by Andrei Zubov and Tatiana Venslavskaia

Russkaia mysl, 3 September 1996

Currently in Russia thirteen thousand officially registered religious organization of various denominations are working side-by-side. But this figure does not convey, nor can it convey, the complexity and contradictions of religious life that are evoked by the appearance in such a short time of a countless number of fictional religious and public organizations that have processed registrations but really do not exist.

The roots of some organization are in the West and others are in the East, while a third group were born immediately in Russia itself. Among the last are the Church of the Last Testament (the former cultural center of cooperative development of spirituality and culture called "Source," and later "Society of United Faith"), headed by Vissarion (secular name, Sergii Torop). Having worked at several jobs, in his thirties in 1990 he declared himself the Christ who had appeared on earth not only for the "salvation of the sinful world," but also for the unification of all religions and spiritual doctrines into one religion.

In April 1994 he declared the city of Minusinsk and its surroundings in the south of Krasnoiarsk territory the Promised Land--New Jerusalem. At Vissarion's summons thousands of people flocked to this place, mostly from the large industrial and cultural centers of Russia and other countries of the CIS. He promised that here it would be possible to live as a united, harmonious family where, in Vissarion's words, " each member of the family is concerned for all the others and gives timely support to those who have fallen."

However, right away disturbing information began to come from the "Promised Land" that life in the commune was very far from a fairy tale. Hunger, cold, depression and even suicides--these characterized the reality of life near to "the living God" for a substantial portion of believers. Below is published an extraordinary document, a letter from a follower of Vissarion's teaching that frankly describes the degenerate life in the commune. It is the confession of a person who went through the stages of euphoria, doubt, and disillusionment with a person who for his own glory and pride destroys other people, breaks up families, and trades in human misery for his own luxury.

The letter is slightly abbreviated for various reasons and the names in it have been changed.

What drives people into such organizations? What forces them after abandoning civilized living, family, relatives, and friends to erect freely mansions to Vissarion in the future city of the son in the depths of the taiga, to build solar batteries and communicate with the outside world through space stations?

Why are they not put off by the miserable existence in dormitories and hovels without electric lights, radio, and medical aid?

In the first place, it is the spiritual hunger evoked by the social, ideological, political, and economic crisis that has deprived people of the comfort and their accustomed social forms and has given nothing in exchange. It is the total religious illiteracy and distorted ideas about personal freedom that were engendered by seventy years of atheism. Fortunately, some members of the commune wake up after having endured a severe internal crisis, but they also face new problems.

"My regeneration began internally after a mighty crisis. Everything began with bread, sugar, and vegetable oil. Everybody around me was refusing these fanatically and decisively, but I was not able to. I was on the brink of sobbing when my son every morning went to the closet and got my coat and said: "Go get bread." And I went secretly. And I felt such guilt. Every "unrighteous" candy burdened me with shame, guilt, and feelings of my worthlessness and helplessness. In winter we were at relatives in the city. One morning I joked that I had stopped being afraid of anything. And then I went into town and I saw people's bright faces and I lived them. I did not want to leave them. I could not stay in my little village and calmly await their destruction. And there, in the city, in the evening suddenly arose the literal realization of the enormous, amazing game. A game with us and with our souls.

And with this realization I returned to the village. I understood that I could no longer life with such a division in my soul and with such doubts. Every night I left with the prayer: 'Lord, if this is the truth, open my eyes; and if not, open my eyes to the necessary truth." And every morning I got up with more assurance that this was a mistake. The Lord did not abandon me. I felt this. The time came with I stopped restricting my being and stopped fearing whatever might be. I told my husband all of this and then new experiences and new discoveries happened.

The most dramatic was in March 1995. The situation arose when I could not feel at home anywhere. People talked with me as if I were sick, as if I were a person through whom darkness worked. The loneliness experienced at that time led to new understandings. I wrote poems. Many. Children and poetry, that was my salvation. Then in the summer there was some kind of change in relations with my husband. I managed to explain to him that it is not possible to share the love of two people for each other and of God for people. That it is God who gave us this love. And this love is absolute. We will be the greatest criminals before God if we destroy it. My husband finally agreed with me.

In the summer I again went to my parents' with the children. I baptized my son in the church, made confession, and became acquainted with the young priest who also became the sponsor for my son.

And there in the church I began to understand the harm to our souls which is happening here. I couldn't express it then in words. You simply see the icons and you understand--this is the truth, depth. But here everything is secondary and small. Frequently it is completely pointless. In the summer I even returned here with the blessing of the dean of our church. My husband even sometimes was pleased with our son's baptism and the priest was the sponsor.

In the summer I dealt with the first nervous breakdown of our older son. He did not want to return here. Then I did not choose to leave with relatives since I was afraid of dividing the family and children. But upon my return here I saw how very difficulty it is here for him. Sometimes the simplest request to help ended his hysteria. Conflict arose between him and his father. I began to see that the son was losing respect for his father. And I decided to take him to my parents.

