Novel new religions find followers among Russia's disillusioned


Jul 20, 2007

Thousands flock to esoteric faiths

ABODE OF DAWN, Russia -- Six miles from the nearest road, in the vast Siberian wilderness, a bearded man in flowing white linen robes sat at his kitchen table and talked about his crucifixion at the hands of Pontius Pilate 2,000 years ago.

In a voice barely louder than the rain falling on the mountaintop home his followers have built for him, Sergei Torop said it was painful to remember the end of his last life, in which he says he walked the earth as Jesus Christ.

Torop, 46, is a former Siberian traffic cop who is now spiritual leader of at least 5,000 devoted followers. They have abandoned lives as artists, engineers, and professionals in other fields to move to this corner of Siberia, 2,000 miles from Moscow.

In empty woodlands, they are building from scratch an entire new town, where they pass their lives near the man they call Vissarion, "he who gives new life."

Russian government officials and religion analysts call his Church of the Last Testament one of the largest new religious groups in Russia, which has become an incubator of novel faiths since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

In Russia, millions of people returned to the Orthodox Church after seven decades of state suppression of religion, but hundreds of thousands of others sought new faiths for new times.

Custom-made religions spring up nearly weekly across the world, some attracting a handful of adherents and others many thousands. And whatever their god, gospel, or guru, like-minded searchers are finding one another faster and easier than ever through the connecting powers of the Internet.

"It is a massive phenomenon," said Christopher Partridge, author of the Encyclopedia of New Religions. The theology of the new groups ranges from esoteric revisionist interpretations of Christianity, Hinduism, or Buddhism to belief God will arrive on a UFO.

"A misconception is that these people are all the mad and the gullible and the stupid," Partridge said. "Often they are very well educated. It's usually people who had thought a great deal about themselves, their place in the world, and their life in the world to come. They are looking for something."

Periodically, Torop comes down from his mountaintop home to meet his followers, who bow down and worship him. On Sundays, he receives them at his house.

Critics variously dismiss him as a delusional or perhaps dangerous cult leader. But people who have flocked here declare themselves certain of his divinity.

Despite harsh winters when temperatures can dip to 50 below, more than 250 people live in the growing village. They have named it the Abode of Dawn. Between 4,000 and 5,000 more followers live in about 40 other villages scattered along old logging roads within a few hours' drive.

By Torop's order, alcohol, drugs, and smoking are discouraged, and everyone maintains a strict vegetarian diet. The villagers try to eat only what they grow, supplemented by big sacks of basics such as sugar, grain, salt, flour -- and the occasional box of Earl Grey tea.

The emphasis on environmental awareness is part of Torop's teachings, contained in a nine-volume "Last Testament" and 61 commandments. He preaches kindness to all, nonaggression, and peace. His commandments include "Be pure in your thoughts," "Do good deeds beyond all measure," and "Destroy nothing without reason."

Alexander Dvorkin, a Moscow academic and one of Russia's leading specialists on new religions, called Torop a cult leader who is exploiting vulnerable followers. "To have this kind of control over people is bad," Dvorkin said. He estimated that as many as 800,000 Russians are members of religious sects.

Many followers interviewed said they were happy to give their money to a community they found so rewarding, but Dvorkin said it amounts to Torop fleecing them. Assets turned over by followers are the main income of the group; it also earns money from sales of handicrafts, such as woodcarvings, knitting, pottery, and oil pressed from cedar nuts.