Novel Faiths Find Followers Among Russia's Disillusioned

Followers of Sergei Torop, who believe he is Jesus Christ, participate in morning prayers in their Siberian village.
Followers of Sergei Torop, who believe he is Jesus Christ, participate in morning prayers in their Siberian village. (By Kevin Sullivan -- The Washington Post)
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

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 remote 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.

Thousands of new religious groups have formed all over the world in recent years as increasing numbers of people become disillusioned with traditional religions, according to experts who study worship trends. 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 H. 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 that 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. Torop is well-traveled, too -- he has preached in Moscow, Western Europe and the United States.

Critics variously dismiss him as a delusional or perhaps dangerous cult leader. But people who have flocked here declare themselves certain of his divinity. "When I saw Vissarion, my heart said, 'This is him. This is the one, the teacher I have been waiting for all my life,' " said Luba Derbina, 44, a former Red Cross translator from the Russian port city of Murmansk. "Yes, I believe he is Jesus Christ. I know it, like I know I'm breathing, and that's it."

Preaching Kindness

It was already sticky-hot and spitting rain at 7 a.m. one recent day, with mosquitoes swarming in an unforgiving cloud, as a hundred people gathered for morning prayers. They came in ones and twos, many of them men in ponytails, women in print dresses. Most were in their 30s and 40s. They met, as they do every day, at the circular garden at the center of the village they are building with shovels, hammers, saws and muscle.

Kneeling in the muddy grass, they sang hymns amid the tall pines and soaring white birch trees. Others became lost in silent prayer: One woman didn't seem to notice the bugs on her bare ankles, already scarred with raw, bloody bites.

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