The problem was not only with him. Breakdowns happened with many children. There were cases when the frantic mothers tried to candles and crosses around their raging children, and to take them by the hands and to pray. But this only brought on a new outburst of hysterics and rage that were the result simply of weariness and hunger. They need sensitive, loving, kind mothers who will not do wizardry with their candles when a child is sick but simply hug, kiss, inquire and try to understand. You saw abandoned children whose mothers were off at meeting and left their children to hang around the commune.

Once in April last year the people suddenly realized that everyone was talking only about food. Everyone simply was chronically hungry. Apparently feeling this tension, Vissarion preached a sermon in which he permitted them to eat bread and he said generally, eat what you want, only remain believers. Things got better for people. They stopped grumbling. But for me by that time much had become clear. Now the relaxation in eating led to the point that it was possible to eat everything except meat, fish, and eggs. Now the people rejoiced with each new relaxation. Now I heard happy phrases: "Vissarion has permitted drinking cocoa..." or "Did you here that now it is possible to read not only tales but also other books?"

And now about the mechanism of influencing people, the goals of this influence, and what happens with people who are doubters. It is really hard to show the substitution of values since in the sermons there frequently are truths which are unexceptional. But they are not new and frequently banal and shallow. The influence comes in approximately this way: a number of unexceptional truths are stated which create trust, and people agree with them, but in the next segment comes something new but not obviously true. People believe because everything earlier was true. They just believe and do not trouble themselves with thought. I will explain this with an absurd but obvious example: 1. The Volga flows to the Caspian; yes, we believe. 2. A horse likes oats; yes, we believe. 3. Grass grows upward; well, obviously. 4. The sun is green; alas, confusion. You don't have faith; ah, we believe, we believe. We squint, we stare; sure, it's green, it only seems yellow from here. So, it is green. Any naive oddball who declares that he does not see green in the sun is accused of lack of faith, or being under the influence of darkness, etc.

I could adduce a multitude of such questionable declarations that undermined the psychological health of people. "There are no believers among you and there never have been any on earth." "In principle you are not capable of understanding one another through speech since each of you uses a word in your own way." "Your name is for you death." "Anyone who says to God, 'I am weak, incomplete, sinful,' is a criminal against God." etc. In the end these tiny novelties, filling consciousness, deprive people of a felling of stability. Everything around them becomes uncertain, the world become aggressive, and you lock yourself up with your troubles. Remember: sins are not forgiven, we ourselves are guilty of everything, don't burden your loved ones with your troubles. A terrible feeling of guilt arises, of alienation, of loss, and there is no trust either for people or God. There is only one way out--to become perfect. And if you cannot? A noose? And there were such events in the commune, three, as I recall.

It is impossible to speak about the point of all this in secular, atheistic language.

The power of influence on people is enormous; you can call it a code, hypnosis, mystification, etc. And the only thing that can relieve this influence is a strict fast. One would not want to act on such troublesome concepts. In Orthodoxy there is the concept of "evil attraction." If one removes it from relations between a man and woman, then this is approximately what it is. Everything works to induce people to a limitless, blind love for Vissarion. And from this comes the faith. And the whole point is to divert pure and bright souls from the path of truth. But why did this become possible? Why did the Lord permit such deception?

But the Lord did not permit it; people who came here did. People who condemn all of humanity, accusing it of imperfection, refusing to trust it and calmly accepting the necessity of its destruction. People who are afraid of their own death and sickness and who decide that they know the truth better than all humanity. The name of this phenomenon is pride and arrogance, the worst of the seven deadly sins. And they go with their arrogance into the abyss, marching haughtily and singing psalms to their idol.

Praise God, many have ceased and changed their thinking. But to cease and change thinking is too little. As soon as you start on the path of doubt they put great pressure on you and it is quite uncertain where it will lead. Once fear overtakes you then an endless argument within you resounds, which leads to complete ambivalence and inability to do anything.

I went through this and now it is roiling Yury as it roiled Maria. In December she reached near paralysis; the day came when she crawled out of the house already unable to speak. An honest physician, praise God, diagnosed her with a nervous breakdown. An acquaintance who came here several times and who was attracted to all this and then tried to leave twice in half a year was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown. Another friend left here after a year when he understood that he was suicidal.

But I still face the recovery of my husband. Already he has quite often said in conversation that he will take his life. In the many years I have known him he never even entertained the idea of suicide. Carefully, step by step, I am leading him to Christ, to the true Christ, through Dostoevsky, Losski, the lives of the saints, Berdiaev, Soloviev. Slowly but surely something is working in his soul. But his recovery is still very far off. The disillusionment is too great and his pride has been cultivated from childhood. It worked out that before he came here he never had made a mistake, he always earned highest grades in school and university. And he always was outstanding, at work and in sports, and in the sect he even tried to reach the top. But he is unable to love people sincerely.

