Messiah or cult leader?

MOSCOW — Sergei Torop, a 38-year-old former traffic warden from Siberia, sighed and smiled when asked to confirm his divinity. When you know you are Jesus, being asked for proof gets tiresome.

“Am I the Messiah? Even more than you consider yourselves human,” he answered. “I know my father, who gave me life for your good. I know myself and I know you, and that’s why I came to tell you the truth about God our father.”

Torop, who calls himself Vissarion, looks the part. With his benign smile, gaunt features and wispy beard, he resembles an Orthodox icon. Despite being married with five children, believing in reincarnation and recognizing pagan religions, he has convinced thousands of followers he is Jesus Christ.

A former colonel of Russia’s strategic missile forces acts as his foremost priest. His flock — the “Vissariontsi” — are mainly disenchanted Soviet intellectuals and idealists who have turned their backs on Boris Yeltsin’s Russia and given Torop all their money. In return, they get an entry ticket to his “City of the Sun,” a thriving town built and sustained with their income on top of a large hill in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia.

“To accept me, people need to give up everything they own. The rich will find it very difficult to enter the kingdom of heaven, very difficult,” he said with satisfaction. Though poverty is not a direct route to heaven, Vissarion does promise to have a word in his father’s ear. “I can’t guarantee someone’s salvation. I can only set it up for them.”

He spends little time with his flock, preferring to stay in his lavish home on top of the hill, where he paints. Priests and assistants — his “angels” take care of followers on a day-to-day basis. They follow a strict regime: fixed sleeping hours, a vegan diet, no solitude and constant prayer and celebration.

Dissent is not tolerated. “If someone says to me that he knows better than me, how can they? How can they know anything at all if it is I who make the rules? The rules need to be made by me before they can exist,” he said.

Is he a harmless crank exposing the failure of Russia’s Orthodox Church to fill post-Communist Russia’s spiritual vacuum? Or is he another cult leader guiding his followers to mass suicide?

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Some Orthodox priests see him as an evil pyramid schemer. They in turn stand accused of paranoia and envy. “He may not be the Messiah, but he is not a charlatan. He believes in what he says,” said Andrei Zhigalov, a filmmaker who lived with Vissarion while making a documentary about him for the BBC. “I can’t imagine the people who live with him committing suicide, because they are so happy, healthy and optimistic.”

The authorities in Minusinsk, the nearest town to “Sun City,” generally leave Vissarion alone. The influx of Vissariontsi into the region has revived a flagging economy. The fruit and vegetables they cultivate and sell to neighboring communities are welcome. Alexander Lebed, Governor of the huge Krasnoyarsk region, does not interfere. The gruff paratroop general and presidential hopeful -heralded by some as Russia’s political messiah — seems happy to leave Vissarion alone.

But Alexander Dvorkin, the director of a special department set up by the Orthodox Church to monitor sects’ influence, thinks Vissarion must be stopped.

“I see many striking resemblances between what Vissarion is doing today and what Jim Jones did with his People’s Temple just over 20 years ago,” he warned. “More than 900 people died in a mass suicide in Guyana. Why must we wait for 5,000 to do the same thing in Siberia?”

Dvorkin claims Vissarion is being manipulated by gangland-style businessmen who take most of the money. If the number of new followers tails off, the cult will collapse like a pyramid scheme.

Since the passage of a new law restricting the operation of minority faiths and churches, including the Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Orthodox Church’s motives in condemning Vissarion have been questioned. “The Orthodox Church exaggerates the problem of sects because they want to limit competition from other churches,” said Sergei Filatov of the Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Russia.

The religious fervor that came in the wake of glasnost and the Soviet collapse has died down and there are far fewer proselytizers on the streets than in the early Nineties. Vissarion’s appearances in Moscow and St. Petersburg to rally recruits are getting less frequent. He lets the growing reputation of “City of the Sun” spread the word, alongside publications distributed by Vissariontsi in major cities.

Very few of Vissarion’s followers return from his Siberian outpost. Having handed over all their money, they generally have no route back. Father Oleg Sinyaev, an Orthodox priest who counsels former sect members at Moscow’s Church of Sorrowful Joy, admits their appeal. “Vissarion’s community is very similar to communism. You don’t have to think and everything is provided for you,” he said. “It will all end in tears.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday June 4, 1999.
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