poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

June 14, 2010

Another horror story about Russian traffic cops?

Filed under: Culture: Russia — poemless @ 6:05 PM
Tags: , ,

So I am probably the last person on earth to hear of this guy, Sergei “Vissarion Christ” Torop, who used to be a Siberian traffic cop until he realized he was the Second Coming. Which leads me to wonder if being a Russian cop isn’t as psychologically dangerous for the cops themselves as it is for those they serve and protect. Especially the traffic cops. In Siberia. For whose inhabitants there appear 3 life options: corrupt civil servant, corrupt savior of mankind, or their victims. You can write the guy off, but he has 10,000 of followers. And they haven’t taken the Kool-Aid way out. Yet.

Here is a video produced for Nightline (an evening news program in the States that no one to my knowledge watches):

I was not made aware of Vissarion by Nightline, but by Daniel Kalder’s book, Strange Telescopes, which has a large section devoted to the cult. Unlike the backpacker in the news item, Kalder is a bad ass and goes to stay there during the winter. Like any proper cult, or political party, they have strict talking points (after watching several YouTube videos produced both by and about the cult, they start to sound like robots), so you won’t gain any new revelations from interviews with the members or its leader. But something I found very neat about Vissarion’s cult is how it is allowed to prosper: First off, he acquired a ton of land on lease in the heady days of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when encouraging religious expression and giving away land to crooks was all the rage. This is where he and his followers have settled among the mountains and taiga. He’s been able to stay legit in the more stringent, un-Orthodox friendly Putin era by … well, what does Mr. Putin like? Following the rules. Seriously, the Vissarions follow the law, pay taxes, conduct legal business, allow regular government audits and inspections, home school the kids using the State-approved textbooks, support the local governor, the whole shebang. In the country from which I hail, most cults spout up out of resistance to the government. We have more freedom of religion than Russia. (Which means little more than annoying people with pamphlets can show up at my door and not go away, or pyramid schemes with Hollywood actor acolytes can get tax breaks.) Yet the Messiah is thriving in Siberia. Oh, also the Messiah is also waging a War on Christmas by abolishing it and changing the holiday to his birthday. How nice to be God. Well, technically he’s not God. And technically he’s the 3rd coming.

Listening to and reading about the lifestyle of his followers and his basic teachings, I can initially totally see myself running away to join. At least for a year. They’re all environmentalists who develop useful skills and think positive thoughts. That sounds nice. No money. That sounds lovely. Arts and crafts and the whispering of the wildflowers in the Siberian spring… oohhhh. Then there is the stuff about following him, the global, nay, intergalactic Jewish conspiracy, traditional marriages and gender roles. (Kalder is miffed that Vissarion gets a hot little girlfriend -in addition to the wife- and a Land Rover while his followers must do without, but he is God, after all. It would be weird if he couldn’t have those things.) Yet I can see how people get lured in. It’s not difficult to imagine an educated professional reflecting upon their crap life of materialism and social alienation and thinking, all I have to do is submit to this guy and I get to live in a Utopia? Alright. The people I’m forced to submit to now are 10 times more evil and I’ve little to show for it.

Most if not all of the outside coverage of Vissarion’s cult point to the back-breaking work and harsh climate to illustrate just how brainwashed and desperate his followers are. You’d have to be either a total wreck or operating against your free will to become a Siberian construction worker. After all, that’s what Stalin chose as punishment for those who dared threaten his regime. I don’t buy it. I can totally see how sitting in an office/car/living room/etc. for most of their lives would make people antsy for some hard fucking labor, Office Space-like. Especially the kind of labor that leaves you with something to show for it. As for climate, it’s not like Moscow and St. Peterburg are tropical paradises. Plus, it’s a “dry cold,” making it more tolerable. (I’ve heard this when referring to the heat, but never the cold. Hm.)

Most if not all of the outside coverage of Vissarion’s cult point to the new religious freedoms allowed in the past few decades to illustrate what might have provoked such a cult. Eager to take advantage of their new rights and a bit confused and adrift because of all the social chaos and lack of obvious choices, these poor folk fell into Vissarion’s trap. I don’t buy it. Most Russians who wanted to cash in on their religious freedom had no problem locating the Orthodox Church across the street. But more importantly, Vissarion’s cult seems to me motivated less by the need to worship indiscriminately and more by the need to leave their current socio-economic situation for something better, more promising, more fulfilling. Yes, the origin of Vissarion’s cult coincided with the end of State atheism. But in many ways it is now trying to replicate the economic ideals of that failed State. I wonder if it was an infusion of faith, or a crisis of faith that has lured people to this workers’ paradise? Vissarionites are rejecting their post-Communist country, after all, not embracing it…

You can read more about Kalder’s stay with the Vissarionites here.