It is fearful to imagine how long this will last, fearful to imagine how he will undergo recovery. I see from the tone of the latest commandments that soon they will say: "Well, the world remained whole; you interceded for it." Already Vissarion is saying that it is quite unnecessary for everyone to come here. Already he says that he did not promise anyone physical immortality. Already he has renounced all responsibility for his followers and he has registered the commune as a church. And he takes not responsibility for anything. They are left without money, without a roof, without real work (it simply doesn't exist). We simply have no place to go.

If you still have any doubts, tear them up by the roots. Fear nothing. Life the world and people. Do what you can and if you have the spiritual need then turn to Christianity since it's been around 2000 years. Really we are wiser than all those generations. Try to close your eyes to the mundane, the human, and feel the spirit, reach for the truth. You will understand that they are humane, philanthropic, charitable and they will spare the one who is weak and imperfect. They are preserving his spiritual health. Be happy. That's all.

P.S. Now that things have turned out to lead me to this letter I want to ask you, if you are believers, pray for us and for all, for recovery and salvation of our souls."

How and in what way can the state and society help the thousands of people who have fallen into situations like the author describes?

"Pray for us!" These words end the letter of a person who endured with her family several years of Vissarion's "Church of the Final Testament" and now is ready to pay anything simply to liberate herself and her loved one from the power of a self-proclaimed messiah. Unfortunately, the request for prayer even among Christian now is treated as no more than a figure of speech: when you give up on real help from anyone you ask for their prayers. But there is nothing more effective than this scream from a creature to the Creator, this invocation of God to work with a person. Through prayer God enters the world and the world worships. But the power of the word of knowledge is for the most part only theoretical. In life we almost all are, alas, materialists. And thus when we are worked up by the actions of self-proclaimed preachers and prophets, who are frequently just mercenary and sometimes insane power lovers or simply mentally ill, we follow the old soviet custom and exclaim: "Outrage, where are the authorities, how can they permit all of this!" And the people who say this forget that in the spiritual realm the secular authorities of this world are powerless.

The Russian state is not competent to reach a conclusion about the truth or falsity of the claims of Vissarion to messiahship, just as it cannot judge the accuracy or error of Orthodoxy and any other religious teaching. But the state cannot be inactive when obvious violence is committed to the will and rights of people who live within its territory. The writer of the letter could voluntarily transfer her property to any juridical or physical person, including the Church of the Final Testament, but can she distribute her property to the detriment of her direct, but hopeless, heirs; that is a problem faced in a country with property legislation and thus it is a state problem. But if the legislative assembly of Russia considers that the law should defend the right of minor heirs, then any legal restrictions will apply equally to any question of property transfer.

This is the only way a democratic government can exist without transgressing the limits of personal responsibility and, moreover, without exposing itself to the colossal risk of approaching totalitarianism, which is the proper name for any control by the state not only of the misdeeds but also of the acts, ideas, and words of citizens.

We are accustomed to live in a totalitarian state and thus, naturally, like little children, we expect it to provide protection and ultimate justice. However for the Christian ultimate justice far surpasses the state's system of justice.

The Christian recognizes personal responsibility when a false messiah deceives weak people. He finds within himself the cause of this trouble, in his inconsistency, indifference, apathy, and finally prayerlessness. In his readiness, from the deceit of laziness of mind and heart, to transfer to another--to an official agency who is obligated to struggle against wolves in sheep's clothing--his own responsibility as an intercessor, missionary, preacher and spiritual activist.

Free will led the writer of the letter to Vissarion and only free will in accord with personal conscience set her free from the bonds. She freely converted to the church of God and freely followed the advice of the priest: "Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." It was by her freedom that she conquered Satan, who simply expect that we will take recourse to bondage and compulsion in our struggle with him.

We are sure that everyone who knows how to pray and the power of prayer will pray "for the recovery and salvation of souls" of those who, in their spiritual quests, have fallen into troubles. We are sure that the feeling of empathy for the mistaken, their families and children, will lead them to frequent prayer. But the inner pain does not go away and it whispers the doubt: "And is this all that we can do, really?" And how can we protect from trouble those who are assembling in Siberia around Vissarion today and protect their children from a poverty-stricken and famished childhood?

The state opened a wide highway for false prophets, false deities, false mothers of god, but it did not prepare to defend the future of the children of those citizens who would trust these religious renegades. What will facilitate the opening of the eyes, hearts, and souls of those who are seeking God? New legislation about freedom of conscience and religious profession? Complete information about the activity of various religious organizations and the tragic consequences of dealing with them? Perhaps, religious education and information about the difficult historical development of the religious awareness of humanity? But in the first place the active concern of society, that is, of all of us, about the question that threatens today's Russia.

Moscow, copyright RM 1996.