Jesus of Siberia
Sergei Torop was a traffic cop in the small Russian town of Minusinsk until 1989, when he announced that he was the son of God. Now he commands a following of thousands and rules over a large swath of the Siberian mountains. Ian Traynor makes a pilgrimage
- 24 May 2002
- Article history
"It's all very complicated," he starts quietly. "But to keep things simple, yes, I am Jesus Christ. That which was promised must come to pass. And it was promised in Israel 2,000 years ago that I would return, that I would come back to finish what was started. I am not God. And it is a mistake to see Jesus as God. But I am the living word of God the Father. Everything that God wants to say, he says through me."
Meet the Messiah of Siberia, Vissarion Christ - the Teacher, as he is known to his thousands of disciples, who are convinced that he is the reincarnation of Jesus of Nazareth, come back to earth to save the world.
"He radiates incredible love," sighs Hermann, 57, a Bavarian engineer who is now selling his home in Germany to join the self-proclaimed messiah of the taiga. "I met Vissarion last August. He told me we had to follow two laws. It was like an electric shock, like bells ringing."
To find Vissarion, you fly 3,700km east from Moscow to the southern Siberian town of Abakan, north of the Mongolian border, then drive for six hours along rutted roads through a string of villages. Where the road ends in a rollercoaster of craters, the bog begins, and you trudge knee-deep in mud and ice for three hours before the final ascent to the "saviour", a steep hour's climb up a mountain path.
To witness the lives of these New Age dropouts in the hamlets of Kuragino, Imisskoye, Petropavlovka and Cheremshanka is to get an inkling of how things must have been in 17th-century New England for the pilgrim fathers toiling away at their new Jerusalem.
"Life is so hard here," says Denis, a 21-year-old Russian emigre who arrived last week from Brisbane to see if Vissarion really was the answer to his questions. "No doubt about it, mate," he affirms. "Definitely the Son of God."
To his critics in the established churches who accuse him of brainwashing and embezzling his followers, Vissarion is a charlatan deluding the devotees of "a destructive, totalitarian sect". More prosaically, he is Sergei Torop, a 41-year-old former traffic cop and factory worker from Krasnodar in southern Russia, who moved to Siberia as a youth, experienced his awakening a decade ago, and now leads one of the biggest and most remote religious communes on the planet.
Combining new age eclecticism with medieval monasticism, the "Vissarionites", clustered in around 30 rural settlements in southern Siberia, now number around 4,000. They are unquestioningly dedicated to their guru. They utter his name in hushed tones. They decorate their homes, temples and workplaces with his image. They reverentially swap tales of the Teacher's every act or word. They pore over his four fat volumes of musings. His aphorisms are learned by rote and regurgitated daily.
Vissarion - like all the followers of his "Church of the Last Testament", he goes by his adopted first name only - is untroubled by this cult of personality and its sinister resonance in Russian history. "It depends how a person uses my image," he explains. "Man has to bow down to the Father. But it is a mystery and the image enables a person to connect with me. The image can help in that sense, strengthen his efforts."
Vissarion's commune is governed by arcane rituals, laws, symbols, prayers, hymns, and a new calendar. A strict code of conduct is enforced: no vices are permitted. Veganism is compulsory for all, though exceptions can be made for infants and lactating mothers, who are allowed sour milk products (if they can find them). There is no animal husbandry. Monetary exchange is banned within the commune, and only reluctantly allowed with the outside world.
"We're not allowed to smoke, or swear, or drink," laughs Larissa, a glowing 28-year-old mother of three who arrived here from Moscow with her mother as an 18-year-old. "Everything is banned here. We're not allowed to do anything except fall in love."
The devotees include Russian musicians, actresses, teachers, doctors, former Red Army colonels, an ex-deputy railways minister of Belarus, as well as a growing band of adherents from western Europe. They drink the sap of the birch trees that they fell for housing, tools and furniture. They live off berries, nuts and mushrooms gathered in the forest. They scratch potatoes, cabbage and Jerusalem artichokes from the unyielding soil. They barter handicrafts and vegetables for buckwheat and barley from nearby villages. "Man can live in any extreme conditions," Vissarion pronounces, a permanent Mona Lisa smile playing on his lips. "Of course it is hard, especially for intellectuals and those used to working in the towns. But it is important for people to see themselves and to see one another. That is easier when the toil is hard. There is salvation in hardship."
On an adjacent peak, a large bell has been mounted by the believers. It tolls across the valley three times a day. On hearing it, the faithful drop to their knees to pray. The bell weighs 270kg. The followers carried it on foot for 50km in torrential rain from the village where the metal was cast, and then hauled it up to the summit. Vissarion himself is spared much of the physical toil. While teams of young men dig irrigation trenches beside his chalet, he whiles away the long days on the mountaintop painting oil canvases.
At the age of 18 Sergei Torop enlisted, starting his compulsory two-year stint in the Red Army and finishing as a sergeant on construction sites in Mongolia before working for three years as a metal worker in a factory in the Siberian town of Minusinsk. From there, the self-proclaimed saviour embarked on a career as a traffic policeman, also in Minusinsk, winning nine commendations during five years' service. Job cuts in 1989 left him unemployed just as the Soviet Union was descending into chaos. Millions of Russians were bewildered and craving answers. The advent of the new era also coincided with Sergei's rebirth as Vissarion.
