‘I am Jesus Christ . . . It was prophesied that I would return to finish what I started’

Daily Telegraph (England), Aug. 18, 2002
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/
By Ben Aris in Moscow

Thousands of pilgrims have converged on the hamlet of Petropavlovka, deep in the Siberian tundra, to hear today’s annual sermon by a 41-year-old former traffic policeman who they believe to be Jesus.

Sergei Torop, known to his followers as Vissarion, has descended on horseback for the occasion from the mountain log cabin that he shares with his wife and six children, 4,000ft above Petropavlovka in the republic of Khakassia, near the Siberian-Mongolian border.

Dressed in flowing red velvet robes and sporting long dark hair, Vissarion has appeared before his growing band of followers every year on the anniversary of his revelation in 1989 that he was Christ returned.

More than 4,000 followers have travelled from all over the former Soviet Union, and some as far away as Australia, to listen to his sermon and be baptised in the river that runs by Petropavlovka.
[…]

Vissarion leads one of the largest and most remote religious communities in the world with his most dedicated followers drawn from about 40 hamlets in southern Siberia where his name is spoken in hushed tones and where his image hangs in thousands of homes.

The barrenness of Siberia has always appealed to those with a religious bent. Following a schism in the Orthodox Church more than 300 years ago, the so-called Old Believers, who refused to accept ecclesiastical reforms, moved there to continue their traditional worship.

Vissarion’s preaching appeals directly to nationalist instincts and to those who long for a return to past ways of life lost on a wave of change.

“God meant the Russian soil for a higher mission and this is why on this earth the agony of forces turns into clear features. Foolish are those who want to go west: bereft of morality and spiritually impoverished,” says Vissarion in his teachings.

His most loyal followers, like the majority of those who have come to hear him preach today, have abandoned modern life. A hardcore of several hundred have built log huts and yurts (felt tents used by the nomads of Central Asia) in an area outside Petropavlovka that they have named Sonsiya Gorod (Sun City).

The inhabitants of Sun City follow ascetic rules. No drinking, swearing or smoking is allowed in the settlement and veganism is strictly enforced. There is little contact with the outside world and the families largely live on berries, mushrooms and vegetables gathered from the tundra.

Vissarion says: “The quality of a person does not depend on technical knowledge. The heights of the human mind are not defined by what he achieved in technology and science. Regardless of material success or high social standing, inside the human soul you stay a creature.”

Every morning the men rise at 7am and meet in the central clearing where a wooden angel perches above a cross, the sect’s symbol. Prayers are said and hymns sung as the worshippers look up the mountain where they believe The Teacher, as they call Vissarion, looks down on them.

The Orthodox Church was banned but never destroyed in Soviet days and with the return of religious freedoms, Russia has experienced a huge increase in the number of cults. One in five of the 140 religious organisations registered in the republic of Khakassia are sects. Converts flock to them to escape the confusion of a country wracked by economic and political change.

Vissarion is unconcerned by accusations that he is exploiting the cult of personality and speaks unashamedly of his claim to be the son of God.

“I am Jesus Christ, but I am not God,” he tells those who come to interview him. “It was prophesied that I would return to finish what I started.”

The thousands who will submerge themselves in the rivulet that runs by Petropavlovka today have no doubt that they are privileged to be the first to witness the Second Coming.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday August 19, 2002.
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