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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)

Some onetime followers later dropped out. Mariya Karpinskaya, 55, was a divorced mother of one when she met Torop in 1992 in Moscow. She moved to Siberia. At first, she said in an interview in Moscow, Torop seemed like a strong spiritual leader who dreamed of creating a "beautiful life -- like a new America" in the Siberian woods. In 1995, she said, she came to the conclusion that Torop was only claiming to be Jesus for personal gain. "The hypnosis disappeared and I realized my life was ruined," she said. "He doesn't believe he is Jesus Christ. He is just manipulating people. It's P.R., it's a brand. Jesus is a brand."

Mark Denisov, the local government official in charge of relations with the church, said government heath and education inspectors closely monitor Torop's activities. When the church first started, he recounted, members insisted on educating their own children and rejected childhood immunizations and other modern medicine. A handful of Torop's followers died in the early 1990s, he said, either from suicide, harsh living conditions or sickness for which they refused medical care.

Denisov said those problems are long solved; Torop and his followers now adhere to local laws, and children are taught a state-approved curriculum.

"Our economy was stagnating, our population was aging and people were leaving," Denisov said. "Now we have 5,000 new educated, healthy people who do not drink, do not use drugs, do not steal and who are willing to have children here. From our point of view, this brings hope."

3 Floors and an Outhouse

There is only one path up to Torop's mountaintop home. Visitors making the ascent stop first at the house of Boris Mozhin, a mechanical engineer from the former Soviet republic of Moldova, who acts as the leader's gatekeeper. Mozhin sits at a window next to a Soviet army crank phone, supplemented by two cellphones and a radiophone on a desk. A large portrait of Torop hangs on the wall.

"When you are with a person you love, your heart beats faster -- that's what it's like to be with the teacher," said Mozhin, 54, who moved here nine years ago with his wife, also an engineer.

Past a shed filled with neatly cut cordwood and a snowmobile, Torop stood in his kitchen doorway in white robes, awaiting two visitors. His house has three floors and a majestic panoramic view down to the village and wilderness beyond.

He and his wife live here, along with the younger of their six children. The older ones live in the village with Torop's mother, who is divorced from his father. Electricity comes from solar panels; his bathroom is an outhouse.

Torop spends most of his days in the house painting and praying, followers say.

He asked the guests to sit with him, folded his hands and said, in a soft voice, "How may I help you?"

His hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail streaked with gray; he had soft hazel eyes and high cheekbones.

Speaking slowly, with long pauses, he said he had a typical upbringing as the son of a Siberian construction worker. At 18, he joined the Soviet army and spent two years on a construction unit, firing a gun only once. In 1985 he took a job as a traffic cop working the night shift. "When I had to do street patrols, I would just watch the stars," he said. "I felt clearly that the stars were my home."

In about 1990, when he was 29, he recounted, "something woke up inside of me" and he realized his divine nature. He said he then understood that God had sent him to Earth because hatred and war and environmental degradation had become rampant.

"To do what I'm called to do, I need to have a human body," he said. "I live in a body in order to bring man closer to God."

"This is the first time I have been needed in 2,000 years. This is a critical point. Only when mankind becomes one family on Earth will the doors to the universe become open to them."

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