Siberia, RUSSIA, June 23, 2008 -- "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.
'My Body Was Shivering Nonstop'
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.
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.
My first impression seeing the teacher was that he did actually look how one might imagine Jesus. With his long hair, flowing white robes and kind smile, he looked the part. But as the interview began, my feelings soon changed.
I asked him to tell me some of the principals of his religion. After a good 20 second pause, he replied, "The same as all other religions have. People should learn how to love each other." I asked him what he enjoyed to do every day and what he thought the most important philosophy to live by was. Each question provoked the same long pause followed by a monosyllabic reply.
Finally I asked him the question I had traveled all this way to ask: "Are you Jesus Christ?"
"It's not necessary to answer this," he told me.
I asked whether he believed in Judgment Day,
"There is a time, a certain period of time, during which the destiny of the whole human society will be decided. This period is going on already."
He would not elaborate on what will happen at the end of the period of judgment, nor on when that would be.
The next few questions I asked provoked the same truculent answer, "That doesn't interest me." So I finished by asking if he had anything that did interest him that he would like to communicate to our viewers and to Americans.
His reply, "I am not interested to tell them anything. Their time has not yet come."
It seemed that the interview was over before it began. I hadn't expected Jesus to be a man of so few words. Leaving, I noticed a quad bike parked in front of his house. It seemed ironic that he was zipping around while his followers trekked up and down the mountain. Traveling back to civilization, I marvelled at the zeal of Vissarion's followers. What did they see that I did not? Or what did I see that they did not? I felt inexplicably disappointed.
Yet the numbers of Vissarion's followers continues to grow as more and more people abandon their lives and flock to this remote corner of the world, and to this chameleon of a man. Vissarion? The Teacher? Jesus Christ? Or perhaps just Sergei Torop, the self-proclaimed messiah of Siberia.