27 Comments »

  1. Thanks for this inspirational story, poemless. As someone who intends to start his own cult it is highly appreciated.

    Comment by Tolya — June 15, 2010 @ 3:11 AM | Reply

    • Hahahahahaha…..thats the most amusing comment I’ve read here [whether or not it is meant seriously!]

      Please note that your forthcoming venture will also be described as a “Horror story [etc]…?” – so not as inspirational perhaps!

      Comment by blitzen — June 15, 2010 @ 9:10 AM | Reply

      • Oh, I’m pretty sure he is serious.

        Comment by poemless — June 15, 2010 @ 9:17 AM | Reply

        • Then you had better find out all you can about him, there’ll be a book in it one day!

          Comment by blitzen — June 16, 2010 @ 12:57 AM | Reply

    • Awesome. What will one have to do to join your cult?

      Comment by poemless — June 15, 2010 @ 9:18 AM | Reply

  2. Moral of the story seems to be that the only way to get some/most people to live in a sensible fashion is to get them to believe in a hero who will save them, a commander whose every word is their command.

    Perhaps thats why shepherd and sheep are used in this context – it is really sheep who need a shepherd to herd them around. Yet, is their life really that bad? After all, most people do just the same, except that their shepherds come from different sources, different forces in society.

    As good/bad to be ordered around by somebody with a vision as it is to be ordered around by your TV feed…

    Comment by blitzen — June 15, 2010 @ 9:15 AM | Reply

    • Do you think the Vissarionites are living in a “sensible fashion?”

      Comment by poemless — June 15, 2010 @ 9:38 AM | Reply

      • I havent read Kalders book, only the link you posted – and if they’re following the typical local-community pattern that we’re gradually seeing crop up elsewhere, thats sensible to me, given the need to break away from our current way of building up gigantic structures [physical and otherwise].

        Cant comment on their relationship vis-a-vis their hero, and how it screws or boosts their lives, but god knows we could do with more people going away from the mainstream and trying something new.

        However deluded [or not] they may be in their beliefs, it takes real awareness of the limitations of the standard way of doing things, the mainstream, for them to step out into the cold and build something on their own.

        And that one has to respect, despite knowing all too well that they might just turn out to end up in a bizarre state [usually due to the hero], and lose all the gains they have made by choosing differently.

        Seems to me that the mainstream has lost all sense, particularly when you see oil bubbling up in a fashion that should scare even the most borderline sane people…yet, people are more concerned about playing games and taking sides/apportioning blame than questioning themselves…

        Comment by blitzen — June 16, 2010 @ 12:54 AM | Reply

        • Well isn’t this how cults work? It all seems sensible and right on in the beginning. They don’t come right out and tell you how crazy they are; that scares people off. Personally, I don’t think it is sensible to sell your home and belongings and give the money to someone claiming to be a supernatural entity. The intergalactic anti-Semitism is freaky. I especially find it less than sensible to raise children in an environment where they are not exposed to the outside world or beliefs and traditions different from their own. And living in so isolated an area makes people very susceptible to group think or crowd psychology and more powerless. Being able to grow crops might make the community self-sustaining, but if something happens where you need to leave and leave quick, and you have no money or automobile and the nearest town in several days’ trek through the snow… You are not actually very independent. In the “real world” you my wind up at the mercy of crazy people whether you like it or not. In a cult, you’ve gone out of your way to be at their mercy.

          Comment by poemless — June 17, 2010 @ 2:24 PM | Reply

          • I would not go so far as to hold up the decision to join a ‘cult’ as a model decision. As you pointed out, you’re essentially transferring control to people who are either lost in belief, or cynical exploitation of their fellow humans.

            [Tangential] Logically speaking though, if there genuinely were an incarnation of divinity, how would anybody really know the difference, since such an incarnation would theoretically possess so much power that its words would be as good as commands ? To take the judeo-christian example, if a saviour can say ‘Awake’, and a dead body returns to life, then there is no resisting the command of such a being, and hence, you’d be as much in thrall as a typical cultists is. [Presumably this is one of the many things driving atheists, how do you know it isnt just a powerful, moving person that is entrapping you?]

