NIKOLSKOYE, Penza Region — Russian Orthodox priests sought Sunday to convince more than two dozen members of a doomsday cult to leave their underground forest hideout in the Penza region, but they stayed to await what they say is the end of the world.
The cult members have threatened to blow themselves up with about 400 liters of stockpiled gasoline if authorities force them out of what officials described as a cave or bunker near the village of Nikolskoye, about 640 kilometers southeast of Moscow.
Yevgeny Guseynov, a spokesman for the regional government, said officials were searching for experienced negotiators to try to coax the group out of their hiding place.
On Sunday, church clergymen visited the refuge, but the cult followers refused to listen to their arguments, said a security official monitoring the crisis, who refused to be named because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Police were guarding the site, but there are no plans to forcibly remove the 29 people — including four children, one only 18 months old. Russian television broadcast footage Saturday of what appeared to be a snow-covered hillside or mound with smoke coming from two stovepipes poking through the snow.
“There is no talk at all of storming” of the site, Guseynov said.
Pyotr Kuznetsov, who established his True Russian Orthodox Church after he split with the official church, has not joined his followers. He underwent psychiatric evaluation Friday, a day after he was charged with setting up a religious organization associated with violence.
Russian television on Friday showed Kuznetsov speaking at the clinic where he was being examined.
The group has stocked the hideout with food and other supplies.
Kuznetsov said on the Rossia television channel that he had not gone into the hide-out himself because he “had to meet others who were yet to arrive.”
On Thursday, black-clad Russian Orthodox monks carefully descended into the snow-covered gully to try to make contact with the cult, but members refused to speak with them. They were exchanging letters with Kuznetsov, however, and were in contact with doctors and officials, who promised food or medical supplies if needed.
Kuznetsov blessed his followers before sending them into the cave earlier this month. Most of the adults are women, Izvestia reported.
Kuznetsov, 43, a trained engineer from a deeply religious family, declared himself a prophet several years ago, left his family and settled in Nikolskoye. He began writing books, borrowing from a mixture of established beliefs and visited monasteries in Russia and Belarus, recruiting followers, Guseynov said.
Kuznetsov said his group believed that, in the afterlife, they would be judging whether others deserved heaven or hell, Izvestia reported Friday. Followers of his group were not allowed to watch television, listen to the radio or handle money, media reports said.