Ex-Traffic Cop Says He's Jesus

Werner explained to me, "It's all about Vissarion. I had an experience when I went from Italy, he embraced me very warmly. He took my hands and then my heart spoke and that was the time when I never doubted again that he was the Christ."

After three hours in the car the road ended and the journey on foot began. The four-mile trek through Siberian forest, or taiga as it is known, was brutal. Mosquitoes swarmed menacingly overhead and ticks were everywhere. Unsurprisingly, almost two-thirds of Vissarion's followers have been infected with Lyme disease. The group eschews modern medicine, relying instead on holistic remedies. One of Vissarion's 60 commandments declares, "in most cases, illness is punishment for an inability to keep one's flesh in harmony with nature." During the 1990s there were reports that some of his followers had died after refusing medical attention.

After hours of walking, we finally reach "Abode of Dawn," a small settlement where 250 of Vissarion's most devout followers live. It's four miles to the nearest road and just a couple of miles below the teacher himself. At this point we were assigned minders who monitored our movements until we left.

The villagers in the Abode of Dawn follow an almost entirely vegan diet, largely based on what they can grow themselves. When they move here, they give the church their pensions and whatever possessions they may have. In return they receive basics such as sugar, buckwheat and flour. No money is used within the community but they are given an allowance of 300 rubles, about $12, a month.

The followers here were even more zealous when talking about their teacher. I sat down with a group of women and asked about their first time meeting Vissarion.

"When I saw him the first time my soul recognized him. I could not cope with my emotions and my soul cried, 'It's him, it's him. He is on earth!"' Galina told me.

"It was as if a flood came down from the sky and my body was shivering nonstop!" Tatyana added.

Every day the women pore over his 10 volumes of teachings and five times a day a bell rings whereupon the followers turn to pray towards the mountaintop where Vissarion lives.

Life here seemed visibly more cut off from society. The children are homeschooled. Every year a representative from the nearest school board visits to make sure that the children are being educated according to the national curriculum. The local government is tacitly supportive of Vissarion's group, although the Orthodox church has denounced them as a sect. In Siberia, where there is terrible alcoholism and a declining population, Vissarion's community is one of the very few that is healthy, hard-working and growing fast.

A Man of Few Words

On Sunday the community congregates early to begin the rituals of the holy day. Followers from Petropavlovka and other villages make the journey to see their teacher for the day. People dress up for the occasion.

The day begins with a steep walk up the mountain to where Vissarion lives. At the top of the mountain, the followers gather at an altar and sing songs and pray. Standing amongst them, the intensity of their fervour was palpable.

As the liturgy drew to a close I felt excited. We were getting closer to meeting Vissarion. It was finally time.

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