            There are two aspects to the life of a (sane) person who looks to make such a non-model decision though, which merit some respect. Im assuming here that not all people who do such things are crackpots [having met some myself as empirical evidence]

            The first, is the very need for, and courage to pursue something beyond the norm. Their path may be quite bizarre, but the root is not bizarre, and to judge them on the basis of what they have chosen is to neglect what they have rejected *and* sacrificed.

            The second, which doesnt stem necessarily from their own choice, is the nature of this particular group, which seeks to live in a fashion that is more harmonious with our world.

            I havent broken this down into further levels of detail, because that reduces the possibility of any reader of my comment finding common ground with it.

            In looking for details which allow us to judge/weigh their actions, we tend to narrow down on certain aspects of their actions, and ignore the totality of their perceptions and motivations.

            Doing so allows us to avoid making the same mistakes that they have made [most cults find themselves in sorry situations sooner or later, and one had best keep a safe distance from them], but it doesnt allow us to use the things which stand out in their decision-making as sensible, or enlightened views.

            Ultimately, when we judge any group [of any size - a country? a bridge club?], mainstream or non-mainstream, we will realize that all of them come to peaceful or sticky ends [just like all great civilizations eventually fall apart].

            And if we view every such group [including those we belong to] with eyes wide open, we’ll soon spot those very issues which cause them to fall apart eventually.

            And just like we’d stay our safe distance from a cult, we would [if we were able to keep our eyes wide open - most people deliberately close their eyes as their only way to sustain their way of being what they are] soon distance ourselves from every group.

            Which would leave us very much in the cold, excluded from, and excluding, every social structure of any sort – and lacking any principles to guide us in living our own lives. Somewhat nihilistic..

            It therefore seems to me that the better approach is to simply use every such structure as a reference point, to see the entire picture with respect to every structure, accept what you accept, reject what you reject, never rejecting anything in totality; anchored to everything there is out there without really belonging to anything specific/fixed. Capable of using the brilliance of being able to judge, without getting trapped in the exclusionary consequences of judgement.

            Comment by blitzen — June 18, 2010 @ 2:34 AM | Reply

            • Yes. Life does not offer the best solutions, does it?

              I wonder if what you say about atheists is true. I don’t believe in God because I see no evidence of/need for God. Simple as that. But whereas religious folks have a supernatural being to believe in, to turn to when desperate or vulnerable, maybe atheists, lacking that option, turn to people? Atheists are perfectly capable of being misled fanatics. I think something like this happened in Russia’s history? :)

              Comment by poemless — June 18, 2010 @ 3:30 PM | Reply

              • “Yes. Life does not offer the best solutions, does it?”

                No solutions on a platter, and no ideal solutions!

                About atheists and theists….like it or not, we are all believers. One tiny example – we wake up every day believing that the world will be more or less similar to the way it was when we went to sleep, our belief based on years and decades of continuity. As taleb [one of many to do so] pointed out a few years ago, the continuity of our belief can break at any point in time [what people like him call a black-swan sighting].

                And belief is essential to what makes us what we are – we cant live without the belief that we are a cohesive, consistent being. And when crises strike, we work relentlessly to resurrect that belief, reshaping our view of ourselves to accomodate the changes caused by the crisis/crises while changing as little else as possible. [This is why klein-esque shock-treatment succeeds in coercing people to do whatever the shock-opportunists want them to]

                So its a little bizarre to me to hear people insisting on the validity of their own beliefs, and how everybody should take up their own beliefs. Whether theist or a-theist.

                And thats why it comes through so clearly [as you pointed out with your example with the last russian century] that merely swapping a belief-system for another [however great the alternative system] isnt going to miraculously transform the world into a harmonious place, or people into being open.

                In fact, its the space between beliefs – when you move from one to another, and acknowledge the validity of both – that you become aware that while belief is all-encompassing and all-defining, at the end of the day, its just belief, its just fixated-perception, and to insist on it being the ultimate reality is the road to hell – ones own private hell, and of course, one shares ones pain with others through sheer benevolence.

                Amusing that a discussion on cults has taken on such a shape, but then, I find the broad channel of mainstream discourse to be so boringly ‘same-same’ that its given me a greater appreciation for the excluded and the dismissed. For the ones who fly over cuckoos nests ;)

                Comment by blitzen — June 19, 2010 @ 8:41 AM | Reply

      • To add, comrade orloff provides a post which questions the norm-al perspective

        http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2010/06/checkmate.html

        In his parable, which people are the cult…and which the sensible?