Thousands of people, the majority of them educated professionals from cities in European Russia, abandoned wives, husbands and children to flock to the Church of the Last Testament, replicating the flight of the schismatics to Siberia from European Russia 350 years ago to escape persecution by the Orthodox church. The schismatics' descendants now share some of the same villages with the Vissarionites, who have assimilated many elements of Orthodox ritual but whose belief system also embraces an eclectic, some say incoherent, mish-mash of Buddhist, Taoist and green values.
For centuries, the wide-open spaces of Siberia have drawn the sectarian, the wacky and the nonconformist. The post-Soviet decade has revived that tradition, bringing a boom in evangelism and new age cults. Of 140 religious organisations registered in the republic of Khakassia, says Nikolai Volkov, the chief local government official dealing with religious affairs, 28 are "new religious movements", as new age sects are dubbed.
For the Church of the Last Testament, it is now year 42 of the new era, which the believers date from Vissarion's birth in 1961. Christmas has been abolished and replaced by a feast day on January 14, the Teacher's birthday. The biggest holiday of the year falls on August 18, the anniversary of Vissarion's first sermon in 1991, when the "saviour" descends from the mountain on horseback to join thousands of revellers cavorting in the river running by the hamlet of Petropavlovka.
To the east lies Sun City. It is here, at the foot of the mountain where their saviour lives with his wife and six children (including a little girl adopted from a single mother in the commune), that the hardcore faithful, the most committed of the Vissarionites, congregate. On a patch of taiga peat bog that they have cleared of birch and cedar, 41 families live in timber cabins and felt yurts. The men sport ponytails and beards, the women long hair and long skirts. Most of them are in their mid-30s. The giggling of children is all around. There is a school and a kindergarten. The birth rate here is much higher than in the average Russian village.
The mood is cheerfully apocalyptic. "Have you not heard?" laughs Igor as he guides us through the swamp. "A comet is going to smash into the earth next year." With his beard, birch stick, tunic and pointy Uzbek felt hat, the 48-year-old recovered alcoholic from St Petersburg looks like he has walked off the set of Lord of the Rings.
If the looming comet imperils most of humanity, Sun City is Noah's Ark. Russia's mission, in the best Orthodox tradition of "Third Rome" messianism, is to redeem the rest of us. "This central part of Siberia is the part of the world that can survive best," explains Vissarion. "And this is a society that can endure big changes and be more receptive to a better understanding of the truth."
For now, though, the apocalypse can wait. There's work to do and word to spread. In recent years Vissarion has been to New York, to Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Italy seeking converts. For the first time he has just been "invited" to Britain, where he hopes to preach "soon".
Such international jetsetting feeds suspicions that he is living at their expense of his disciples. He insists that neither he nor his church has any "regular income", that his foreign travels are "sponsored" by his hosts. His chalet, powered by solar batteries and a small windmill, is modest, if more comfortable than the homes of his followers. It is also more remote, a steep hour's climb up a path from Sun City.
"I've been with him 10 years, I know him," says Vadim, a former drummer in a Russian rock band and Vissarion's right-hand man. "He's the only person I know who lives what he preaches. They say he's a liar and a cheat, taking the money. They're only describing the way they behave themselves."
At 7am, the menfolk and a few women emerge from their cabins to stream towards the "city" centre, marked by a mud circle ringed by stones, at the centre of which stands a carved wooden angel, wings outstretched, and capped by the Vissarionites' symbol - a cross inside a circle. This is a daily ritual. The faithful kneel on short wooden planks, murmur prayers and sing hymns, led by a man with a rich baritone. Then they join hands in a circle around the stones, raise their heads to the mountain, from where they believe Vissarion is watching, and sing paeans to "our tender father".
"Immortality is the unique quality of the human soul, but mankind has to learn how to achieve it, how to live eternally," Vissarion says quietly before shrouding his head in a white shawl and shuffling away.
"There's a place in the New Testament where Jesus says the time will come when I will no longer speak in parables. That time has come: the time for people to see the aim of life."
The Second Coming
Of Jesus Christ claimed
by many has occurred
All gospel preachers believe Jesus Christ is the one and only way to God; and, anyone who believes can receive salvation through Him. But, what happens when the preacher literally start saying 'he is Jesus Christ reincarnated' - The Second Coming.
Sergei Torop - Known as "Vissarion - Jesus of Siberia," Torop is a former police man, who believes he is the reincarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. He formed the "Church of the Last Testament." Vissarion believes he will create one unifying faith which will unite all religions.
Metafilter, a community weblog, said Vissarion is a Polygamist. When he lost his job as a traffic cop, in 1991, Sergei Torop changed his name to Vissarion. He began spreading his message about how to attain moral perfection, drive out negative energy, and survive the coming Apocalypse. Today, the Community of Vissarion, in the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia, numbers around 10,000, while a further 50,000 follow his teachings in the world beyond.
Located 2,000 miles, east of Moscow and north of the Mongolian Border, is a 250 hectare (one hectare equals 2.471 acres) settlement called, "Abode of Dawn," which is the earth altar. Regularly, Vissarions' followers come together to celebrate a festival of "Good Fruit" to praise him. Routinely, Vissarion routinely sits on a high hill, with a red umbrella, as his followers stands near the bottom gazing up at him.