"Two white robed men were standing there among them and said, 'Men of Galilee, why are you standing here staring the sky? Jesus has gone away to heaven. And some day, just as He went, He will return!'" — New Testament, Acts 1:10-11
Deep in the heart of Siberia's birch forests lies one of the largest and most remote religious communes of the planet. More than 5,000 people have left their families and their homes to move here and join the Church of the Last Testament, which has more than 10,000 followers worldwide. The church centers on one man. He is known simply as Vissarion, meaning "he who gives new life," or simply as the teacher, and he claims that he is Jesus Christ.
I had heard about a self-proclaimed messiah in Siberia and I decided to try to find him myself. Getting to Vissarion's commune is not easy. From Moscow, the Russian capital, it is more than 2,000 miles and four time zones away. One begins by flying to Abakan, a bleak city near the Mongolian border, dotted with crumbling tsarist buildings and Soviet-style blocks. Driving through, I decided to ask residents whether they had heard of Vissarion and what they thought of him. Most people knew who he was, but they didn't seem to like him much.
"It's a sect … He presents himself as a demi-God and it's all lies in my opinion," Sergei told me. Lena was equally skeptical: "I heard they don't eat properly there. They grow vegetables and that's all they eat."
Once you drive out of the city, the drab concrete of Abakan gives way to rich rolling plains, sparkling rivers and tiny hamlets. After a few hours on the road, we finally reached Petropavlovka, where more than 80 percent of the residents are members of the Church of the Last Testament.
Life here is very basic. Vissarion's followers are strict vegetarians and they don't smoke or drink. The houses and churches are built from wood by hand and most of the energy comes from windmills and solar panels. At the followers' school, little boys are taught how to build model ships and young girls learn crochet and singing. With all the beautiful nature, it seemed an idyllic setting for a child to grow up in. But the portraits of Vissarion that adorned every wall were difficult to ignore.
The Church of the Last Testament has abolished Christmas and replaced it with a new celebration on Vissarion's birthday. The biggest holiday of the year is Aug. 18, the anniversary of the teacher's first sermon. And a new calendar has been introduced which dates from the year of his birth, making this year 48.
Vissarion was born Sergei Torop in 1961 and worked as a traffic cop up until his revelation. He started the Church of the Last Testament in 1991, the same year as the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a desperate and chaotic time for people. And after decades of religious oppression, suddenly thousands of new religions and sects burst onto the scene, all claiming to have the answers that people were so hungrily craving.
The next day we continued driving, bumping along rutted roads thick with butterflies. Stopping at a river for a break, we met Siegfried Werner, who left his home in Germany to move here. Many of Vissarion's followers are educated people from different European countries. Some of them used to work as doctors, teachers and engineers. One was even the former Belorussian deputy railway minister.