        Comment by blitzen — June 17, 2010 @ 9:28 AM | Reply

  3. Oh, I am glad you noticed new cults in Russia, there are zillions of them. I think even more than MMM-style ponzi schemes. I don’t know what is current state with freedom of religion in the West and in US in particular (I suspect that freedom of Islamic religion is curtailed to considerable extent) but Russians really have been enjoying freedom of religion since the collapse of communism. As for Siberia and taiga I think Westerners have too little information about life there to judge objectively, they need just drop Stalinist cliches and look out for comparisons, for example northern Canada (only without racial discrimination of indigineous tribes).

    Vissarion’s cult is well known (along many others, for example cult of Yelena Blavatsky, of skoptsy (who voluntarily were deforming their genitals) and many others, not less exotic), they are sectants. When I was going to Annapurna Base Camp last month I met one intelligent woman from Vissarion’s sect. She was born and lived all her life in Moscow but in 1990s moved to Siberia to the place you’re interested in. She told me she decided to leave the sect, however not back to Moscow but to some small Siberian town where she found job. She did not reply about reasons behind her break up with Vissarionites, and I did not insist, after all our conversation was short, right on the steep Himalayan trail and we were going in opposite directions.

    As for traditional Orthodox church you simply don’t know how low their reputation dipped during Soviet rule because of willing collaboration with authorities, later in Yeltsin era priests were accused in financial machinations, they were smuggling goods including vodka through charitable funds, there were sex scandals involving priests. So the chruch really needs to do a lot of work to improve its tattered image that people will flock back with confessions of their sins. Not many Christians trust priests now, they have been historically too close to authorities. Only after election of allegedly liberal patriarch Kirill (with tacit support of Medvedev and against protegee of Putin) things seem to be improving, and the church does not seem ready to back every action Putin takes.

    Comment by FarEasterner — June 16, 2010 @ 6:28 PM | Reply

    • I wrote diary on ET about Russia (for the first time actually). It’s my thoughts on Nemtsov’s chargesheet of Putin’s reign. Maybe it will interest you.

      Comment by FarEasterner — June 16, 2010 @ 9:55 PM | Reply

      • Thanks – that was great.

        Comment by poemless — June 17, 2010 @ 2:10 PM | Reply

    • Re: freedom of religion.

      In the U.S. the only official curtailing of Islam is financial. If you give money to the most noble Islamic charity in the world and Al Qaeda or the Taliban get their grubby paws on that money, the U.S. can have you investigated. Which sucks because the Taliban outright controls everything in some of the areas where such aid is needed. Still, the US is nothing compared to Western Europe. Which is basically anti-Islam, legislating what people can wear, what kind of houses of worship can be built. It’s a funny thing. I just saw a French Amnesty International ad warning against Russia’s human rights record. But on the freedom of religion issue, I think Russia trumps France. Oof. But we hear (or I hear, as a close friend works for an international freedom of religion NGO) a lot about Russia’s treatment of Jehova’s Witnesses and Scientology. But it seems to me people are free to worship as they please; it’s just the tax breaks and missionary work the government is leery of. Probably rightly so too.

      Re: Vissarion’s sect.

      I have a friend who grew up in a cult in New Mexico (the girl dancing in India!). Well, in a commune. But the way she describes it it sounded a lot of like Vissarion’s “back to nature” communities. Only they had gurus instead of a guy who thought he was the son of God…

      Re: Orthodoxy.

      When I ask Russians about their religion, I not uncommonly get either “atheist” or some potpourri of Buddhist, Orthodox, hippie-pagan-new age mystical type thing… Or more generally agnostic/secular. However, they all seemed to approach religion like Russian girls approach smoking. What I mean by that is that no Russian girls my age ever identified as being smokers. They’d even howl in disgust. Until no one was looking and you offer them a cigarette. It’s not hypocrisy, just a lot of flexibility about how people self-identify. You can participate in something without it defining who you are. It seems a lot of people don’t flaunt their Orthodoxy (being so modest about religion is a very foreign thing for Americans) but then out of the blue they are suddenly religious when there is a tragedy or something. I have a not unsimilar relationship with Catholicism…

      Comment by poemless — June 17, 2010 @ 2:09 PM | Reply

      • “I have a friend who grew up in a cult in New Mexico (the girl dancing in India!).”

        Referencing some other post here?

