in Year 47.

By Torop’s order, alcohol, drugs and smoking are strongly discouraged, and everyone maintains a strict vegetarian diet. The villagers try to eat only what they grow, supplemented by big sacks of basics such as sugar, grain, salt, flour — and the occasional box of Earl Grey tea.

The emphasis on environmental awareness is part of Torop’s voluminous teachings, contained in a nine-volume “Last Testament” and 61 commandments. He preaches kindness to all, non-aggression and peace. His commandments include “Be pure in your thoughts,” “Do good deeds beyond all measure” and “Destroy nothing without reason.”

Galina Oshepkova, 54, said that 18 months ago she was a divorced mother of two sons, searching for meaning in her life in her native Belarus. Then a friend showed her a videotape of Torop. To her, she recalled, he looked so much like the classic images of Jesus, with his long brown hair and beard. In his sermon, he said he had come back to Earth because people had forgotten his teachings about peace from 2,000 years earlier.

“That was the end of my search,” Oshepkova said, boiling porridge over a propane stove in her dirt-floor kitchen. “I felt my heart beating really fast, and I knew, ‘This is the truth. This is Him.’ He is the second incarnation of Jesus Christ.”

Oshepkova gave her apartment and all her possessions to her sons and moved to Siberia. She said she arrived with two suitcases and no money, and was invited to move in with other followers. She is now married to Nikolai Oshepkov, an engineer who also walked away from his old life in Belarus. Now he designs the village’s network of solar panels and generators, and its rudimentary networks of piped water.

“We are building heaven on Earth,” Oshepkov said. “The conditions here are severe. Life is physically hard. But we have found what we were waiting for.”

Hype or Hope

Alexander Dvorkin, a Moscow academic and one of Russia’s leading specialists on new religions, called Torop a cult leader who is exploiting vulnerable followers. “To have this kind of control over people is bad,” Dvorkin said. He estimated that as many as 800,000 Russians are members of religious sects.

Torop’s followers, he said, are idealists who have had difficulty adjusting to the freewheeling new world of Russian capitalism. “They think, ‘I am more important than you because I am with Jesus. The end of the world will come, and where will you be with your money and big car?’ ”

Many followers interviewed said they were happy to give their money to a community they found so rewarding, but Dvorkin said it amounts to Torop fleecing them. Assets turned over by followers are the main income of the group; it also earns money from sales of handicrafts, such as woodcarvings, knitting, pottery and oil pressed from cedar nuts.

Some onetime followers later dropped out. Mariya Karpinskaya, 55, was a divorced mother of one when she met Torop in 1992 in Moscow. She moved to Siberia. At first, she said in an interview in Moscow, Torop seemed like a strong spiritual leader who dreamed of creating a “beautiful life — like a new America” in the Siberian woods. In 1995, she said, she came to the conclusion that Torop was only claiming to be Jesus for personal gain. “The hypnosis disappeared and I realized my life was ruined,” she said. “He doesn’t believe he is Jesus Christ. He is just manipulating people. It’s P.R., it’s a brand. Jesus is a brand.”

Mark Denisov, the local government official in charge of relations with the church, said government heath and education inspectors closely monitor Torop’s activities. When the church first started, he recounted, members insisted on educating their own children and rejected childhood immunizations and other modern medicine. A handful of Torop’s followers died in the early 1990s, he said, either from suicide, harsh living conditions or sickness for which they refused medical care.

Denisov said those problems are long solved; Torop and his followers now adhere to local laws, and children are taught a state-approved curriculum.

“Our economy was stagnating, our population was aging and people were leaving,” Denisov said. “Now we have 5,000 new educated, healthy people who do not drink, do not use drugs, do not steal and who are willing to have children here. From our point of view, this brings hope.”

3 Floors and an Outhouse

There is only one path up to Torop’s mountaintop home. Visitors making the ascent stop first at the house of Boris Mozhin, a mechanical engineer from the former Soviet republic of Moldova, who acts as the leader’s gatekeeper. Mozhin sits at a window next to a Soviet army crank phone, supplemented by two cellphones and a radiophone on a desk. A large portrait of Torop hangs on the wall.

“When you are with a person you love, your heart beats faster — that’s what it’s like to be with the teacher,” said Mozhin, 54, who moved here nine years ago with his wife, also an engineer.

Past a shed filled with neatly cut cordwood and a snowmobile, Torop stood in his kitchen doorway in white robes, awaiting two visitors. His house has three floors and a majestic panoramic view down to the village and wilderness beyond.

He and his wife live here, along with the younger of their six children. The older ones live in the village with Torop’s mother, who is divorced from his father. Electricity comes from solar panels; his bathroom is an outhouse.

Torop spends most of his days in the house painting and praying, followers say.

He asked the guests to sit with him, folded his hands and said, in a soft voice, “How may I help you?”

His hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail streaked with gray; he had soft hazel eyes and high cheekbones.

Speaking slowly, with long pauses, he said he had a typical upbringing as the son of a Siberian construction worker. At 18, he joined the Soviet army and spent two years on a construction unit, firing a gun only once. In 1985 he took a job as a traffic cop working the night shift. “When I had to do street patrols, I would just watch the stars,” he said. “I felt clearly that the stars were my home.”

In about 1990, when he was 29, he recounted, “something woke up inside of me” and he realized his divine nature. He said he then understood that God had sent him to Earth because hatred and war and environmental degradation had become rampant.

“To do what I’m called to do, I need to have a human body,” he said. “I live in a body in order to bring man closer to God.”

“This is the first time I have been needed in 2,000 years. This is a critical point. Only when mankind becomes one family on Earth will the doors to the universe become open to them.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday July 18, 2007.
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