As Christmas celebrations continue across Russia, 35 members of a doomsday cult remain holed up in a bunker in the Penza region. They’re waiting for the end of the world.
The Twelve Days of Christmas, known in Russia as Svyatki, are the time for carnivals, games and fortune-telling. The holiday period is marked by Orthodox Christians as well as members of some other faiths.
The centuries-old rituals are mostly observed by women who try to find out what lies ahead.
The celebrations climax in Epiphany on January 19, which commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ.
Pagan New Year
In the Russian Republic of Mariy El, people are celebrating their local version of New Year known as Shoryk Yol.
The feast is marked with ancient pagan rituals, including wearing masks, fortune-telling and singing traditional chants to the accompaniment of an instrument like a bagpipe.
The name of the feast means ‘sheep leg’ in Russian. Legend has it that those who are lucky enough to catch a white lamb in complete darkness in a sheep-pen will have an exceptionally happy year.
Doomsday group refuse to budge
In one quiet rural region, the congregation’s prayers are not just for friends and loved ones. They’re also for a group it’s feared may not be seen again.
The 35 members of a Doomsday cult in Penza, including four children, remain holed up in the bunker and are not planning to come out.
They cut themselves off from the rest of society in November, to wait for the end of the world, which they believe is going to take place in May.
Psychiatrists, priests and government officials have repeatedly tried to coax them out, but without success. They report that cult members are threatening to commit mass suicide if anyone tries to force their hands.
Many of the sect are former members of the Russian Orthodox Church – and have described themselves as lost sheep. That’s a message Father Georgie, the local priest, has been repeating to his congregation.
“Our parish is deeply troubled because these people stepped far away from the Church. They’ve been convinced by the wrong people, who don’t have their best interests at heart. All of us prayed that god would give them guidance to find the right way,” Father Georgie says.
It may be the season of good will, but there seems to have been no change of heart from the men and women who have locked themselves and some of their children away beneath the hills of Penza.
Across Russia Orthodox Christians have been coming together to celebrate the birth of Christ. But the cultists remain apart, to mark what they believe will be the world’s last Christmas.