        “You can participate in something without it defining who you are”

        Beautiful point in this age of polarization and label-love. And whats more, you can even feel for something without actively participating in it, and without it defining what/who you are.

        Comment by blitzen — June 18, 2010 @ 2:38 AM | Reply

        • Sorry, it wasn’t intended to be some inside information. I think it was on European Tribune (where I used to write and where FarEasterner contributes -he’s even stepped up and covered the penis protest!) where I had previously mentioned a friend of mine who lived in India. At the time, FarEasterner was living there too.

          Comment by poemless — June 18, 2010 @ 3:09 PM | Reply

          • Yes, Ive seen a little of your Eurotrib writing linked from other posts/comments of yours.

            Interesting – so FarEasterner = globetrotter, really :-) Unless India is considered to be in the far-east!

            Read your friends profile/interview, impressive. Thank you.

            Comment by blitzen — June 19, 2010 @ 8:24 AM | Reply

            • I never thought of himself as a globetrotter rather asiantrotter. i never was in the West but travel exclusively in neighbouring Asian countries. As Russian citizen I am inconsistently interested in Russian affairs and poemless’s writing fill this space, mainly I interested in Asian affairs and Western foreign policy here on the continent. ETers usually discuss European and American affairs and not so much Asian or Russian but I attracted to the site because in 90% one can learn a lot about different issues from usually very informed readers there. 10% I leave out for nationalistic hysterical overtones which can be found even in opinion of very well educated people.

              Comment by FarEasterner — June 24, 2010 @ 4:23 AM | Reply

              • I see…quite adventurous to choose this particular zone to travel in.

                Your Eurotrib diary entry was quite interesting, by the way.

                Comment by blitzen — June 25, 2010 @ 12:18 PM | Reply

  4. My experience is that 99% of both atheists and religious people don’t know what they’re talking about, because they don’t know the history of discourse on “god.” They think it’s some guy in the sky with superpowers.

    I do, though. :)

    Comment by Hoff Von Doom — June 19, 2010 @ 2:59 PM | Reply

  5. poemless, I remember you wanted to know where visitors to your page are coming from. Today I have found free map resource: http://www.maploco.com which you can use to create global map of visitors and when you’ll see a dot in Thailand, it’s me.

    Comment by FarEasterner — June 24, 2010 @ 12:41 PM | Reply

  6. Haha. Actually, I think Tim Newman of White Sun of the Desert is in Thailand. Or was. Mostly I wanted to know who they were and what they wanted. :)

    Apologies for not keeping up with the blog recently. I’ve been rather ill.

    Comment by poemless — June 24, 2010 @ 1:25 PM | Reply

  7. I hope you feel better soon.

    I keep checking in to see if you’ve said anything insightful about the Medvedev visit. I went to his talk at Stanford. I’ll synopsize: “Hey guys who left, Russia wants your brains back. We miss you. We have money. We’re not facing a debt crisis. We’re not fighting a useless war in Afghanistan. We’re not held in check by an aging, over-privileged, and navel-gazing majority. Over, dead and gone. We’re young. We’re smart. Yeah, there are some corrupt bureaucrats and politicians. But, together, we can battle them. I met Arnold, Steve Jobs, and John Chambers today. They are super-heroes. We can be like them. But, I understand if you don’t want to join me. The weather is good here, and you seem happy.”

    Obama’s firing of General McCrystal provided the day’s counter-balancing poetic irony. “Ahhh. He’s got the “afghan quagmire, no-reserves, debt crisis, demographic downslide problems.”

    Then Condi Rice waddled on stage in white puckery suit and gold kitten-healed pumps. She was all smiles and bearing presents from the Hoover Institute archives. (Medved just wanted to use the auditorium. This whole plug on the part of Stanford was the price of the rental, I guess. ) Funny moment when Condi translated some Russian from the framed Soviet 20s era poster about States Cooperating. Medvedev had to point out that she missed the small print which said “Workers of the World Unite.”

    Another funny thing about Condi…just a few weeks ago at a talk in San Jose she fielded an audience question about her switch into the GOP. She said that she was a part of Jimmy Carter’s administration, but she lost all faith in the Democrats when Jimmy didn’t enter Afghanistan in 1979. She’s really not too funny…

    Comment by tess — June 25, 2010 @ 3:10 AM | Reply

  8. Tess, I try not to pay any attention to Condi and wish everyone else would do the same.

    Good call on Dima’s visit to SV though!

    Comment by poemless — June 25, 2010 @ 8:54 PM | Reply


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