(AFP) PETROPAVLOVKA, Russia — The crowd shivered in breathless anticipation as dramatic music heralded his approach. “The Teacher is coming!” they whispered.
They parted in a human tunnel to allow the approach of the man they know as “Vissarion, the Teacher.” His long brown hair and white robes flowing and face fixed in a beatific smile, Vissarion outstretched his arms in blessing.
Women sobbed in ecstasy and clung to each other as he passed. “It feels like eternity,” one woman gushed. Close by, one man sighed in wonder: “It’s love on earth! Can’t you feel it?”
For thousands of followers, Vissarion is no less than the second coming of Jesus of Nazareth, reincarnated 2,000 years after his crucifixion, deep in the Siberian wilderness.
His promise of salvation has brought 4,000 followers to eke out a living in this far-flung region of Siberia, in one of the more extraordinary currents in a country known for its eccentric religious sects.
Once a year in late August, the anniversary of his first “sermon” in 1991, Vissarion descends to this throng of pilgrims from his mountain top lost deep in the Russian taiga.
An ex-traffic policeman in the nearby town of Minusinsk, Vissarion (or Sergei Torop as he was then) experienced his “awakening” two decades ago when he lost his job in 1989 as the atheist Communist regime was fast unraveling.
It was the start of a chaotic decade when millions of Russians sought comfort in religion and New Age sects mushroomed.
But how did he know he was the son of God? “It’s interesting but very complicated,” he told AFP softly, hands folded in his lap. “I felt something violently surging up from within me that had been held down until then.
“What happens to man when he wakes up and understands he is a man and not an elephant? How can he explain what has happened to him?” he added, laughing.
The festive mood as he descended to his followers for the festival was a throwback to the hippie fervour of the 1960s with a dash of apocalyptic fanaticism. Women wore flowers in their hair, men pony-tails and long robes.
“I have the feeling we are all one family, one heart,” said Irina Beseda, 38. “I feel that the energy here will be enough to save the planet from cataclysm.”
— ‘Man is coming nearer to destruction’ —
If this is the start of a new messianic age, it has come into being in one of the most forgotten backwaters on earth.
The nearest city within reach is Abakan, a Soviet time-warp more than 3,700 kilometers (2,300 miles) east of Moscow.
From there, it is a jolting three-hour ride over crater-filled forest trails to Petropavlovka, an outpost village of the “Vissarionites.”
Vissarion’s followers are convinced this is the heart of the earth — the new promised land — and the only place safe from looming ecological catastrophe.
How the end will come has not been foretold, but they fervently believe the deep pine and birch forest, swathed in snow six months a year, will one day soon turn to tropical jungle.
“Much will change on the face of the earth, but here almost nothing will change — just maybe the weather will get better,” Vissarion said.
“Man is coming nearer and nearer to destruction,” he warned. “Of course, this will be unpleasant and tragic, and it will bring a lot of pain. But we can’t escape it.”
“Before then, we have to create something that will help humanity so that it does not disappear entirely… like Noah’s Ark.”
The faith of his followers is an ad-hoc jumble of creeds overhung with Russian Orthodox rites and interlaced with green values.
The Vissarionites cross themselves with an extra flourish after the cult’s symbol — a cross within a circle — meant to signify the unification of four world faiths: Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Some 40 rural hamlets resettled by Vissarion’s disciples were first settled by an earlier generation of sectarians fleeing persecution by the Russian Orthodox Church over 350 years ago.
They became a dumping place for Tsarist and Communist exiles, but the villages were mostly abandoned when Vissarion’s band of followers turned up here in the 1990s.
Now freshly-built wood houses are trimmed with picket fences. An English-style public garden sits extravagantly in the town centre. Horses gallop freely and children are everywhere.
Most settlers are young. They have sworn off cigarettes and alcohol and adopted a vegetarian diet. Clutching hands, many couples said they had met and married here.
Converts include musicians, doctors, teachers, Red Army colonels, an ex-minister of Belarus and pilgrims from Cuba, Bulgaria, Belgium, Italy, Australia and Germany.
Lithuanian Lineta Maskalinaite, 43, gave up her Brussels posting to the European Union to join the “Teacher” two years ago.
In Europe, “a warmth was missing,” she said. “There were cocktails, concerts, interesting people from all over the world,” she said. “It was nice, but it wasn’t right, it wasn’t what my soul was searching for.”
But this idyllic summer scene is deceptive, warned Alexander Dvorkin, head of the Russian Association of Centers for Religious and Sectarian Studies.
“They’re cheerful and happy, but the people filmed in Moscow in 1937 (during Stalin’s purges) were too!”
He warned that Vissarion held total sway over his followers, who now live in the year 49 of a new calendar set to his lifetime and celebrate his birthday January 14 (1961) in place of Christmas.
In the 1990s, some of Vissarion’s devotees died either by suicide or due to the harsh living conditions and lack of medical care. Ticks and other biting insects are a major problem, and a large number of Vissarion’s adherents have been infected with Lyme disease.
Not all his followers have such positive stories to tell and onetime acolyte Maria Kaprinskaya, who now works as a journalist in Moscow, spoke bitterly of her former guru.
“I was romantic,” she said by telephone. “But there was a lot of death there at the start. Many of my friends, talented people… were in a bad way there, like fish on land.”
“His attempt to become God was not crowned with success. Now he is like a feudal lord, and his followers are his peasants.”
But Vissarion’s cult has since ditched their most radical laws, said Rashid Rafikov, the local government official in charge of ties with religious groups, including the Vissarionites.
When they first formed, he said, members refused childhood immunizations, modern medicine and shirked education.
“They have also relented on strict veganism. Now women and children are allowed dairy products,” Rafikov said. “Of course, there are still a lot of problems. They live in an area that’s too remote.
“It’s not enough to live off of nuts, berries and mushrooms,” he said. “The cult has a real problem feeding themselves from their kitchen gardens.”